Why historic preservation?

Cottage at 59 Williams St. with latest version of modernist addition to its west (at right). (PHDC)

I just got through watching the Providence Historic Preservation Commission grant conceptual approval to the renovation and expansion of a charming little Italianate cottage on Williams Street, just off the city’s historic Benefit Street. It was a most depressing event.

Objecting neighbors cheered that the latest design no longer moves the cottage toward the street by several feet. Members of the commission seemed barely to notice that the addition would not fit in at all. And yet they seemed to agree that the plan, by architect Friedrich St. Florian, was an improvement on previous plans, which had caused commissioners to put off conceptual approval.

This plan was not an improvement. Instead, the project moved even further from aesthetic consistency with its 18th and 19th century neighborhood.

With each iteration, St. Florian’s design has become even more blatantly modernist. At first, the addition was on the left (east) side of the cottage but behind a tall stone wall. Now the addition has moved directly onto Williams, flipping to the west side of the cottage closest to Benefit. It has gotten bigger and bigger, raising doubts about its supposed subservience to the old cottage. The cottage would no longer would have roof tiles but a metallic standing-seam roof, like the addition, which would have a goofy tilted roof, a sort of flat modernist roof on LSD. Its two bedrooms and a two-car garage would be clad not in the cottage’s horizontal clapboard but with vertical board-and-batten slats, like the siding for a rent-a-space emporium. The addition’s large glazed windows make no reference to the cottage’s historical fenestration. The addition contradicts the cottage at every turn. It purposely rejects the neighborhood’s historic patrimony.

If this is built as planned, anyone walking onto Williams from Benefit would see the blank garage siding first and maybe catch a glimpse of the old cottage as they walked between the garage and the tall stone wall, which would block its view as they walked by. Anyone walking west on Williams toward Benefit would not see the cottage at all, only the modernist addition. Is this proper? Can it be the role of the commission to allow this travesty to occur?

The Providence Historic District Commission was created in 1960 to protect the unique physical character, historic fabric and visual identity of the city.

So declares the introductory statement on the PHDC’s website. Most of the commissioners seemed to hint at recognizing the plan’s violation of this goal. Nobody wanted to step forward and make a motion to approve. The long pause just went on and on. This must have been really embarrassing. The pause for a member to second the motion was even worse. Still, eventually, a vote was held and the commission gave the plan its conceptual approval. Only a single solitary brave “nay” vote issued forth to call her colleagues to their purpose: that of our city’s venerable historic preservationist Tina Regan.

Before signing off, commission staffer Jason Martin noted that in coming weeks and months the commission would be tinkering with its “rules, regulations, standards and guidelines.” The public must watch this process closely, lest the protection of the historic character of Providence be frog-marched out of the commission’s official purpose.

If that hasn’t already happened.

Elevation sketch for the Williams Street side of the cottage and its addition, to the right. (PHDC)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Why historic preservation?

  1. Pingback: What would St. Florian do? | Architecture Here and There

  2. Sheila Hetu says:

    Providence needs more Tina Regans to stand their ground when it comes to preserving the city’s history.

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  3. Steven W Semes says:

    This problem will never go away as long as architects and professional preservationists continue to love their Modernist designs more than the historic buildings, streetscapes, and cities that deserve more respect and that the laws intend to conserve. New work is welcome so long as it takes respect for the pre-existing historic resources as its most important premise. Sad that St. Florian, who has done good work elsewhere, hasn’t come up with something more imaginative. Respect and deference does not mean blankness or total absence of visual interest.

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    • You are entirely correct, Steve. The canard that any new work of architecture or addition to an old historic building must be “of its time” (that is, modernist) is the lie that would not die. St. Florian, who is a dear soul, has ARRG Syndrome, which stands for Architect Reputation Recovery Gambit. It is prone to strike any architect who came up during the avant-garde ’70s (“buildings on paper”) but made his money with beautiful architecture that people love (such as his Providence Place mall and National WWII Memorial, in D.C.), and now wants to get back in good stead with modernist colleagues. Very sad.

      Like

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