Gone fishing, be back soon

I must announce that my operation has been postponed, possibly to January. I’m of two minds about this, but I will treat it as a boon (nobody is eager for open-heart surgery). I appreciate all the good wishes, and encourage everyone to postpone them, too – though not to postpone sending me examples of new trad buildings for my 2019 “best of” post.

Architecture Here and There

Screen Shot 2019-12-16 at 11.41.01 AM.png (Peanuts Worldwide)

Those who have wished me the best* have my heartfelt thanks, but please, let us not forget what I was really fishing for – examples of new traditional architecture completed during this past year of 2019. As a reminder, I link here to my “Best traditional buildings” post from last year. I hope we can improve upon that in 2019. Europeans and readers from other continents may feel free to nominate new buildings from your own special corners of the world. While all of these splendid suggestions are rolling into my in-box, I expect to put up some “favorites” from blog posts of yesteryear. Enjoy! I will be back to normal posting in a week or so, and I hope that will include a post exhibiting a robust collection of traditional buildings that opened this year.

* My heart surgery is Tuesday morning.

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Gone fishing, be back soon

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(Peanuts Worldwide)

Those who have wished me the best* have my heartfelt thanks, but please, let us not forget what I was really fishing for – examples of new traditional architecture completed during this past year of 2019. As a reminder, I link here to my “Best traditional buildings” post from last year. I hope we can improve upon that in 2019. Europeans and readers from other continents may feel free to nominate new buildings from your own special corners of the world. While all of these splendid suggestions are rolling into my in-box, I expect to put up some “favorites” from blog posts of yesteryear. Enjoy! I will be back to normal posting in a week or so, and I hope that will include a post exhibiting a robust collection of traditional buildings that opened this year.

* My heart surgery is Tuesday morning.

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A resurgence of murals

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Cast Hall at the Academy of Classical Design, Southern Pines, N.C. (Classical Design Foundation)

Unlike modern architecture’s rejection of art as integral to building design, classical architecture welcomes painting and sculpture as part and parcel of a building’s beauty. Murals have embellished the world’s greatest buildings for centuries, but with modern architecture in control for all too many decades, muralists, along with sculptors and classicism’s other allied artists, have, along with their arts, struggled to survive.

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Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

So it is exciting to learn that the Classical Design Foundation and its founding director, Jeffrey Mims, have announced the creation of the Mural Guild as a teaching tool among the Academy of Classical Design’s programs in classical art applied to classical architecture. The academy is headquartered in Southern Pines, North Carolina.

Steven Semes, director of Notre Dame’s recently established historic preservation program, describes the importance of this step:

Architecture cannot tell a complete story without the contributions of the representational painter and sculptor. The harmonious work of the architect, painter and sculptor is fundamental to the classical tradition today, just as it was in the greatest eras of the past. The Academy of Classical Design is the leading contemporary exponent of decorative art in that tradition. It deserves the support of all who seek to add new beauty to our buildings and outdoor spaces.

The first major project by the students of the Mural Guild will be to paint a fresco (a mural painted on freshly laid plaster) to decorate the vaulted ceiling of the academy’s Cast Hall, pictured atop this post. Look at the ceiling. It is quite attractive even in its unadorned state. Imagine, however, scaffolding erected with boards laid across the top, upon which student muralists, lying on their backs, reaching upward with paint brushes, channel Michelangelo painting the ceiling of St. Peter’s Sistine Chapel.

Wikipedia describes what Michelangelo had to put up with:

Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which took approximately four years to complete (1508–1512).[41] According to Condivi’s account, Bramante, who was working on the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, resented Michelangelo’s commission for the pope’s tomb and convinced the pope to commission him in a medium with which he was unfamiliar, in order that he might fail at the task.[42] Michelangelo was originally commissioned to paint the Twelve Apostles on the triangular pendentives that supported the ceiling, and to cover the central part of the ceiling with ornament.[43] Michelangelo persuaded Pope Julius to give him a free hand and proposed a different and more complex scheme, representing the Creation, the Fall of Man, the Promise of Salvation through the prophets, and the genealogy of Christ.

