Capital Ctr. Build-Out, cont.

Photo shot from balcony of governor’s office in State House. Providence Place at center and right, with Westin towers in rear. GTECH butts in from left center. (Photo by author)

To go through my photo library in search of color versions of the pictures that adorn Lost Providence is to experience a dark passage in my life, a period when all the buildings described in this chapter were arising. Occasionally they would tease me with hints of charm that I knew were destined to disappear. The brief passage of elegance represented in the photo above had passed, and was replaced by the ogres that arose between 2005-2009, described below following my (true) dream sequence.


In 1999, buoyed by the optimism of these developments [the recent construction of Providence Place and other traditional buildings in Capital Center] and suffused by the dubious idea that my writing had played a role in tradition’s recent successes, I contacted Quinlan Terry, the favorite architect of Prince [now King] Charles, who was crusading against modern architecture in Britain. I asked Terry whether he would be interested in doing a project in Providence and described the collection of parcels still available for development in the Capital Center district. He said “yes.” I contacted Joe Paolino, the former mayor, [U.S.] ambassador [to Malta] and state economic czar, who was by then back at his post in private real estate development. I asked him to serve as an intermediary between Terry and Robert Eder, the head of Capital Properties, the development arm of the Providence and Worcester Railroad and owner of almost all of the development parcels in Capital Center. Paolino, too, said “yes.” But nothing ever happened, and I never found out why. Having the prince’s favorite architect design a major project in Providence would have outraged establishment architects throughout America, if not the world. Maybe that is why nothing happened. Still, it would have been a great show, and great P.R. It would have put the city on the map.

Image of Femopolis represents my dream sequence of Quinlan Terry masterplanning Waterplace and its vicinity. I thought it might be from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, but is the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, as used in a graphic novel planned by an artist in Portland, Ore. (Paul Guinan)

Instead, the curtain rang down on this heady urbanist vision. Capital Center Commission chairwoman Leslie Gardner declared that the district needed new buildings to be “different.” Mayor David Cicilline, asked by me to call for the redesign of Capital Center’s next building, a modernist monstrosity on Parcel 9, declared that Francis Street needed stylistic “diversity.” And it was off to the races.

The first of four buildings in the third tranche of new architecture in Capital Center, the ten-story headquarters of a lottery machine manufacturer, was completed in 2006 on Parcel 9, west of Waterplace Park, blocking views of Providence Place from downriver and generally stinking up the joint. The architect for GTECH actually plopped a sketch of his building onto a poster-sized copy of Richard Benjamin’s lovely photograph. The montage looked ridiculous, even blasphemous. The architect claimed that the design’s reflective glass would enable the building to “disappear.” Its completion proved that notion fanciful, as anybody would expect. The argument that a building won’t be so bad because it will be virtually invisible hardly stands as a ringing endorsement of its architecture.

The GTECH headquarters building (2006) squats amid Waterplace Park. (Photo by author)

The original building proposed for Parcel 9, in 1998, where GTECH eventually arose, had been the square version of a circular firing squad. As designed by New York modernist Hugh Hardy, each of its sides vied to out-uglify the others. I visited Mayor Cianci and asked him to call for it to be redesigned. He did so on Channel 10’s Truman Taylor Show. A new, far better design was proposed and set forth by Christopher “Kip” McMahan of Robinson Green Beretta, in Providence. It was shelved after a top Providence law firm signed on as lead tenant in the proposed building, only to learn that its major client, a top national bank headquartered downtown, was threatening to end its relationship with the law firm if the latter moved its offices out of a building owned by the bank. (Providence know-it-alls may enjoy filling in the scandalous blanks.)

The two towers of the Waterplace Luxury Condominiums rise just north of the park. (Photo by author)

The second and third modernist buildings in this phase are the two towers, seventeen and nineteen stories, of the so-called Waterplace Luxury Condominiums on the northern edge of Waterplace Park, completed in 2008. Some observers may find it baffling that these two buildings are considered by the public to be even less appealing than the boxy coldness of GTECH. My wife, Victoria, provided the most plausible reason for that view I have heard: it’s a reversal of expectations. People have internalized the expectation that where they work will necessarily be less attractive than where they live. Some critics have said that the towers appear to be constructed of materials liberated from the warehouses of the Providence Housing Authority. Maybe so, but they do not come near to challenging GTECH as exercises in frigidity, sterility and unneighborliness.

The Blue Cross/Blue Shield headquarters (2009) in back of the Gateway Center (1990). (SMMA)

The fourth modernist building in this set is the new Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Rhode Island headquarters, designed by the firm SMMA, whose completion in 2009 just beyond the northern edge of Waterplace Park blocks views of the State House from the Waterplace condo towers. Aside from a relatively pleasing curvature of its south-facing façade, it is a typical Miesian glass box. “Miesian” is the term of art for the flood of buildings (by architects known as “Mieslings”) that arose along Manhattan’s Park Avenue and, alas, elsewhere. This glass-box frenzy erupted after the Seagram Building (1958), designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, captured the already stunted imagination of America’s newly empowered architectural establishment in the late 1950s. In defense of those architects, it may be suggested that with a toolbox of rectangular glass windows set into a metallic grid, and an outright ban on ornament, there was little potential for creative differentiation in this branch of modernist style.

