Here is the remainder of Chapter 19, “We Hate That.” No, for those who missed the first part, no we do not hate Westminster Street, far from it. That was a reference to the Old Stone Square in the first part of the chapter. The remainder describes the renovation of Westminster Street in the late 1980s by Mayor Paolino after it allegedly became the nation’s first pedestrian mall in 1964. His renovation of the mall was extraordinarily refined, restoring its traditional appeal of the past, which the pedestrian mall entirely rejected. This underappreciated project may have had the profound impact of bending the arc of style toward tradition in Providence, at least for a while. It appears that local planners have not felt inclined to continue the trend toward beauty. Sad. But I digress.
Having been convicted in 1984 of assaulting the alleged lover of his estranged wife, Mayor Cianci gave way to the son of Paolino Properties founder Joseph Paolino Sr. Joe Jr. was president of the city council when he took over the mayor’s office, and though it was not quite his father’s cup of tea, he continued his predecessor’s dedication to preservation. His signature effort was the restoration of traffic to Westminster Mall, a part of the downtown 1970 plan that was accomplished but had failed to reignite the interest of shoppers, whose abdication coincided with official efforts to revive downtown by obliterating much of it.
The mall was crowded during the noon lunch hour but empty almost every other hour. Paolino commissioned a study, the “Providence Development Strategy,” by consultants Carr, Lynch Associates and Melvin Levine and Associates, released in 1986. Within the context of a broad set of retail, office, residential, entertainment and administrative proposals, it put the kibosh on the mall, decrying the failure of a major mall overhaul in the late 1970s. More radically, the report voiced displeasure with the appearance of the mall and of downtown’s street furnishings:
In the case of Westminster Mall, added planters, lights, benches, graphic panels, canopies and a police booth/stage all tended to clutter and congest the available space, with little or no positive aesthetic effect. Indeed, the insistently “modernist” design style chosen for the lights and signals on Westminster, Washington and Weybosset Streets is sadly out of character with the rich 19th century fabric of downtown Providence.
The document recommended further narrowing the hours in which the mall was open only to pedestrians and left unclear whether vehicles should be guided by painted lines or actual curbs. Paolino chose the latter and also opened the street to traffic full time. He went on to flip the mall’s aesthetic by 180 degrees, lining a reopened Westminster with brick sidewalks; granite pavers set in circular patterns at each intersection of Westminster; ornate tree grates around new street trees with tiny leaves that filter sunlight agreeably; and twinned acorn-style luminaries on decorative lampposts that stretched onto side streets beyond Westminster. The new street furniture tended to build on the existing strengths of Westminster’s fine commercial architecture, even though the elegant ground floors of many buildings were still covered up by faux façades that contrasted awkwardly with the floors above.
Granted, many people rarely raise their eyes to admire those floors, but the highly stylized look of history cannot have failed to impress itself on their subconscious perceptions. This is how we perceive beauty – not by “understanding” it but by receiving its influence on our sensibilities, which are easy for us to ignore but difficult for us to shut down entirely.
Paolino’s Westminster Street beautification strengthened the spine of a downtown whose preservation ethic was, as they say nowadays, “trending.” Along with the many projects noted earlier in this chapter, the sharply pleasant change in the look of Westminster Street might have helped developers and other local authorities to buy into a more open-minded attitude toward historical context as a factor in the style of new development.
Among the echelons of municipal planning staff, employees of major construction and development firms, members of design review panels and the design professionals and academics who may be expected to keep track of the latest news in architecture and planning policy, the twists and turns of debate between modernists and postmodernists surely must have affected the intellectual climate of city planning in ways that bent the arc of style toward tradition.
As a side note, I spent 1972-73 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which also claims to have the nation’s first pedestrian mall conversion from a vehicular street. The next chapter in this series will flip back to Chapter 18, “Capital Center Plan,” which I hesitated to run because it may be too familiar to most readers. But there are thrills aplenty in its story, including the fabled Blue Point “Napkin,” and the beautiful classical design of Providence Place mall by Skidmore Owings & Merrill architect Adrian Smith. That’s coming up.
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