The muralists studying under Professor Mims and his instructors will not only learn to paint but how to maneuver in the life of the artist. They will be spared the connivings of a Bramante, one may suppose; yet, academia being what it is, there will be challenges enough in the teaching environment.

More and more cities are hiring muralists to paint on the sides of buildings, and this is wonderful if not always entirely artful. But in time as more new classical buildings are built, trained classical muralists will be required to bring this bold new architecture to the highest pitch of beauty. The Academy of Classical Design will provide the world with a dedicated stream of talent.

As Jeffrey Mims moves forward in setting up this new arm of his academy, those who want to help revive beauty in the world of art and architecture should support him by contacting Christine Herbes-Sommers at c.herbes-sommers@theclassicaldesignfoundation.org.

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Academy student copying a portion of a fresco by the painter Raphael.

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Romance and the style wars

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Scene from The Diary of Anne Frank, released in 1959. (ATSC TV)

On Sunday I saw the 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank and, in its depiction of Anne’s friendship with the son of another family hiding with the Franks in the attic of a Dutch row house in Nazi-occupied Holland, I thought I saw another example of the difference between traditional architecture and modern architecture.

In one of the film’s subplots, Anne, played by Millie Perkins, and Peter Van Daan, played by Richard Beymer, are thrown together in the attic of the row house, serving downstairs as a spice factory. The two teenagers’ friendship turns romantic so slowly that it is barely apparent until near the end, when it is consummated with a gentle kiss shot by the camera in dark silhouette.

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Entablature. (David Darling)

That is the traditional progression into love. It can be speeded up or even slowed down further to reflect the personalities and circumstances involved. The more or less subtle steps along the way might perhaps be compared with the succession of classical moldings that mark the transformation of a wall into a ceiling by means of a cornice, or, on the exterior of the house, by the diverse levels of ornament – such as (in rising order) the astragal, cymba reversa, dentils, ovolo, modillions, fascia and cyma recta – that make up the entablature of an ornate classical roof cornice.

The previous sentence, in its representation of architectural progression and multiplicity of scale, might have been written by Palladio, Christopher Wren, or Charles Follen McKim, or, today, by Quinlan Terry or Robert A.M. Stern. So what sort of sentence might have been written by, say, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the founders of modern architecture?

“Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’am!”

I do not believe that is an exaggeration. And I don’t deny that Palladio might have felt the urge to WBTYM in his life. Many of us do, today and yesterday, but the urge is, shall we say, less frequently subdued in our modern world. Despite its pretense to an attention to fine detail, Mies’s Seagram Building (1959) cries out “Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’am!” It is a blockhead of a building that elbowed its neighbors (until most were replaced by Miesling copies) and poked its finger in the eyes of its observers, as it still does.

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CCTV, by Rem Koolhaas. (skyscrapers.com)

The Beijing headquarters of China’s CCTV, by Rem Koolhaas (who is Dutch), is even worse. I have often depicted the building as stomping on the Chinese people. With less direct reference to its form, which looks like a pair of legs walking – China’s authorized nickname for the building is “Big Pants” – it might also be said to be engaged in rape. That act of violence is, of course, the representative evil of the 21st Century, as murder was in the 20th. Not very romantic.

Of course the scene of Anne Frank’s diary is hardly romantic. It is set during World War II with Nazi concentration camps of the Holocaust just over the horizon of the daily lives of the Jewish families hiding out in the Dutch attic. Indeed, the horror of their situation is deepened by the elegant architecture of the Amsterdam street upon which it unfolds. The irony of Germany’s embrace (if it may be so called) in the 1930s of Hitler and Nazism is that it occurred in such an undeniably civilized nation. Notwithstanding the world war that was its end result, Hitler’s takeover of Germany was not quite a WBTYM event. It was more subtle, but it certainly was not romantic.

Am I comparing modern architecture’s takeover of the architectural establishment in Europe and America to Hitler’s takeover of Germany? Serious difficulties beset such a comparison, to say the least. But yes, I am.