Seagram Building (1958), by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. (Construction Week)

In response to the challenge posed by postmodernism, modernists shucked their rigid International Style principles and plunged into the sort of loopy-doopy somersaults, epitomized by Frank O. Gehry, the purpose of which seems to be to appear to defy the physical laws of nature. Providence has mostly managed to dodge bullets of that sort, perhaps because so little has been built since the “Great Recession” of 2008. Modernists like to insist that architecture reflect its era, so it should not surprise anyone that so much of it blows up in our face.

Scribbles by Frank Gehry that allegedly led to design of Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. (Gehry)
Guggenheim Bilbao (1997), by Frank Gehry, at Bilbao, in Spain’s restive Basque region. (Getty)


This blog has decided to take a breather before reprinting Chapter 21, “Waterplace and WaterFire,” and Chapter 22. “The Downcity Plan,” to attend to news events that merit attention but are gathering cobwebs instead.

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Capital Center Build-Out

View pictures, left to right, Center Place, the Gateway Center, Blue Cross/Blue Shield (to its rear), GTECH and half of Providence Place. The Westin towers are in further distance, behind the mall and GTECH, which distance seems to render smaller in size. (Library of Congress)

As you will or maybe already have seen, flipping the order of Chapters 19 (“We Hate That”) and Chapter 20 (“The Capital Center”) in this reprint of Lost Providence has predictably caused problems. Specifically the need to explain, at the start of Chapter 20, what “the analysis in the last chapter holds water” refers to. It refers to the idea that using traditional design, as Mayor Paolino did in reopening Westminster Street, will strengthen the historical character of Providence. The Capital Center build-out, in its three phases, demonstrated how that insight can be understood and misunderstood, as described below.


To the extent that the analysis in the last chapter [Chapter 19, “We Hate That”] holds water, its workings may be seen in the three phases of design at Capital Center referred to in Chapter 18. Rolling out over two decades as if somehow ordained by a confused zeitgeist lodged in the Capital Center Commission’s evolving worldview, the district’s first ten buildings break down into three successive phases of postmodern, traditional and modern architecture.

Providence Station, with State House in background. (Chester Smolski)

The first four buildings arose as the streets, bridges, river walks and new river channels took shape in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Together, these four buildings are a tutorial on postmodern architecture. Providence Station, the new, relocated depot completed in 1986, was modernist, even mildly brutalist – a low flat slab of limestone sheaths with a square clock tower and shallow stainless-steel dome. The dome was said to evoke the State House dome, but it was shorn of detail, winking at tradition. The second building, a low-rise office complex called the Gateway Center, completed in 1989, snuggled up to tradition with its green, faux-copper attic roofline and bowed central front, but it kept its distance with flanking concrete façades embellished, unenthusiastically, with classical stringcourses. The third building, a residential complex called Center Place completed in 1990, also doffed its cap to the Platonic ideal of “a building” but expressed its reluctance with shallow detailing in its brick and precast façades, into which square windows were “punched,” as modernists like to say.

Citizens Plaza, triangular building erected 1990 at the rivers’ confluence, with a massive parking lot still available at this late date as development parcels. The Providence River flows south from its confluence, situated at the building’s right in this photo. (Capital Properties)

The fourth building, a triangular brown office tower called Citizens Plaza, was completed in 1990 on a temporary island as the new channels of the relocated river confluence were laid on either side of it. Violating one of the key principles of the Capital Center guidelines, it blocked views of the State House from downriver. A sliver of its dome and the Independent Man can still be seen squished between Citizens Plaza and the Hospital Trust Bank building. The triangular building seems to imagine that its three very slightly classicizing towers, capped at each corner, make up for the sin of closing down a major view corridor. Not.

Photo by Richard Benjamin captures Westin Hotel (left) and Providence Place mall at dusk near Waterplace Park, at beginning of a WaterFire event. (

Those four buildings were followed by three buildings along the western edge of the district, beyond Waterplace Park and across Francis Street but still on parcels attached to Capital Center. These three buildings arose in the last half of the 1990s, advancing beyond the hodgepodge of the district’s postmodernist beginnings. They spoke in the traditional language of architecture that had characterized Providence for more than three centuries.

The Westin (now Omni) Hotel, a publicly financed facility connected to the newly completed Rhode island Convention Center in 1994, boasted actual gables, tinted green as if copper, atop a base of cast concrete and a shaft of brick. I cut my critic’s teeth during the review process for the Westin, during which Brown architecture historian William Jordy, quoted in my Journal column “A Review of design Review” (February 18, 1992), said he wanted it to be “more modern and less archaeological.”

To their credit, the [Westin] architects did not make the major changes that the initial criticism seemed to call for. How could they? The criticisms were vague to the point of pointlessness: The hotel design was a “pastiche,” it wasn’t “honest” enough. It resembled other buildings in other cities too much.

The second building was Providence Place, completed in 1999. its two classicized anchor stores were connected by a factory mill-like central stretch of brick with a three-story glass “Wintergarden” that bridged the river and the railroad tracks that ran beneath the mall. Because of its complexity and its size, extending from the Westin Hotel to the Masonic Temple near the State House, about four hundred yards, its review process was lengthy. Architects for the two anchors, Nordstrom and Filene’s, designed each end in robustly classical styles; the middle picked up on the city’s industrial heritage. Friedrich St. Florian, who soon after designed the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was in overall charge of the exterior design. By the end of the long review process – which reflected the same inanities that had slowed the Westin design – the mall managed to retain an unapologetically traditional appeal.

