R.I.H., a place for healing?

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Rhode Island Hospital’s Southwest Pavilion, 1900, Stone, Carpenter & Willson. (PPS)

Editor’s note: Two days ago I received a pacemaker at Rhode Island Hospital. I was discharged yesterday, and just by chance I happened upon this old post from 2016 about the proposed demolition of the hospital’s old Southwest Pavilion, for whose doom the skids were greased. I thought it might be a perfectly fitting toast to the hospital. My experience suggested that the quality of the hospital has been in decline since I had open-heart surgery there in 2020, just before the pandemic. But that’s true of almost every institution in our society. Anyway, thanks to the nursing staff, I managed to survive the surgery, which is almost routine by now, and thanks to the medical staff, my wounds are giving me minimal pain. I’ll leave it at that.

A movement has arisen to improve the appearance of hospitals, on the theory that an attractive hospital can be of assistance in the healing process. If so, the movement has much work to do.


People can spend an hour tomorrow afternoon in silence for a good cause – sitting mute at a meeting to save the Southwest Pavilion. This is the oldest survivor from the day when Rhode Island Hospital looked like a place to care for people rather than like a pile of adding machines to tot up the obscene profits of a health industry gone bonkers.

The Zoning Board of Review meeting begins at 4:45 p.m. tomorrow on the first floor of the city’s planning office, 444 Westminster St. That’s the clunky brick building acquired by the city so that its planners could trade down from their old offices in the Caesar Misch Building (1903), across Empire Street, into a Brutalist building that seems to represent the city’s blunted ambition for architecture. (See any design proposed for the I-195 land.)

But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that Rhode Island Hospital seeks to overturn a decision last December by the City Plan Commission that blocked a proposed demolition of the Southwest Pavilion. [The decision to block the hospital from demolishing the pavilion was overturned.] The hospital’s claim that it could find no use for it is highly dubious. It does not want to find a use for it. It will not say so, but it probably wants eventually to build another new building to further uglify its campus. Why? So that it will seem more in sync with the modern mission of its leadership.

Really? I don’t know. I only know what it looks like.

Hospitals used to be about people – patients, nurses, doctors. Now they are about money. That has been the far from subtle message of its architecture for decades.

I am sure the Providence Preservation Society, which is sponsoring this silent protest, does not see eye-to-eye with my cynicism on this, but the society is against tearing down a building of beauty, which means maybe it is getting back to its original mission.

The public is barred from speaking at this meeting, so a loud silence will reign. You can sign to participate in this sit-in by clicking here.

Postcard of Rhode Island Hospital, probably circa 1928, based on the growth of verdure. (eBay)

Postcard from 1908, by which point RIH had been located there since 1864. It was designed by Alpheus Morse. The Southwest Pavilion was completed in 1900, as designed by Stone Willson & Carptnter.)

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 R.I.H., a place for healing?

  1. The very best of healing to you! I’m sure you will heal much faster than our healthcare system …


    • LazyReader says:

      Best healing, still.
      Modern architectures take over of the Healthcare sector is dominated by fact interior spaces are easier to clean and better flexible if need arises to retrofit it fir new uses.

      In many hospitals the tendency is that oldest buildings are often converted into offices, administrative spaces , file storage or some other use,ANYTHING other than patient care. Because intricate architecture details thou pretty, don’t handle rigors of daily modern medical use. Detailed ornament work is perfect magnet and breeding ground for pathogens and grime. You could clean it every day and watch it erode in a year.
      Marble, gypsum, plaster and drywall are breeding grounds for microbes.

      This reminds me of my hometown hospital 🏥 University Maryland in Baltimore rather than demolition gutted and refurbished it’s oldest building. The older adjacent buildings if classical design house schools and laboratories….


      Gutted and housed inside atrium.
      When it comes to Healthcare Modernism is new norm. Modern materials like stainless steel, aluminum finish, plastic laminates aren’t intricate but they are easy to decontamination, and clean every night.


      • John the First says:

        Some people with expertise need to have a critical look at the arguments above.
        I remember various articles describing how it was discovered that modern allegedly sterile environments actually turn out to be less healthy in terms of the presence of microbes, fungi etc. Even some environments turning out to be breeding grounds for rare and aggressive microbes and fungi.
        The other issue is that the last pandemic must have made it clear to some people how in modern life we become more and more obsessed with micro-beings or in general ‘micro-bio-matter’ instead of occupying ourselves with mind and beauty and the positive and very strong effects of beauty and human scale on people.
        Scale is also an issue which should be discussed, too many people amounts to a dehumanising scale, buildings which are designed to facilitate too many people can never be healthy for body, soul and mind’. We live in times of ‘reign of quantities’, and ‘quantity managers’ which has a crushing effect on our humanity.

        Much light being able to enter through big windows, sunlight being able to enter (which kills microbes), a more sparse elegant use of ornament (too much ornament has a captivating effect), these will likely be the inherited style of modernity which will stick. Rounded shapes will return, they are required to create elegance and beauty. The picture of the hospital above will be considered an example of ‘barbaric rectangularism’ in terms of style, and barbaric in terms of the quality of materials. Sustainability of materials is another issue, materials being ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ another. It is a multi-discipline area, air quality, quality of materials, aesthetic considerations, functional, etc.


      • John the First says:

        The word ‘healthcare’ is the word of ‘quantity managers’, it has come to denote superficiality, bureaucracy, politics, demagoguery, power, big money, fear, quantities, ideology. The word ‘healing’ has a connotation which denotes, soul, completeness, human-scale, quality of life, compassion, spirituality. We need a more human vocabulary.


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