The big difference (aside from what many will consider the outrageousness of the idea) is that Hitler was more subtle. The bastard first won an election and then maneuvered his way into a degree of authority that transformed Germany into a dictatorship. By comparison, the modernists’ takeover of the establishment in architecture between 1940 and 1950 seems like a rape. The droogs of A Clockwork Orange come to mind. The trads were unable to resist. Was it PTSD from two world wars and a depression? I don’t know. Anyhow, traditional architecture was the establishment for centuries.

(I hasten to add, as if it were necessary, that I am not comparing the horrors of Nazi Germany to the horrors of modern architecture. A shooting war is more horrific than a bloodless coup in architecture, however far-reaching and dispiriting the consequences.)

I’m sure there will be objections to the path this post has taken since it compared the attic romance of Anne and Peter to the WBTYM that is too often conventional today. Allow me to apologize in advance. A blog post often represents writing gone wild, and it is more like a one-night stand than the slow-motion enchantment of an erudite essay by Hazlitt. Still, I hope the stray, disruptive thoughts of this post will be appreciated by some.

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The hideaway was third from left on this Amsterdam block in 1930. (annefrank.com)

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Comments on the style wars

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“Damn contemporary bullshit architecture!” (by Buck Brown)

My last post “Modern architecture as spin” drew a reply from architect Daniel Morales that, paired with my reply, deserves to be front and center on this blog, rather than stuck in the comment section. Dan and I have gone round and round on this issue of how to approach our mutual opposition to modern architecture. Although we disagree, his argument has considerable merit and, I imagine, widespread support among traditionalist and classicist participants in the style wars that engage the field of architecture.

So here is our exchange as it has progressed so far. First his reply, triggered mostly, I believe, by this passage in my post: “All modernism – not just in architecture but in art, in music, in philosophy – is spin. It is not all stupid, but it is all fatuous.” Dan wrote:

Do you really think all Modernism is ‘silly and pointless’? I’m hardly a defender of modernism, but it doesn’t seem rhetorically useful to insult with such a broad brush. Most of those who work within its precepts are not idiots, just like classicists or traditionalists. Imagine what the world of architecture might look like once this style war ends. Will it provide room for all types of thinking or will it be an absolutist system demanding fealty to tradition?

My reply:

Not all idiots, Dan, but fools.

A commenter, “Anonymous,” pokes at me for dodging Dan’s comment:

Thanks for the clarification.

To which I replied at some length, as Dan’s comment deserved:

You are right, Anon., Dan and I have been going back and forth on this for ages. Of course not all modernists are idiots, which I admitted in my post. But what Dan seeks, whether he recognizes it or not, is surrender. There will never be a blissful time when a thousand flowers bloom. The modernists will never permit it. Dan does not seem to understand that it is the mods, not the trads, who are propagating the style wars, and have from the beginning. It is they who rig the process so that major commissions, just about all except middle-class housing projects and mansions for the wealthy, go almost exclusively to modernists.

Modernists know that very few people actually like their work, and they know that there was almost no sound intellectual basis for having instituted modern architecture a century ago, and that its capture of the establishment in the ’40s and ’50s, and since then the defense of its power and authority, have been unfairly and unjustly manipulative. They know that design and construction practices they’ve promoted bake mediocrity into the system in ways that are now virtually impossible to evade or dislodge. They know that their place in the industry would collapse if the public had any say in the market for buildings, as would be appropriate in a democracy. So, no, I do not favor the “absolutist system” Dan seems to think I am calling for. I merely want the market for architecture to operate as it ought to in a free market political economy, reflecting democracy. Is that too much to ask? It would promote beauty and happiness among far more people than is the case today.

Yes, I do insult with a broad brush. Dan has the right to put it that way. But, compared to the flaws inherent in every other aspect of humanity and its fields of endeavor, the flaws of modern architecture are far and away more deleterious in their impact on the human condition than that of any other industry, profession or art group. Dan may call that an insult, but I call it the truth, based on the obvious facts of our built environment that are clear to all but those who refuse (as well they might!) to look or see.

Although obviously rather unpleasant, I think tradition should fight back against modernism. That is what I have tried to do by avoiding the “Can’t we all just get along” approach in my rhetoric. And, as I suggested in a recent post, “Lessons of the Berlin Wall,” I believe that mobilizing the public to agitate for what they want (and deserve) could have results far sooner than anyone might imagine.

