Backsliding on 67 Williams

Inset at left describes changes from earlier plan for 67 Williams St. Click to enlarge. (HDC)

The proposal for a new house on Williams Street where no house has ever been built has, in my mind, slid in status from buildable perhaps to buildable not. I refer to my own minimal support for the design as okay if built with acceptably historical materials, such as wood rather than PVC for details, and assuming that the details meet the high standards of the historic neighborhood, which sits less than half a block off of Benefit Street, Providence’s famous “Mile of History.”

The latest meeting of the Providence Historic District Commission on the 67 Williams St. proposal took place on Monday. The commission decided to “continue” the process – that is, it refused to grant “conceptual approval” for now and the urged the proponents to return to the next meeting with an improved proposal. If they want to.

The HDC heard developer Jeff Hirsch, his lawyer and three architects for two hours, and concluded by rejecting conceptual approval. That is the first phase of approval, and deals with such matters as the height of the building, the distance between its front and the sidewalk of Williams Street, the number of balconies, or decks, on the house, but not whether, for example, the detailing of the roof cornices is appropriate, or whether they are made of historically appropriate construction materials.

Synthetic rather than natural materials are not only insufficient, but are usually a sign that effort will not be made to incorporate an appropriate amount or quality of detail for a historic district. And yet, according to a source, the cornices, frieze, trim and rail in the proposed house are to be made of PVC – a form of plastic. The roof is asphalt shingle. The clapboard is not of wood but of cement siding.

All this raises questions about whether the developer even intends that the house should fit into a historic district, and causes me to feel greater skepticism about the project as a whole. Commissioner Tina Regan said that with all the porches and railings and doo-dads, “it looks like a lady with too much jewelry.” I am inclined, at last, to agree with her.

The proponent’s architects apparently did not even know how tall the house was supposed to be – three stories on a street that features mostly one- and two-story houses, but how many feet tall? It’s an odd thing not to know. Since its closest neighboring houses are three-story houses, I did not agree with most opponents that its height or its massing were too large, and I still do not.

Yet the proponents now seem to have lost at least some enthusiasm for their project. For example, at Monday’s HDC meeting they were whining, according to my source, that their budget is not big enough to make some of the changes that opponents and the commission seem to want. Hirsch, the developer, even went so far as to say, on more than one occasion, that he was “trying to get to a yes here.” Does he mean he’ll say anything to get conceptual approval from the commission? Not a good look. Is it a sign of flagging enthusiasm, a throwing up of hands as the commissioners appear more skeptical of Hirsch’s proposal? Or is it a sign of even more enthusiasm than might be proper. It is hard to say.

There may be more to this than meets the eye. It did not come up at the meeting, and it may be gossip signifying nothing, but a couple of weeks ago I heard that proponent Hirsch was connected with one of the three firms proposing to build a large apartment complex blocking river views from College Hill on Parcel 2 of the waterfront east of the Providence River, near where the pedestrian bridge lands on the East Embankment. To my knowledge, he has not mentioned this connection before the commission. I looked at the documents and it was true. Cynics like me immediately and naturally wondered whether Hirsch wanted to build a house for himself on nearby Williams Street because he knew the fix was in for his firm to build the apartment complex. Well, that was clearly not the case, since that plan was rejected by the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission two days after the HDC meeting. If he knew about this in advance, it might cause a deflation in his desire to have a house of his own nearby.

Just thinkin’ outta the box!

I understand that there has been considerable confusion whether opponents of the proposed house on Williams Street have been accommodated by the HDC in their desire (and their right) to speak at Monday’s meeting. Those who wrote to the commission were, for the first time, it seems, not allowed to speak out at the meeting itself. Before the commissioners rule on the Williams Street proposal, they should figure out what the law says about who may speak at meetings, and stick by what they decide – at the next meeting and on into the future.

There is no excuse for confusion on this matter. It is a free-speech issue, which should be a top priority for a local development agency, whose deliberations are where the rubber meets the road of democracy.

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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4 Responses to Backsliding on 67 Williams

  1. Daniel Morales says:

    This thing could be cleaned up in a New York minute. Looks like a suburban rendition of Providence’s characteristic colonial house. I’d offer to straighten it out if I lived there but that would go over like a lead baloon. We gotta get architects back to viewing architecture as the ancient art it used to be.

    Like

    • I am sure you could, Dan, with two hands tied behind your back. You worry about going over like a lead balloon if you came up here to try. I dearly wish you would. Yes, that would indeed go over like a lead balloon – it would nevertheless be an act of high edification. I am sure you understand that the very idea of architects getting back to viewing architecture as the ancient art it used to be would itself go over like a lead balloon in architectural circles up here. We need more architects to risk going over like a lead balloon in the eyes of the usual suspects. The public would love it!

      Like

  2. WTF

    Why all the hand wringing to make such a simple project so inelegant, awkward and uninspired. This is a second year design layup for the most ham fisted young buck.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

    • Why indeed, Karen! If the commission (PHDC) understood and followed its own rules, it would not need to wring its hands over projects like this. It would say from the beginning, come back with something more appropriate for a historic district, or don’t come back at all. Why they can’t just do that, I have no idea. Maybe someone can enlighten me!

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