Early design for Providence Place by Adrian Smith, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. (Author’s archives)

A surprising earlier design for Providence Place was proposed by the office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, whose Marilyn Jordan Taylor did the original master plan for Capital Center. A principal of that firm, Adrian Smith, inked a thoroughly classical design for Providence Place. His work on the mall suggested not only the eclecticism of the architect but his bravery, embracing American Renaissance heritage amid a period of aesthetic angst among members of his profession. Smith – who recently designed the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, the world’s tallest skyscraper (for now) – saw his mall design jettisoned after former Outlet Company CEO Bruce Sundlun, who supported the mall project, lost the governorship in 1995. He was succeeded by Lincoln Almond, whose campaign had deployed a shifty opposition to the mall or, more precisely, to its proposed “tax treaty” with the city and state. Almond’s critique evaporated soon after his election, followed by the hiring of St. Florian to lead the mall’s exterior redesign.

The third traditional building was the Courtyard Marriott Hotel, built between Union Station and Memorial Boulevard with a sweet yellowish brick from the same quarry used for the Union Station and trim of burnt sienna (as Crayola denotes this color). The hotel, completed in 2000, was a larger version of Union Station’s five brick rectangular structures, the easternmost of which had burned down in 1941 and was not rebuilt until 1984. That its design program replicated the lost building’s style rather than “following a different drummer” was another indication that an inclination toward the city’s traditional appearance was trying to reassert itself.

From left to right are the Marriott, the second Westin tower, the first Westin tower GTECH and, behind it a portion of the Providence Place mall. (photo by Laura Landen)

These three new buildings demonstrated one of the abiding merits of traditional styles. They love one another. And they do not need to be perfectly suited to one another, or especially beautiful, to do so. Viewed from either downtown or from the governor’s balcony of the State House, the three buildings (plus a traditionally designed residential tower added to the Westin complex in 2004) evoke the camaraderie of the classical orders: they gentle the condition of Francis Street, illustrating the complementary nature of architecture that stems from the classical orders. Neither the mall, with its serial cupolas, nor the westin towers that dominate either view are paragons of classical virtuosity; their ornamental detailing ranges from somewhat lame to downright clunky. Yet they smile at the pedestrian, who has something nice to look at for a change, and whose belittlement alongside such large buildings is minimized by the palette of scales incorporated in these structures, urban and urbane.

The view from downriver toward this set of traditional buildings just beyond Waterplace spoke with equal force to the same principle of architectural camaraderie. The photograph (three shots above) by Richard Benjamin, a former photographer at the Providence Journal, looks like a painting, and not only because of the smattering of happy clouds in the sky over the horizon. Shot in 2000 near dusk at the outset of a WaterFire (more later on this phenomenon), the three traditional buildings form a splendid backdrop to Bill Warner’s traditional infrastructure at Waterplace Park. Had the Capital Center Commission continued to plan the district’s future based on a reverence for its past, Providence would have found itself blessed by the most unique new urban center in the annals of modern American planning.


The remainder of Chapter 20 will describe the third phase of Capital Center building design, which is composed – hold your nose! – of modernist glass towers.

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Capital Center Plan, cont.

The famous napkin from Blue Point Oyster Bar with sketches that do not include moving the Providence River, unless that is the sketch beneath the wine splotch. (Friedrich St. Florian)

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.

Plan to move the channel of the confluence of Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket rivers to create room for Memorial Boulevard to squeeze around edge of Financial District. (WDWAP)

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!)

Bill Warner’s illustration of what the confluence of the Woonasquatucket (left) and Moshassuck (right) rivers might look like. An improvement over the current Citizens Bank building! (WDWAP)

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.

Bill Warner’s illustration of what the river between downtown and College Hill might look like. The I-195 bridge would be in the distance. It’s steel arch is visible downriver today. (WDWAP)

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.

Several of Bill Warner’s traditional bridge designs, including, from top, the Exchange River Bridge, the Waterplace Pedestrian Bridge, the General Pershing Bridge (at Waterplace) and the Pedestrian Concourse beneath Memorial Boulevard. (WDWAP)


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.

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The Capital Center Plan

Here this series of chapters from Lost Providence skips back to Chapter 18, “Capital Center Plan” to describe the origins of the plan, announced in 1978, to revitalize downtown by providing a new business district to rival the old downtown. Officials hoped it would lead to some of the new architecture that failed to emerge from the Downtown Providence 1970 plan (announced in 1961). A future chapter, “The Capital Center Build-Out,” is devoted to buildings of the Capital Center plan.


Even if the “Interface: Providence” plan disappeared down the rabbit hole too quickly, its legacy was stellar. Still, the legacy required another decade to gestate. Meanwhile, the next major downtown plan was announced in the late 1970s. This was the Capital Center Plan. Amtrak, the national passenger rail system that emerged from the decline and insolvency of the Penn Central (Pennsy) Railroad Company, had decided to renovate the train stations along its Northeast Corridor lines. City and state officials working with Rhode Island’s congressional delegation persuaded Amtrak to redefine “renovation” in this case as moving the tracks and rebuilding the Providence station at the foot of Smith Hill, across Gaspee Street from State House Park. The time had arrived to get rid of the Chinese Wall.