Of course, Dan or anyone else should feel free to continue this discussion.

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Modern architecture as spin

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Inside the Millennium Dome. “Is this the arse or the elbow?” (Guardian)

An article in the Guardian on the rise and fall of London’s Millennium Dome sums up much of what ails modern architecture. “20 years on, revisiting a very British fiasco,” by Rowan Moore, describes the pitfalls of treating architecture not as a place but as an idea:

[T]his spectacular container of not very much made an easy emblem of the government’s preference for style over content, its attachment to vacuous statements of modernity, its use of messaging and focus groups to deliver meaningless platitudes, its tokenistic approach to regeneration.

Here is one passage describing the attempt to formulate a spin during the period before the Dome (designed by Sir Richard Rogers) opened on Dec. 31, 1999, supposedly the last day of the old millennium:

From now on, as [critic Simon] Jenkins puts it, [the Dome] would be “a showcase for New Labour, for Cool Britannia.” [Prime Minister Tony] Blair had publicly aligned himself with a vision of Britain as a creative, dynamic country: food and furniture by Terence Conran, buildings by Richard Rogers, art by Damien Hirst, music by Oasis. The dome and its contents would be its expression. Major corporations would sponsor different elements – a process that had started under [former deputy P.M. Michael] Heseltine. This would show, as Jenkins puts it, “that New Labour was friendly to capitalism, that business was part of one big national family.”

I have nothing to say about whether the Dome epitomized the Labour Party or the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair. However you slice it, putting style over substance is to lead with one’s chin. It is certainly apparent that a place must have a function, but if the function is merely to express an idea, it is likely to fail, perhaps a lot faster than did the Millennium Dome.

To be more precise about the millennial “idea” behind the Dome, the new millennium started a year later, on Jan. 1, 2001, not at Greenwich, where the Dome was built but at Caroline Island in the Kiribati chain, just east of the International Dateline, on the other side of the world.

Moore describes the fiasco:

The contents were panned. They were described as underwhelming, compromised, communicating nothing in particular. The long queues to get into the star exhibits made front-page news. “Is this the arse or the elbow?” went a Private Eye speech bubble, coming from a visitor trying to enter an opening in the arm of a giant figure that was in a “zone” based on the human body.

I suppose this article must be placed on my long groaning shelf of analytical pieces by advocates of modern architecture that, in admitting the flaws of one undeniably regrettable work of modern architecture, describe the flaws of all modern architecture. There never has been a modernist building that does not put style over substance. Insofar as the style rarely if ever rises to the level of beauty, the substance must indeed be flawed. All modernism – not just in architecture but in art, in music, in philosophy – is spin. It is not all stupid, but it is all fatuous.

That may be one reason why the world, with all its scientific discoveries, its widespread economic advancement, its endless victories over disease, its profound technological achievements and its relentlessly idiotic architecture, remains such an unhappy place.

Traditional architecture is simple, modest, functional and yet almost effortlessly beautiful. Has the world become such a thoroughgoing idiocracy that nobody can see the necessity of ADVOCATING these values? Even if only in the realm of architecture and the built environment, where they would be so easy to implement? So sad.

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The Millennium Dome, in Greenwich, London, UK. (Dreamstime.com)

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Imagine all the buildings …

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Image of Femopolis from graphic novel planned by an artist in Portland, Ore. (Paul Guinan)

The other day, flipping through stacks of my old Providence Journal columns seeking a shot of a c. 1750 house in Providence’s old village of Hardscrabble (which I found), I came across a column inspired by a website’s image of a fictional place called Femopolis, scene of a graphic novel being written by Paul Guinan, of Portland, Ore. “Imagine all the buildings …” was written in 2004, when Providence officials switched design strategies in Capital Center from traditional (such as Providence Place, the Westin Hotel, the Marriott Courtyard) to modernist (the GTECH headquarters, the Waterplace condo towers). The column was an exercise in finger-wagging that did no good, and rerunning that column will surely do no good as the city continues to screw up its latest version of Capital Center – the I-195 innovation corridor. Still, give it a read anyway. Who knows what might happen. Here it is, followed by a couple of remarks on recent local development news:


Imagine all the buildings …

(April 8, 2004)

See that pond in the illustration above? That could be Waterplace. Imagine if the new buildings recently proposed to go on either side of the pond looked like the ones above – not exactly, but in that spirit. Providence would become the most popular middle-sized city in America. Instantly.

