Flub at Brick School House

Unsympathetic glass-and-steel addition planned for rear of 1769 Old Brick School House. (PPS)

I drove up downtown’s beautiful Westminster Street yesterday and saw director Brent Runyon of the Providence Preservation Society sitting outdoors at a café around noon. I wanted to scream at him:

“WTF are you guys doing!”

PPS plans to add a modernist glass addition (see illustration above) to the rear of the dear Old Brick School House, on Meeting Street, one of the earliest surviving brick school houses in America. It was built in 1769, and now serves as the society’s headquarters. A glass-and-steel addition on its own headquarters? Doesn’t PPS know its business? It is a historic preservation organization!

This is sacrilege. I hereby tender my resignation as a member of PPS.

That the addition would deface only the rear of the building is no excuse. The rear of the building is visible from Old Court Street as you drive uphill from North Main or downhill from Benefit Street. You will see it as you pass by the original Rhode Island state house, built in 1762. In fact, the first state house was originally built in 1730 on the site of what is now the Old Brick School House.

The society does much good work, has done so since its creation in 1956. The city would be far worse without it. But the city would be far better if the society knew how to do its own job. No preservation organization in America really understands or accepts that the popular movement for historic preservation arose because citizens natiowide feared that modern architecture would invade their neighborhoods, threaten their home values and dilute the beauty of the sacred historical precincts of their cities. That fear is valid more than ever today.

If the dues-paying membership of preservation organizations were aware of what the staff and boards of their organizations believe, they would do what I’ve done today – resign. If enough members of PPS and its sister organizations did the same, it would force preservation boards to come to their senses, do what members want them to do, and tell their staff to shape up or ship out.

Frontal view of Old Brick School House, on Meeting Street. (Wikipedia)

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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22 Responses to Flub at Brick School House

  1. J says:

    Mr. Brussat,

    I admire the overarching mission of the PPS, but I stand with you wholeheartedly in your opposition to this abhorrent move to desecrate such a venerable old building. Is there anything that can be done at this point? It is one of my most enjoyed pastimes to wander aimlessly around College Hill for hours, when weather permits, and was delighted to discover the Old State House and the schoolhouse adjacent to it.

    Yours truly,
    A student and lifelong lover of history and architecture


  2. Pingback: Addition To Old Brick School House Raises Hackles - Providence Daily Dose

  3. Michael Behrendt says:

    That is just pathetic. It shows that the organization is confused at best. Really, that it does not understand its role, is unable to take a real stand, is intimidated by the modernists, the very party that it should be taking a stand against. At best this would be a missed opportunity. This is a chance to showcase a true high quality addition to a historic building. What should that look like? Indeed, it can be contemporary but it should be contextual and interesting and play off the old and most importantly, be respectful of the old. A cornice line is shared but otherwise this is all about maximizing contrast in a modernist idiom. Shame on you PPS. You should do so much better.


  4. LazyReader says:

    If the blank wall had a matching color and the cornice does integrate.
    People raise a shit of glass houses.. but glass IS nice. Modern glass is nice. insulating….and now a days BULLETPROOF.

    Tadelakt is a waterproof plaster surface used in Moroccan architecture to make baths, sinks, water vessels, interior and exterior walls, ceilings, roofs, and floors. It is made from lime plaster, which is rammed, polished,


    • Not really sure what you’re talking about, Lazy. Your first sentence is garbled. However nice, a primarily glass addition does not fit in with the school house architecture, period. In a building of this importance, additions must seek to make the observer feel it is part of the original design, or part of a natural expansion. A sign can be used to explain the true timeline of construction to those who might be interested.


      • LazyReader says:

        point is…Its impossible to revamp such an old structure with new additions. 3 centuries of weather worn. old houses had glass/iron greenhouse conservatories added. So this is a new addition.It should be blended better.
        Glass isnt bad…
        the reason glass didnt take off back then…they couldnt make panes big enough. If they had the manfacturing dedication buildings back then would have had larger windows


  5. Arthur Mark says:

    Dear David, Right. Is there there no architect who is capable of designing an addition in brick?
    Arthur Mark


    • There are many who are capable, and who can do it at a cost PPS can afford. But PPS would prefer to announce its sympathy with architecture that is anti-traditional, and that essentially opposes the mission of historic preservation. That is the sad truth, and why I have finally resigned my membership.


  6. Peter Van Erp (aka Peter Khan) says:

    But the addition DOES relate!
    It has a cornice that’s the same height as the crown molding below the roof!
    It looks sorta like the addition to RISD’s Illustration Studies building, so it fits into the local context!
    I scanned the website of the PPS in vain for any mention of this monstrosity, nor did I find any other mention of it beyond these pages. Are you sure no one punked you with a photoshop job?