Aerial view of land set off for the new Capital Center, filled with raiload tracks and crumbling parking lots. (Historic American Buildings Survey)
Aerial view of Capital Center after initial development in 2005. Neither Waterplace Park (center) nor eopening the Woonasquatucket River, were not conceived as part of the original plan.
This aerial view  shows some of the later buildings in the district. GTECH’s edge is at far left. Providence Place mall is totally off the left edge. (

It is fun and maybe even edifying to compare the machinations that resulted in filling the old Cove Casin full of railroad trackage in the 1890s with the Rube Goldberg device of city, state, federal, corporate and institutional relationships that led, almost a century later, to the tracks’ eviction from the gulch in which the Capital Center was built. A small group of unelected bureaucrats, consultants and businessmen maneuvered, waited and maneuvered some more until the moment was right to persuade elected officials, such as Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell – a notorious train buff – to sign off on an expenditure of $170 million ($165 million of which came from federal highway and rail agencies) that did an immense amount of good for the citizens of Providence, of Rhode island and, indeed, of New England and the nation as a whole.

This – not just slipping a ballot into a box – is democracy. Behind the scenes, movers and shakers did what was good for themselves and, perhaps, for voters. It might be argued that the same could be said of the different set of movers and shakers in the 1890s. Perhaps three hundred trains a day through Providence at the height of its industrial ambition was a small price for a prosperity strong enough to carry the city through almost a century of economic decline. Perhaps this smacks too much of Voltaire’s “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” from his satirical novel Candide on the over-optimism of philosophers. Simply put, it is sometimes difficult to identify the line between the interests and the voters. Suffice it to say, as Francis Leazes and Mark Motte emphatically do in Providence: The Renaissance City, that moving the railroad tracks was crucial to revitalizing the city in the late twentieth century.

So, having buried the tracks, what could be more natural than to fill the void with a new suburban-style office and residential district? By 1979, the “modernization” of downtown and of College Hill had long since ground to a halt. so why not try again?! Lock and load!

This aerial view shows location of Providence Place mall more clearly and includes the first Westin Hotel of 1994 but not its 2008 tower addition. (Greater City: Providence)

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the nation’s pre-eminent architectural firm (modernism’s answer to the Gilded Age starchitects McKim, Mead & White), was hired to produce a master plan for Capital Center. Under the plan, land largely given over to railroad tracks and crumbled asphalt parking lots would be filled with low-rise modernist office blocks. Major retail was to be excluded so as to avoid stepping on the toes of Westminster Street. A centrally located pool forming a diamond was the plan’s only acknowledgement of the city’s rivers. The decking on the world’s widest bridge was left untouched.

A Capital Center Commission was formed in 1979, and a Design Review Committee was assigned to create guidelines for the new district. Those guidelines erected principles by which the regulation of building heights, setbacks, view corridors, signage and a full range of other matters could proceed. But it also included the following fateful declaration:

Beyond these principles, however, the Plan is reticent about mandates to architectural expression. Because it may take more than 20 years to develop the 60 acres, it seems inappropriate to dictate taste or preordain conformity over that much territory and that much time. The Plan grows out of a conviction that in the evolution of cities, design is not only a mirror of the present but an intricate and evolving reflection of all that the city has been.

Almost forty years later, the result confirms the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The architectural development of Capital Center passed through three awkward phases that might be loosely described as postmodernist, traditional and modernist. This development will be more specifically described in chapter 20. “[A] high value was placed” by the Capital Center Commission’s design panel, supposedly, “on sensitivity to the historic context of the district,” wrote Leazes and Motte. The historic context consisted of downtown, College Hill and the State House. Authorities of that era could be relied upon to genuflect before the god of context before sacrificing it.

Aerial photo of Memorial Square (aka “Suicide Circle”) shows WWI memorial of 1929 and decking over Providence River, circa 1960s. (Bruner Foundation)

But before the commission had the time to fail spectacularly in expressing its limp contextual sensitivity, another challenge arose. In addition to relocating the railroad tracks, the project envisioned adding a new highway interchange for traffic to exit from Route 95 into the planned new section of downtown. The interchange was to funnel traffic onto a broad avenue, with a meridian, called Memorial Boulevard. In the initial plan, the boulevard was to travel five hundred yards to Memorial Square, an intersection where seven roads met atop the decking near the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers at the head of the Providence River.

Memorial Square was originally called Post Office Square, after the building under which the two rivers met to form the third, all running through granite channels built long before. By 1979, Memorial Square was known as “Suicide Circle.” Vehicles hurtled from those seven roads into a roundabout encircling a columnar World War I monument, designed by Paul Philippe Cret and completed in 1929. For five decades, vehicles and pedestrians hazarded this convoluted crossing. The new Route 95 interchange would multiply the traffic entering Suicide Circle. A series of ideas from various official and unofficial quarters to deal with this impending chaos included a city proposal to finish covering up the rivers.

In the lore of the Providence renaissance, a napkin looms large.


The conclusion of Chapter 18, “Capital Center Plan,” coming up on this blog soon, will describe the napkin that looms large. And how the problem of dumping traffic from I-95’s new exit onto Memorial Boulevard and into Suicide Circle was solved.

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“We hate that,” cont.

Westminster Street, reprogrammed to open Westminster Mall to vehicular street. (Visit Rhode Island)

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.

Westminster Street, circa 1901, showing trolleys and profusion of awnings. (

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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Chapter 19, “We hate that”

View of Old Stone Square (1984) from Turk’s Head Building (1913), site of author’s Turk’s Head Club luncheon with Journal publisher Michael Metcalf in 1984. (Photo by author)

I decided to go with Chapter 19, “We Hate That” because how could you tease readers with such a headline and then go with Chapter 18, “Capital Center Plan”? Well it would have been wrong. So this is the first half of “We Hate That,” and let’s get right to it to find out what “that” might be, as if one could not guess from the photo above, not to mention if not if not from foreknowledge of my own hatred for a certain building – overtaken, in time, of course, by the GTECH building.