Something like that happened once, on a grand scale. Chicago built a classically inspired “White City” for the World’s Columbian Exposition [Chicago World’s Fair] of 1893, some 150 temporary buildings made of plaster and painted white. It opened a year late, but after word spread of its startling beauty, an extraordinary 27 million Americans went, about a quarter of the U.S. population then.

They returned home with the idea that their cities and towns could also be beautiful. Thus began the City Beautiful movement. Municipalities across the nation hired classically trained architects and planners to redesign civic plazas and other public spaces. Most of what elegance survives in the downtowns of today’s America hails from that period.

The City Beautiful movement was aborted by depression, war and the Modern movement. But just suppose that architecture had continued to evolve in the graceful manner it had over the foregoing 500 years. Imagine that every building erected in America since 1950 had been not a sharp break from the existing urban setting but a gradual addition to and strengthening of that setting – an architecture that moved into the future by building creatively on the past rather than rejecting it.

It is no stretch to imagine that American cities by now would rival European cities in beauty – especially since Europeans have been attacking their own cities with their own abrupt, sterile, chaotic, dysfunctional, ugly forms of modern architecture.

The image above is from a website about a fictional place called Femopolis, the setting for a “graphic novel” planned by Paul Guinan, of Portland, Ore. A friend directed me to it (www.bigredhair.com/femopolis), and when I saw the image I thought it might in fact be an old postcard of the White City.

It turns out to be the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. But give it a good look. Just suppose that the developers of Parcel 2 and Parcel 9 [the Waterplace condo towers and GTECH], on opposite sides of Waterplace, were proposing designs of a similar grandeur and magnificence. Imagine the tingling surge of excitement that would arise at such a prospect.

The Capital Center Commission’s design panel would wag its fingers, of course, and tut-tut about “copying the past.” But the public would love it. And because the public casts more votes than the design elites, political pressure to build it would be intense.

Alas, while neither project has progressed far enough to have even a tentative design sketch, their architects offer photos of buildings they like or have built – the usual glitzy, glassy stuff inflicted on most downtowns (Providence perhaps least of all).

The GTECH headquarters concept has been described as “contemporary,” “innovative,” yet “respectful of its neighbors” (see Journal staff writer Andrea Stape’s article “Designs on Providence,” Business, April 3). GTECH will reportedly reveal its initial design for Parcel 9 to the panel on April 27.

As for Parcel 2, [developer] Intercontinental’s ideas for what its project might look like wowed the panel at last week’s meeting. I think every member used the words “very exciting” to describe a relatively vague concept that I found very unsettling.

Perhaps I was unduly alarmed by an ominous exchange between two representatives of Intercontinental, who assured each other that “we are reacting to the client’s quasi-modernist tendencies.”

“What do you mean, ‘quasi’?” I wondered.

So far, based on the Stape article, last week’s design-review meeting, and Michael Corkery’s March 31 story on that meeting (“Capital Center panel hears new proposal”), neither project seems much interested in fitting gracefully into its surroundings, at least not in ways most of the public would understand. In fact, the panel members realized at the last moment, almost as an afterthought, that they had better urge Intercontinental to offer some idea of how its project will refer to the Capital Center’s context, most of which is traditional: Providence Place, the Westin, the Marriott, Union Station and Waterplace itself – not to mention the State House.

To be contextual, the designs need not reach for the heights of the White City, Femopolis, the State House or even the mall (much as that would please the public and, of course, you mild-mannered critic). But it would be nice if both project designs were at least as deferential to the best of Capital Center as the dead designs they hope to replace, both of which mixed the old and the new well enough – no tingling of the spine, but acceptable.

At Waterplace, Providence cannot afford to go ugly. If the latest projects don’t strengthen the city’s unique historical character, at least they must not undermine it. That is not too much to ask.

