Not long after neighborhood opposition prevailed over insensitive development proposals for historic Fox Point and College Hill in Providence, a new developer and a different architect have arisen to propose a new house on the vacant land just east of the adorable Italianate cottage at issue last summer.
The proposed new house is large but not, it seems to me, large enough to cause dismay among the neighbors. The house just east of it is considerably larger, and the cottage to its west is much smaller, even with the addition. Neighborhood opposition blocked a modernist addition this past summer, delaying the process for months and months; the developer threw up his hands and compelled his architect, the celebrated Friedrich St. Florian, to design an addition much more traditional than the architect desired. Up until then, his designs kept getting more and more modernist, though he must have known of the neighborhood’s desire for a house that fit in, or “harmonized,” with its historical character.
That is the natural feeling of neighbors who have invested considerable amounts to live amid that air of history, and, in so doing, themselves become agents of change, change that either contributes to history or rejects it. And most prefer the former category. They would no more want to change their house in a way that seems to reject history than they would want to live next to a house that degrades the beauty of the block they live on. For example, they would never put solar panels on their roof. How gauche!
Well, the house proposed for the lot at 67 Williams St. is pictured atop this post. It has the lines of a traditional house, but it has no doors or windows. You don’t believe me? Look at the illustration, from Shed Studio, in Cambridge. There are no doors or windows! How can that be? Initial renderings submitted by an applicant to the Providence Historic District Commission do not normally lack such items. Even St. Florian’s designs had doors and windows at the earliest stages of the design review process. Doors and windows are vital elements of a design, even if it is submitted for merely “conceptual” approval.
How the windows or doors are designed could reveal whether the style of the house is to be traditional or modernist.
One commissioner noted, out loud, that the applicants (Jeff and Karen Hirsch, of Framingham, Mass.), even as they failed to put doors and windows on the renderings, had managed to sketch in elements such as balcony railings, roof cornices, and columns for the front porch and porte cochere. Why?
My general theory of architectural rendering is that drawings nowadays are meant less to convey information about a design than to disguise it. Modernist architects are quite aware that neighbors in historic districts are likely to dislike whatever they propose, so why not put off opposition as long as possible?
Still, it was no surprise that the HDC, which met Monday, voted unanimously to “continue” the application – that is, put off any decision until the applicant drew in the windows and doors and brought them to the commission’s next meeting. Surely the commission grokked the applicants’ strategy before it was deployed. A question worth asking might be why the application was considered acceptable for deliberation without any hint of proposed windows and doors.
I am heartened, however, by the application itself. It reads in part:
The design seeks to be contextual with the neighborhood in terms of size, scale, massing and basic design language.
That’s pretty straightforward, you would think. But words such as context, harmony and the like are subject to manipulation in a legal process, which is frankly what design review in a historic district is.
Still, maybe my cynicism is unwarranted. Do the applicants, when they finally move into their house, want to be hated by the neighbors, or welcomed as new homeowners who understand and accept that experimentation with the look of their venerable environment is no way to make friends. We may expect to find out at the next HDC meeting, scheduled for Monday, Dec. 20., at 4:45 p.m.