In the fall of 1984, I was standing next to Michael Metcalf, publisher of the Providence Journal, at a window looking east toward College Hill from the Turk’s Head Club, on the eleventh floor of the Turk’s Head Building, erected in 1913. It was the day Metcalf offered me a job on the newspaper’s editorial board. He pointed out the window and, in his gentle voice, said, “We hate that.”

I did not need to be told what “that” referred to.

It was Old Stone Square, newly erected by the development arm of Old Stone Bank and designed by celebrity architect Edward Larrabee Barnes of New York. Metcalf pointed at the eleven-story square building looming against the backdrop of College Hill, with big square spaces cut out of its huge square mass from the lobby entrance and from the opposite upper quadrant of the building. It stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. It did not start out this way. It was originally to be a pair of shorter buildings flanking a plaza, through which would be visible the dome of the Old Stone Bank. Its look was to have been postmodern, somewhat squishy but identifiably traditional, even Georgian. Its key defect in the eyes of its leading opponents, however, was to mask views of all but a sliver of historic South Main Street as seen from corporate suites on the upper floors of downtown towers across the river.

The Providence Preservation Society, by then a recognized pillar of the city’s business establishment, vociferously opposed the initial postmodernist design but, after some Old Stone pushback and a redesign of the building, became more ambivalent.

David Macaulay, an author and illustrator of books on architecture, spoofed the design in a cartoon published on June 13, 1982, in the Providence Sunday Journal, riffing off Old Stone’s new corporate brand, Fred Flintstone.

Mayor Cianci stepped in to negotiate a compromise, which involved the new design by Barnes. The result was not as wide but much taller than the two buildings of the original design. It sits on the southern half of the lot with a park on the northern half. It did not hide as much of South Main Street’s historic frontage as the original proposal, but it was starkly modernist. Squares of light and dark gray gridded its square façades, not unlike the pattern on a box of Ralston-Purina cat chow. Why suddenly such an angry confrontation with its historical context? It seemed to me that a desire on the part of the Old Stone rainmakers for revenge against the preservationists might have been part of the answer.

In 1999, after years of failure to ferret out an admission of revenge as a factor in the design of Old Stone Square, I visited Old Stone’s lead developer, Scott Burns, at a café in the Chelsea district of London. He, too, refused to confirm my suspicions, and I have allowed them to fester undisturbed ever since.

And yet, the years following Old Stone Square’s erection saw an efflorescence of new traditional architecture that seemed to come out of nowhere. It did not come out of nowhere. I cannot pinpoint the wellspring of this shift, but I can point to evidence of its appearance on the Providence stage.

Old Journal Building (1908) covered in modernist faux facades circa 1955. Originally a J.J. Newberry Co. atore, thereafter a Thom McAnn shoe store. (Providence Public Library)

Strong hints of a reaction against the modernist conceits of the downtown Providence 1970 plan and the College Hill study came one after another in the 1970s and 1980s. The mayor’s Office of Community Development instituted a program to finance small projects, such as helping building owners remove faux modernist (“ugly is just skin deep”) façades erected in the 1950s and 1960s, especially along Westminster Mall, the Old Journal Building being a prime example. The Providence Preservation Society expanded its attention to preserving historic fabric throughout the city, but focused even more on downtown. Mayor Cianci joined preservationists and the business community to ensure that the Wilcox Building – one of the grand dames of Weybosset Street – was restored after a fire in 1975. Cianci, Outlet chief Bruce Sunlun and publisher Metcalf of the Journal managed to resuscitate the Biltmore Hotel (1922) in 1979 after three years of closure. Cianci also led an effort to block the demolition of Loew’s Theater (1928) and then to restore it as the Providence Performing Arts Center. The Majestic (1917) was renovated as the Lederer, a live venue for the Trinity Square Repertory Company.

Wilcox Building, center, was restored after a fire in 1975. See Arcade at left.  (Author’s photo)

The Arcade (1828), which had almost been razed in 1944, was purchased by Gilbane Properties and restored in 1980 by Irving Haynes, who had just restored City Hall and was present for the famous napkin doodle of 1981. Johnson & Wales College started buying and fixing up old buildings for its widely dispersed downtown campus, including the Burrill Building (1891), long the Gladding’s department store. Paolino Properties, after demolishing the Hoppin Homestead Building, turned from whacking old buildings for parking lots to renovating old buildings for new and more hopeful pursuits. In fact, despite their good works, J&W and Paolino Properties vied in the public mind for the role of “evil landlord,” alleged nefarious owners of the entire downtown.

Mayor Cianci, who died in 2016, may be the most controversial figure in Providence’s history since Roger Williams, or at least since Thomas Dorr. His two administrations straddled a 1984 conviction for assault. Still, he would kiss a pig for a vote, attend the opening of an envelope and was tops at talking up Providence or locating hidden pots of money for this or that project. And yet, the civic renaissance gathering steam during Cianci’s second administration (1991–2002) made progress as much in spite of as because of his leadership. Keeping Cianci’s hand out of a project’s pocket made already complex developments harder to manage politically. His reputation alone probably kept some entrepreneurs from investing in Providence. his shady dealings, suspected by many, emerged only during his 2002 corruption trial, where he was convicted of conspiracy, a single count among a score or so of charges. It may be fair to say that, in spite of his professed love for the city and his adept cheerleading for its revival, he hurt it as much as he helped it.

But as the city entered the 1980s, all that was in the future.

Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., mayor, 1975-1984, 1990-2002, with and without his famous “rugs.” Lower left, Cianci gestures to “his city” in iconic photograph.


And the next post, the remainder of Chapter 19, “We Hate That,” will describe the buildings and civic architecture saved and restored in the 1970s and ’80s, including Westminster Street, which was beautifully renovated by Mayor Paolino in the late 1980s.

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The Interface Plan, cont.

View of downtown from north of water feature near State House. (Author’s archives)

The second half of Chapter 17, “The Interface Plan,” opens with a continuation of comments on architectural trends in the early 1970s and then describes the Interface: Providence plan at some length, including several illustrations not included in Lost Providence. The “turmoil” referred to in the opening sentence below refers to the accurate critique of modernism by postmodern theorists, who nevertheless refused to follow up their critique with anything beyond a sort of cartoonish classical decoration of modernist boxes.


Amid the turmoil, which lasted for about a decade and amounted to nothing, the postmodernists’ assault on modern architecture did create a small opening for architects interested in reviving the traditional building practices that had been declared null and void by the modernists.

The history and technique of classical architecture and its traditional brethren had been expunged from the curricula of every school of architecture in America, but even as late as 1970, the growing accumulation of built modernism was surrounded by reminders of what might have been. Organizations arose to oppose modern architecture, such as Classical America, cofounded in 1968 by Central Park curator Henry Hope Reed, author of The Golden City. His book paired photographs of comparable modernist and traditional architecture; no words were required (not that he didn’t provide them anyway).

Penn Station in New York was demolished while jaws hung open among the elite in Manhattan. The preservation movement went on high alert. In 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial, the Providence Preservation Society celebrated its twentieth anniversary. But from the National Trust for Historic Preservation on down, they hesitated to challenge the reigning modernist orthodoxy.

Map of Interface:Providence Plan, from 1974. (Author’s archives)

Both major plans for the two most celebrated historic districts in Providence, downtown and College Hill, were steeped in modern architecture. Not so with the next major plan to emerge, “Interface: Providence,” published in 1974 after a study led by RISD professor Gerald Howes. Although initiated as a transportation study by way of a class project, it eventually became the first plan to uncover the city’s downtown rivers. Thus did it foreshadow the River Relocation Project of the 1990s.

Modernist residences and shops in Kennedy Plaza. (Author’s archives)

The Interface plan might also be characterized as neutral on the question of architectural style. That was a big step in the proper direction. Yes, it featured, in Kennedy Plaza, a small version on stilts (page 88) of Montreal’s Habitat ’67 – the stacked modular residential development designed by architect Moshe Safdie. But it also proposed a PRT – personal rapid transit – circulating through downtown on tracks raised above the street level by a “colonnade” of clearly traditional design (page 120). The plan’s gently quavering illustrations express a pleasure in the city’s built environment that is incompatible with plans to remove or cover up its longstanding architectural delights.

Personal rapid transit collonade on Weybosset Street. (Author’s archives)

The plan would not have removed the Chinese Wall. It would, however, have removed automobiles from downtown streets. Its two parking megastructures go unillustrated in the study, for some reason, though each multilevel parking garage was the size of the Financial District. Together they were to provide, at opposite edges of downtown, what curbside spots and sixty acres of existing parking lots provided in 1974. Those lots would have been re-dedicated as infill development opportunities but also as pocket parks in the plan’s extensive proposal for more green space. Above all, the plan would have daylighted the downtown rivers, even adding a large pond (called the “Cove Pond”) on the leafy grounds around the State House.

View of downtown from water feature near State House. (Author’s archives)
View of Hospital Trust Building over Providence River at base of College Hill. Note that WWI memorial remains at original location, with Suicide Circle removed. (Author’s archives)

After commenting on the extraordinary ability the downtown layout affords the average person to orient themselves geographically and to identify primary uses of downtown areas by their appearance, the authors state:

Few cities have this clarity of definition. Also the town has not prospered in the last forty years to a similar extent as other cities, and, while one might think at first sight that this is an unfortunate factor, it has not suffered within its business area from the mad scramble for land with its concomitant high- rise construction.

And while the Interface plan certainly has a “feel” congenial to those who consider the city’s historic architecture to be among its most important advantages, that quote is about the closest it comes to commenting on matters of architectural design. Because we all know about urban renewal and the towering sterility to which the words refer. And Rhode Islanders of that day – more than forty years ago now [in 2017] – had had these connotations pounded into them by a pair of earlier civic plans astonishing in their insensitivity to the city’s architectural heritage.

By 1974, downtown had been built black and blue by the brutal (and occasionally Brutalist) buildings of the period. Beginning with the Fourth Howard Building in 1959, there were in quick succession Dexter Manor (1962), the (Sabin Street) Bonanza Bus Terminal (1963), the Regency (1966), the Blue Cross-Blue Shield (now city planning) Building (1966), the Fogarty Building (1967), Beneficent House (1969), the Textron Building (1969), One Weybosset Hill (1971), the Civic Center (1972), the Hospital Trust Tower (1973) and the Civic Center (1973), with the Garrahy Judicial Complex (1978) and Broadcast House (1979) soon to follow.

View down College Street over river into downtown. (Author’s archives)

Perhaps Interface reflected the dismay that must have been in the air after such a bout, however much people welcomed the attendant jobs and spending. In fact, the Interface plan’s reputation, like that of so much else, comes down to us as a single idea. For the College Hill study, that has been “Saved Benefit Street.” For the downtown Providence 1970 plan, that has been “Never Happened, Thank God.” For Interface, it is “First to Uncover the Rivers.” Reputation does not always align with actual legacy, but in the case of Interface (virtually none of which was implemented) it did. And too bad it was not implemented. Without assessing its practicalities – especially the PRT and the elimination of cars from the central business district – it was an alluring plan.