But suppose the developers had the courage to buck the design elites and build something grand, truly worthy of the place. Ah! Just imagine …


Just to take a few recent local news items, one can easily imagine that Providence Place would not have just traded down from Nordstrom to Boscov’s – the mall would have been trading up for years by now. Likewise, the proposal by a Washington developer to turn the old Journal Building (1906) into a swanky hotel would not have stalled out over the absence of a TSA (tax stabilization agreement) with the city. TSAs would no longer exist in Providence because beautiful architecture would have turned it into a more robust city at least a decade ago. The market would not require TSAs or other subsidies to goose projects forward, but rather the issue would be how to slow down excessive development. That’s what beauty can do.

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GTECH (now IGT) on Parcel 9 with Waterplace towers on Parcel 2 at right. (gilbaneco.com)

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The Nightingale sings, so far

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Brickword on the Washington Street facade of the Nightingale Building. (photo by author)

A large square extraordinarily promising brick building arises on the block downtown where hundreds of Providence Journal employees used to park. I just learned today that it will be called the Nightingale Building. Buff Chace, whose work has revived downtown Providence almost singlehandedly, comes from good family hereabouts. Is “Nightingale” a doff of his hat to the family linked by marriage to the mercantile Brown clan of this city’s early times? Or maybe it is meant to evoke poetry – to wit, the familiar songbird. Also, just to troll the news, the nightingale is the national bird of Ukraine.

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Rendering of Nightingale. (Cornish Assocs.)

Today I took a longtime friend, Mary Shepard, who moved to Providence from Aquidneck Island lately, on a tour of downtown. We drove past the Nightingale under construction on Washington Street. I had seen its pleasing brickwork at an earlier stage. Today, Mary and I saw that much of it was complete. Each rank of windows was set off by relatively deep piers, and the fenestration was set into the walls far enough to impart additional real strength to the appearance of its façades. Between each floor of brick was a stringcourse that added to the delight of the façades’ simplicity. (Simplicity mustn’t be confused with the blankness that afflicts much bad architecture.) With some trepidation, however, one waits to see how the architect – Cube 3 Studio, of Boston – has decided to set off the upper story, which seems as yet (one hopes) without its cladding.

Although quite large, the Nightingale fills the long-abandoned role in city planning of a background building – whose modest demeanor sets off the more ambitious qualities of so-called “iconic” buildings. That is how things were when designing cities was done with more care and elegance. Today, iconic buildings flap their wings to display the “creativity” of their design, usually at the expense of their beauty. Background buildings, when they are attempted, generally demonstrate the inanity of today’s iconic buildings.

The nightingale should not be confused with the peacock. It does not shout its beauty from the rooftops but sings of the beauty of the traditional city. It is part of the chorus of Providence that has been disappearing for decades, and its return after such a long absence is worthy of deep applause.

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Brickwork on the Nightingale as first noticed by me several weeks ago.

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Above are a photo taken today and a rendering (taken from the Cornish website) of an addition to the Trayne Building, the easternmost of three buildings on Westminster Street being renovated by Buff Chace’s Cornish Associates. The Trayne addition could be another background building but its location suggests a more exalted status. It is really not an addition but a new building, just as separate from the Trayne as the Trayne is from the Wit and the Wit from the Lapham. Visit the Cornish website for more on this project designed by Union Studio across Westminster from URI’s downtown campus in the Shepard Building (whose name was so pleasing to my passenger today).

By the way, today, Thanksgiving Day, offers a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves how very much Buff has done, in Providence, to deserve his Bulfinch patronage award of 2019 from the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. Thank you, Buff!

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Hardscrabble and Snowtown

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Town of Providence in 1827, with Snowtown-to-be in foreground. (engraving by J.P. Murphy)

Hardscrabble in 1824 was a poor hamlet of respectable families headed mostly by free black tradesmen, craftsmen and servants in the town of Providence. Blacks and others along Olney Lane (now Olney Street) lived cheek by jowl, however, with prostitutes, gamblers and others of low repute on the edges of society. On Oct. 18, an altercation arose over the right of precedence on local sidewalks, leading to an attack by a mob of tough whites on Hardscrabble that left seven houses demolished and four others damaged, but no deaths. The riot occurred two years after black suffrage (passed in 1784 and already eroded by intimidation) had been abolished by the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Many residents of Hardscrabble moved to the marshy land on the north edge of the Cove, beneath the bluff upon which the new Rhode Island State House would be opened in 1901. The settlement came to be known as Snowtown, which assumed many of Hardscrabble’s desultory characteristics and even suffered its own riot in 1831.

