This second part of Chapter 18, “Capital Center Plan,” from Lost Providence, contains new illustrations from Bill Warner’s plans for the new waterfront, allegedly but not actually conceived (or so it seems) on a white cloth napkin at the Blue Point Oyster Bar, on North Main Street, in Providence. Warning: According to an illlustration I happened upon in a Google search for more illustrations by Warner, the riverwalks he designed are to be destroyed in the current plan for Waterplace Park and replaced by fake earthen river banks. (See bottom of post.)
On the evening of March 19, 1981, at the Blue Point Oyster Bar on North Main Street, the white cloth napkin sat on a table. Architects Friedrich St. Florian, Irving Haynes and William D. Warner and Warner’s fiancée, Peggy, a former scenic artist for Trinity Repertory Company, sat around the table grumbling, in St. Florian’s recollection, at “what they saw as a lack of inspired planning at Providence’s City Hall.” Maps and ideas were scratched on the napkin. While a splotch of spilt wine obliterates a key sketch, none of the doodles suggested moving the rivers. Still, most agree that the evening’s cogitations led Warner, over the next three years, to the grand solution of a critical problem at Capital Center’s intersection with the rivers. “I went home and forgot about it,” St. Florian told a memorial gathering after Warner’s death in 2012. “Warner didn’t.”
St. Florian maintains possession of the napkin as if it were a sacred relic.
Warner incorporated his ideas in “The Providence Waterfront: 1636–2000,” a study backed by the Providence Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and others. It was published in 1985. He suggested moving the rivers’ confluence out from under the Post Office, about one hundred yards east, so that traffic could squeeze between the edge of the Financial District and the Providence River along an extended Memorial Boulevard. That was the beginning of the Memorial Boulevard Extension/River Relocation Project, which changed the face of Providence. But that idea was stuck into his waterfront study along with proposals to improve the harbor district beyond the Hurricane Barrier, the Fox Point District at the confluence of the Seekonk and the Providence rivers, and the shoreline facing East Providence as it headed north toward Swan Point Cemetery. In fact, it might almost be said that the expensive proposal to relocate the rivers was hidden in plain view.
Predictably, backers of the planned but as-yet-unbuilt Capital Center objected to Warner’s ideas, which he unpacked to authorities in stages, with the actual relocation of the river emerging last. After all, his plan would require not just moving the rivers but moving the property lines of the Capital Center’s land parcels. At one meeting, an engineer upset at Warner’s proposals threatened to absquatulate from the proceedings unless Warner’s plan was withdrawn. At another meeting, Capital Properties president Joseph DiStefano accused Warner of “smoking funny cigarettes.”
Supporters of the idea worked to secure funding for a comprehensive proposal. The money was raised. The boulevard’s extension and the rivers’ relocation were added to the Capital Center plan using mostly federal money (85 percent) after $600 million was freed up by Rhode island’s cancellation of its portion of Route 84 linking Providence to Hartford, Connecticut. Senator John Chafee pushed legislation through Congress to let Rhode Island use the cancelled funds for a rural highway on an urban highway project. (Yes, that was illegal!)
Francis Leazes and Mark Motte, in their book Providence: The Renaissance City, explain the essential conundrum:
Despite senatorial blessing, it still took administrators to figure out how to define the Memorial Boulevard extension project. It was a river project unless someone could convince the [Federal highway Administration] otherwise. The challenge was to convince the FHWA that Warner’s ideas were not a river relocation project but an extension of Memorial Boulevard. [Rhode island department of environmental management director] Robert Bendick was simultaneously engaged in selling the project locally as a riverfront park designed to attract people to the city. The two efforts needed to strike a tricky balance.
Bill Warner, whose first big job out of architecture school at MIT was as director of the modernist College Hill study, clearly managed to transcend his design education by the time he had the idea that transformed Providence. He had the courage to design the city’s new waterfront in a traditional manner at a time when every waterfront project in the world was heading in the opposite direction.
But Warner is rightly remembered not just as the man with the plan, or even as the architect who put the plan into form, but as a master diplomat who pushed the plan through a complicated set of local, state and federal bureaucracies over a strikingly extended period of years. His final project was the relocation downriver of Route 195 from its path slicing downtown from the Jewelry district. The bridge that carries the highway over the Providence River deserves to be named the Bill Warner Memorial Bridge.
This last piece of news is scary, and merits a post attacking the idea. I will try to find a good photo of these riverwalks designed by Bill Warner and plop it into my next post, which I think will be Chapter 20, “The Capital Center Build-Out.” The river walks, an essential part of the waterfront’s infrastructure from Waterplace all the way to the Crawford Street Bridge – and supposedly to be ripped up between Waterplace and the Steeple Street Bridge – epitomizes Warner’s successful effort to meld tradition back into the modern city. How can the city turn around and rip it out with nary a thought? Well, maybe the blunders described in “The Capital Center Build-Out” will help clarify such issues.