Still trying to decide what chapter from Lost Providence to reprint next, whether to reprint Chapter 18, “Capital Center Plan,” or skip to Chapter 19, “We Hate That.”

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The Interface Plan of 1974

The second half of Chapter 17, “The Interface Plan,” from Lost Providence, tells the story of the plan produced by the Rhode Island School of Design students under Prof. Gerald Howes. It was the first plan to open up the city’s rivers. But the first half of the chapter sets the stage for the second half. It describes the activity of Providence in the 1950s, and speculates that suburban flight might have been caused as much by the steps proposed by the city to stop it as by anything else.


The failures of the College Hill and Downtown Providence 1970 plans instituted a decade or two of chin-pulling among the civic elites charged with doing something about the exodus of business and shoppers from downtown, and of residents from the city. Its population had declined from a historic high of 253,504 in 1950 to 179,116 in 1970. [It was 190,101 as of 2020.] Yet look at 1953, not long before planners began to contemplate ripping the core out of downtown and building it anew. Reporter Thomas Morgan of the Providence Journal looked backward to 1953 from the perspective of 1993. He described the vigor of downtown life in one one of those memorable articles that feature lists of old restaurants, clubs, movie houses and stores long gone. Writing of that year’s Christmas season, Morgan paints a lurid scene of downtown activity:

They came from the north. They came from the south. The result was a seething, pushing, creeping, jostling mass of humanity that choked the revolving doors, elevators and escalators and set up a continuous ringing of cash register bells.

Truly? In downtown Providence? Many Rhode islanders still recall “going down city” to shop. Granted, the streets may have been too crowded with cars, but isn’t that the sort of problem many cities today wish they had? Well, if Providence did have such a problem, it embraced a solution that created far worse problems.

It is always assumed that the decline of Providence resulted from the movement of families into the suburbs, who were then followed by business, shopping, industry and other commerce, which further fed the population exodus. More than a kernel of truth exists in that scenario, but it is possible that urban flight was intensified rather than diminished by the steps taken to resist it by the city, state and federal governments.

Clearance for Route 95 edges past the Rhode Island State House in 1963. (

By the middle of the 1940s, plans were moving forward to clear large residential districts encircling most of downtown to make way for highways. These plans were not secret. Battalions of bulldozers tend to concentrate the minds of homeowners. With cheap federal mortgages and G.I. loans to help families relocate, with highways planned to make it easier to commute to and from downtown, and with well-publicized plans to demolish much of downtown and refurbish the remains in unfamiliar ways, it might be a bit of a surprise if, by the 1950s and 1960s, the suburbs were not gaining population at the expense of the city.

About the only migration into the city was from Boston. The Raymond Patriarca crime family made Providence the headquarters of the New England mob, run for thirty years out of a vending-machine company on Federal Hill. The mob’s grip on the city was rubbed out by the state police in the 1980s and ’90s. “Mobsters and Lobsters” remains a popular Rhode Island sobriquet.

Again, it may be easy to hypothesize in retrospect, but might the various plans and prospects for downtown and College Hill have seemed sufficiently dodgy, in the non-expert mind, to cast a pall over expectations for Providence? To imagine so is not far-fetched.

By the early 1970s, it was long clear that what had been done to implement the downtown and College Hill plans was not reversing urban out-migration by people or institutions, and that most of what had been planned was not going to happen. At that point it might have been difficult for most people to perceive that this was a good thing.

How to stop suburban flight was a topic facing the nation. And yet the conversation seemed to reflect rather than to resolve the problem’s complexity. But one discussion, seemingly unconnected, would prove very helpful. On a national level, many architects could see that their industry was creating products that were failing to win the hearts and minds of the public. Under the banner of the postmodern movement, practitioners and theorists challenged the modern movement’s shibboleths, including the inelegant architecture that arose from its “form follows function” mantra. In the 1970s, Robert Venturi, Vincent Scully, Michael Graves and other renegades rejected the academic formalism of the International Style, as early modernism was known. Their arguments were sound, even obvious, but they had no effect.

Tom Wolfe, acclaimed originator of “the New Journalism,” in the introduction to From Bauhaus to Our House, tries to understand how a form of architecture so widely disliked could gain a chokehold on elite society in America. Why, he wonders, do the top executives of growing companies move into modernist buildings they dislike: “Without a peep they move in! – even though the glass box appalls them all.”

Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch-high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors — and hires a decorator and gives him a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn these mean cubes and grids into a horizontal fantasy of a Restoration townhouse. I have seen carpenters and cabinetmakers and search-and-acquire girls hauling in more cornices, copings, pilasters, carved moldings, and recessed domes, more linenfold paneling, more (fireless) fireplaces with festoons of fruit carved in mahogany on the mantels, more chandeliers, sconces, girandoles, chestnut leather sofas, and chiming clocks than Wren, Inigo Jones, the brothers Adam, Lord Burlington, and the Dilettanti, working in concert, could have dreamed of.