The following passage from my Feb. 24, 2005, column “Hardscrabble and Snowtown of yore” was taken from sources of the period, including the newly founded Providence Journal (my old employer), and I make no claim for its accuracy, but it reflects the story handed down since by established interests, whose characteristics are part of the discussion now arising about the lives of blacks in old Providence.

The Snowtown riots, on Sept. 21-24, 1831, were sparked by a saloon brawl. A white sailor was shot by a black; a mob then sacked houses on Olney’s Lane [that is, Hardscrabble]. The next day, it pulled down more houses. On the third day, the militia maintained calm. On the fourth, a thousand rioters crossed the Moshassuck to attack Snowtown, almost overwhelming the 140 members of the First Light Infantry. After rioters ignored warnings from the sheriff and Gov. Lemuel Arnold, the militia fired first into the air, with no effect, and then into the mob, killing four whites.

Most citizens of Providence today have never heard of Snowtown or Hardscrabble, or either of the two riots. This important interlude amid the growth of New England abolitionist sentiment in the run-up to the Civil War has dropped off the historical map around here. Some people are trying to fix that.

Thursday evening, at the Congdon Street Baptist Church on the East Side of Providence, I sat in on a meeting convened by associates of the State House Restoration Society. They were mostly young historians, art and design professionals and students eager to revive the memory of the village of Snowtown. It’s going to be a tough job, but advocates for a place harboring dens of iniquity from prostitution to gambling in a mixture of skin colors two centuries ago already know that.

The meeting followed by just a month the display of artifacts at the old State House from an archaeological dig of the Snowtown site in 1981. These items have been recatalogued by Heather Olson, of Public Archeaology Laboratory, in Pawtucket. Olson showed some of the dig’s 148,000 artifacts, mostly household items, some quite fancy given the status of the hamlet. She explained the difficult history of Snowtown. The restoration society and its friends are building on her work, and hope to draw other organizations into the rememorization for Snowtown.

To be successful at generating more institutional interest, the group might want to consider officially expanding the scope of the story beyond Snowtown to include Hardscrabble, whose existence and whose riot came first. Although what had been Snowtown is populated, in daytime, mostly by the people’s representatives and their offices, that community’s interest may well be better engaged if they hear from the current population of what was once Hardscrabble.

The neighborhood of Mount Hope takes in the vicinity of Olney Lane to North Main to Hope Street. University Heights, at the corner of Olney and North Main, designed by the nation’s leading midcentury architect of shopping centers, was an urban renewal project that displaced hundreds of families in the Lippitt Hill district of Mount Hope, during the 1960s, pulling down their homes with much more efficiency and perhaps more brutality than the rioters of 1824 and 1831.

Activist and bookman Ray Rickman has already been gathering their stories. He and other local community reservoirs of knowledge and interest – such as the Rhode Island Historical Society – can more effectively bear witness to lost history if the comingling of memories representing the ghosts of Snowtown, Hardscrabble and Lippitt Hill can all be given voice.

(A lengthy essay by Washington lawyer John Crouch, “Providence Newspapers and the Racist Riots of 1824 and 1831,” has fascinating quotations and details about local newspapers’ coverage of the two riots.)

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Providence riots, 1824, 1831

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The original photograph from my 2005 column on Hardscrabble and Snowtown.

Here is my Feb. 24, 2005, column in the Providence Journal, headlined “Hardscrabble and Snowtown of yore”:


HARDSCRABBLE and Snowtown are old Providence neighborhoods that have fallen off the map. In 1824, Hardscrabble was a poor enclave of houses owned or rented mainly by free African-Americans along Olney’s Lane (now Olney Street) and North Main Street. Before blacks moved in, the sparsely populated area was known as Stampers Hill or Addison Hollow. Later, it was called Constitution Hill, and then Lippitt Hill.

