Three battles pitting neighbors and applicants for new construction on Williams and John streets appear, after recent meetings of the Providence Historic District Commission, to have been preservationist victories.
What? How can three new houses (one actually a new addition to an old house) be victories for preservation? Well, it is the historic character of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods that has been preserved. All three proposals – 59 Williams, 67 Williams, and 6 John – could easily have been partly or wholly modernist, as early renderings suggested. This would have seriously diminished the historical setting in this southern section of College Hill, near Fox Point.
That did not happen.
The first battle involved adding a new addition and garage to a modest if elegant Italianate cottage, circa 1880. Swooping roof lines, vertical (board and batten) rather than horizontal (clapboard) façades, large undecorative treatments of fenestration and other non-traditional touches dominated. The designs for the addition kept getting more modernist. After months of dithering (strategic, it may be hoped) by the commission, the developer seems to have thrown up his hands and got architect Friedrich St. Florian to do a traditional design, which he did. Opponents did not all seem fully aware that what they were opposing was the very idea of modern architecture, but their persistence paid off anyway.
The second battle involved a proposed house for a family on a never-built plot of land at 67 Williams, just east of the cottage. The architects initially displayed a convoluted three-level house with no windows or doors on its drawings. This gave rise to concern that something fishy – that is, modern architecture – was afoot. Subsequent committee meetings revealed the emergence of traditional treatments for windows and doors, but no let-up in the design’s barrage of porches, terraces and widow’s walks. PVC and other composite materials only added to anxiety. The committee and the neighbors worked together to calm things down, the developer promised a more natural set of materials, and a distinctly traditional design prevailed.
The final battle involved a proposal that had reared a very ugly head as the first proposal at 59 Williams was unveiled, on the other side of this block, for a duplex at 6 John. It originated with a vaguely traditional design, also by St. Florian, but swiftly and unaccountably transitioned into an overtly modernist design clearly contrary to opposition sentiment and yet in sync with the troubled modernist 59 Williams addition. Eventually, weighed down, it seems, by the growing cost of that proposal, with multiple postponements of “conceptual” approval by the commission, both were abandoned. A new developer hired the architect J.P. Couture to design 6 John, and he pitched a traditional house that immediately satisfied both the commission and the neighbors. It looks as if it will fit right in. Given the diversity of nearby houses, Couture’s design will look as if it is part of the same historical family.
Lesson: See how easy this can be?
More can be learned. A friend has sent me pages from his upcoming book about the mid-20th century architectural illustrator, graphic artist and photographer Samuel Vance Chamberlain (1895-1975). He quotes the folklorist Henry Glassie on the sources of Chamberlain’s traditionalist sensibility:
[A]rt is a consequence of yearning. … We are born into an environment made of a near infinity of interlocking traditions, but [can] never pick them apart. … The Turks say you are born into an “air.” That air is redolent with tradition. Inevitably you breathe it in, and every breath provides influence. There is no escaping influence, so the wise artist must choose among them.
This passage reflects the instinct that gives rise to opposition among neighbors to modernist projects in their neighborhoods. They feel it intuitively, even if they cannot put their finger on its origins. They feel it strongly but often don’t quite have words to express it. They want to protect the historic character of the place where they live. Architects, members of design commissions and developers should be able to feel the same feeling, but their training has often purged its expression from their vocabulary, leading to their willingness to entertain, and often approve, proposals that obviously do not fit into their setting, and are in fact designed not to fit into their setting. They are intended as challenges to history and tradition, new examples of which are supposedly inappropriate in our modern era and hence to be rejected, indeed dismissed, as invalid.
Until such experts learn to see and feel again, projects will always be consumed by an unnecessary and expensive churning that nobody seems to understand. And until then, the opponents of modernist buildings, especially in historic districts, should seek to challenge those proposals every way they can. These local actors are almost always right, and their opponents are almost always wrong. Just keep on hammering as best you can until the modernists cannot take it anymore. They are temporary actors, interlopers. You are there for the long haul. Persist. That’s the ticket, and that’s the lesson that the inhabitants of Williams Street and its dear old vicinity have taught to the citizens of Providence and beyond.