    • Thank you Peter and all who sent in comments agreeing that this addition is beneath the dignity of PPS.

      I don’t believe I was punked, Peter. It is perfectly plausible that PPS should propose such an addition. But I will add a link to the advocacy report I refer to below. I have already linked to the PDHC report on the project. … I find that I cannot locate the advocacy report on the PPS website. I received it by email from a friend out of state, and rec’d it myself a few moments earlier. It looks genuine but I cannot locate a URL, as it is from a mailing list, so I cannot link to it.


  7. David Lee says:

    The “WTF” part of your statement is a little crude, even for you David.


    • I agree, David, that that formulation is crude, but I thought the abomination warrented the unusual descent. I’m afraid that crudeness is becoming almost a mandatory response to what is happening in many realms throughout the country, not least regarding the queen of the arts. Please forgive me.


      • michael tyrrell says:

        No David, no need to apologize. It’s time to brighten the shields and give these vandals (speaking generally) an ear-load (or whatever load deemed sufficient). I’m done with hacks and clueless developers. Sadly, and given the finer legacy we know, much of the new work going up in Providence is expedient crap! Not all, but much of it. Of course, we should expect better from PPS,.. (ARE we being punked?… lol!).


  8. Eric Inman Daum says:

    Oof. It’s dreadful, and so much the worse for being the additon to the PPS.Why do organizations that plan additons to historic building NEVER hire an architect who understands History?


  9. John the First says:

    There exists no such thing as a self-governing people, at least not beyond that of a society of primitivism. The people combine into what is called the popular. The popular, when it extends beyond the primitive is always a matter of top-down shaping. Certainly traditional architecture extends beyond the primary. The public would as well be living in igloo’s, nomad tents, or simple block shaped buildings if it were not for those who shape higher forms.. The alleged taste of the public for traditional architecture is a matter of historical top-down shaping of taste.

    Traditional architecture is unpopular excellence which during millennia became popular, shaping the taste of the public.

    It is thus an error to expect that the popular itself is capable of protecting tradition. If the popular taste is not continuously maintained from above, it degenerates towards primitivism, and it is then shaped by the dross which floats to the top during times of popular rule, leading the public back to the woods.

    A ‘popular preservation movement’ is a contradiction in terms, which itself is a product of destruction of traditional wisdom.


  10. John the First says:

    “No preservation organization in America really understands or accepts that the popular movement for historic preservation arose because citizens nationwide feared that modern architecture would invade their neighborhoods”

    Popular movements always erode tradition. It is in the nature of popular movements to move, to flow, to erode, to become corrupted, to corrupt. Popular movements are by nature of tendentious plasticity, and subjected to erosion, and they start to erode things themselves (as demonstrated here, and in a million other ways).
    That is why the founding fathers feared too much popular rule…, thus establishing a republic. They understood that in a democracy, it is April’s first every day.

    “But the public prefers traditional architecture”
    You do not maintain a tradition by means of mere popular adherence, which is often just coincidental, which is unintelligible and a matter of subconsciously formed tastes and preferences. Everything excellent requires conscious active intelligence, constant maintenance work, constant protection against popular rule.

    Protection of tradition requires a stable fortress of excellence, popular movement is a sandcastle built on the beach.

    If one needs the popular to protect tradition, one needs to take care that it does not move.. that there is no movement, that it cannot be moved by others… It needs to be rigidly controlled, without stifling it of course, else it wouldn’t be popular anymore.


  11. RINewsToday.com says:

    TY for pointing this out to us – they seem to have lost their way – thumbing their noses at themselves?


  12. michael tyrrell says:

    Looks like they ran to Lowe’s or Home Deport for a stock Elevator/stairwell “plug-in”.
    Good grief. It’s tone-deaf and contradictory.


  13. Mary Shepard says:

    I agree, Dave, it is shockingly inappropriate, out of context, why not keep to a neo-traditional design? Consider the many sensitive, successful additions to the 1747 Redwood Library in Newport.


  14. David, I agree with you. This addition is very strange and odd. Other then two of the glass box horizontal mullions seeming to be in line with the horizontal sash of the double hung windows in the original building there is no context of rhythm and proportion to the original building. Forget about any materials or detail context.


  15. David Andreozzi AIA says:

    It’s awfully warm outside for April Fools Day! This would be a tragedy in so many ways starting with the pillaging of the building and the precedent it sends from an organization that’s responsibility is to be the guardian and advocate of historic fabric. I am going to hope it’s April first.


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