Lippitt Hill, the city’s oldest black neighborhood, was razed and its residents were dispersed, in 1962-68, to construct University Heights, an innovative shopping/residential complex designed by America’s first major architect of malls, Victor Gruen.

By 1831, Snowtown had arisen to the west of Hardscrabble, across the Blackstone Canal (the Moshassuck River), beneath the bluff of Smith Hill, possibly right where Waterplace Park and Providence Place are today. It’s hard to know for sure. Snowtown isn’t labeled on old maps, or precisely located in accounts of old history. It appeared and disappeared long before the State House was completed in 1901. By then, Snowtown, not to mention Hardscrabble, had been forgotten by, I daresay, as many citizens of Providence as possible.

Why? Perhaps because they were the sites of two race riots. Their role in bringing about the town of Providence’s incorporation as a city — a step aimed chiefly to strengthen police power — is described in the Winter 1972 issue of the Rhode Island Historical Society’s quarterly, by Brown Prof. Howard Chudacoff and master’s candidate Theodore Hirt.

Quoting from a report of the trial that followed the Oct. 18, 1824, Hardscrabble riot, they write: “[S]ome blacks had tried to ‘maintain the inside walk in their peregrination in town,’ in obvious defiance of racial taboo, and the usual ‘bickerings and hostilities’ ended in a sort of ‘battle royal.’ The following night a large number of whites, incensed by the incident, assembled on [Weybosset] Bridge and ‘after some consultation’ invaded the black section known as Hard-Scrabble ‘which they almost laid in ruins.’ ” The mob of about 50, cheered on by some 100 spectators, pulled down seven houses and heavily damaged four others. Nobody tried to stop them. Only two were convicted, of minor charges.

To “maintain the inside walk” – where a pedestrian was less likely to get slopped by mud from the unpaved streets — was to flout today’s equivalent of keeping to the right on a sidewalk. Street etiquette was complicated by the pecking order of social status, which was loosening as free blacks in Northern states asserted, and abolitionists promoted, their franchise. By 1820, African-Americans in Providence were slowly being freed under Rhode Island’s 1784 phased abolition of slavery. But in 1822, as free black males sought to advance in society, their right to vote (little used, because of intimidation) was abolished by the General Assembly.

In 1824, blacks were one in ten of the city’s population, or about a thousand. All but a handful were free. Many asserted themselves by leaving the households of their employers, to form their own.

Many moved to Hardscrabble, where poor but respectable families, headed by servants, tradesmen and craftsmen, lived next to taverns and bawdyhouses that served a mixed clientel. Genteel whites crusaded against vice, but the town had little power or authority to act. Under cover of this crusade, lower-class whites occasionally took vigilante action against blacks when irritated by, say, their insistence on “maintaining the inside walk.”

I’ve read two reports on the mood of blacks in Providence in the years leading up to the Snowtown riots in 1831. A long paper by Brown undergraduate John Crouch for Professor Chudacoff in 1991 (published as a pamphlet by Ray Rickman’s Cornerstone Books in 1999) describes the appallingly racist coverage by local newspapers of the Hardscrabble riot and its aftermath. And in a 2003 book, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830, John Wood Sweet has a chapter on how the riots fueled mockery of the abolition movement in the North (“De Bobalition of Slabery in de Nited Tate”). Both are unpleasant reading.

The Snowtown riots, on Sept. 21-24, 1831, were sparked by a saloon brawl. A white sailor was shot by a black; a mob then sacked houses on Olney’s Lane. The next day, it pulled down more houses. On the third day, the militia maintained calm. On the fourth, a thousand rioters crossed the Moshassuck to attack Snowtown, almost overwhelming the 140 members of the First Light Infantry. After rioters ignored warnings from the sheriff and Gov. Lemuel Arnold, the militia fired first into the air, with no effect, and then into the mob, killing four whites.

These events finally led to a city charter, in 1832. For blacks in Providence, suffrage, at least, has been secured. And today we are all, black and white, safe from mobs, right? Mostly, yes. But racial animosities linger, and whites and blacks still clash, sometimes on sidewalks — hints of an ugly past.So, yes, remember Hardscrabble and Snowtown.

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