Wolfe proceeds to describe the debate among architects about what to do, writing with his patented verve:

In any event, the problem is on the way to being solved, we are assured. There are now new approaches, new movements, new isms: Post-Modernism, Late Modernism, Rationalism, participatory architecture, Neo-Corbu, and the Los Angeles Silvers. Which add up to what? To such things as building more glass boxes and covering them with mirrored plate glass so as to reflect the glass boxes next door and distort their boring straight lines into curves.

The postmodernists did not follow the obvious alternative of returning to the traditional vernaculars and classical orders of the architectural establishment the modernists had overthrown. Instead, they decked out the modernists’ glass-and-steel boxes with cartoon renditions of traditional ornament and called the result “ironic.” The modernist establishment easily squelched the revolution with a jujitsu move of sublime panache: architects twisted their principles (such as remained after the postmodernist assault) from the tedious to the ridiculous, trading in their supposedly functionalist conceits for wacky new designs seemingly intended to astonish the public (or at least the editors of architecture magazines) by appearing to challenge the laws of nature, physics and gravity.

And yet, groans Wolfe, the CEOs kept coming back:

All at once they are willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture.

And why? They can’t tell you. They look up at the barefaced buildings they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can’t figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt.


The next installment of this series will reprint the second half of Chapter 17, which deals more directly with the Interface: Providence plan. It will include images from the plan not included in the book.

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Delay foils NYC megaproject?

rendering of proposed Eighth Avenue facade of Penn Station. (Nova Concepts/Richard Cameron)

Crain’s New York, the financial newspaper, reports that Vornado Realty Trust has announced it is delaying its plan to build ten skyscrapers in the near vicinity of Pennsylvania Station. “The headwinds in the current environment are not at all conducive to … development,” Vornado’s Steven Roth told Crain’s yesterday. That is a delay, not a cancellation, to be sure, but today’s delay often becomes tomorrow’s cancellation.

Because that news is so good, I have interrupted this blog’s reprinting of chapters from my book Lost Providence. The series will resume with my next post.

The Empire Station Complex project, as the state megaproject is known, would use lease money from ten new towers to raise money to pay for renovating Penn Station. The plan has raised almost universal opposition by those in the city who see it as urban renewal most New Yorkers thought had disappeared in the 1960s and 70s. As such, it would demolish at least a dozen historic buildings and displace thousands of workers and residents. However, it had been considered a done deal in the real-estate community. Yesterday’s news may change that.

The delay certainly must improve chances that the state will entertain alternate proposals to the so-called  Empire Station Complex. Perhaps the best plan, known as ReThink Penn Station, would rebuild along the lines of Charles Follen McKim’s original Penn Station design, completed in 1910 and demolished in the 1960s. The underground station that resulted from that blockhead decision has served passengers and New York poorly for decades. The ReThink Penn Station plan would relocate the Madison Square Garden sports arena from atop the station and adopt a modern “through-running” regional rail system to end its current terminal status, which hinders system efficiency.

Sixty percent of New Yorkers prefer a plan that would include rebuilding Penn Station, just as two of three (or more) American prefer traditional design. As historian Vincent Scully said after the original station was demolished, “We entered the city as gods; now we scuttle in like rats.” A more uplifting entry into the world’s greatest city can happen if we want it to. It is above all a political decision. Yesterday’s news may help promote that possibility.

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The College Hill Study, cont.

Illustration of proposed modernist infill development on College Hill. (Author’s archives)

Here is the second half of Chapter 16, “The College Hill Study,” from Lost Providence. The study’s proposals, released in 1959, would have replaced much of the fabled district’s historical houses with modernist infill, although most of the houses condemned as examples of “blight” were eminently salvageable, as history demonstrated. Many now sell for millions. Yet the study has been mischaracterized for decades to disguise its true identity as more of the failed conventional wisdom of urban renewal – also proposed simultaneously for downtown Providence and cities throughout the nation.


The history of extensive private investment in restoring old houses on College Hill puts the lie to claims in the College Hill study, backed by supposedly detailed analysis, that many old houses were not worth saving. Maps on pages 98 and 100 of the study show specific structures and specific areas that were judged, respectively, to be “substandard” and “slum.” That these were eventually fixed up and rose in value suggests a bias in the study’s assessment of “blight.” The language of the assessment criteria is extensively couched in terms of rehabilitating structures; it is largely left unsaid that those structures that did not rack up enough points were likely to be targeted for clearance – and replaced with structures entirely insensitive to their surroundings.

Beatrice O. “Happy” Chace led an effort to buy fifteen and, eventually, forty old houses on and near Benefit, fix up their exteriors and sell them for a song to families who would restore or renovate the interiors according to their own preferences. Others followed her lead. Antoinette Downing, even as she helped to develop the analytical tools whose use is pilloried in this chapter, advised the private preservation effort. By 1980, some $20 million had been invested in restoring about 750 old houses on College Hill, more than half of the total number of houses in the study area.

Downing and Happy Chace are the real heroes of Benefit Street and College Hill, with a supporting cast drawn from the city’s leading preservation organizations, including many members representing Rhode Island’s first families. How a plan so contrary to their belief in preservation managed to be written and adopted beggars the imagination. Eventually, under Mayor Cianci’s first administration in the mid-1970s, the municipality turned against urban renewal and toward preservation. It created, for example, a new program in the mayor’s office of community development to help building owners undo the faux façades that the downtown Providence 1970 plan and earlier municipal policies had urged or inflicted on that district.

College Hill study’s proposed redevelopment east of South Main Street. (Author’s archives)

The downtown plan was coy in its textual references to the architectural shift it had in store, not seeming to mind that its illustrations let the cat out of the bag. Likewise, the College Hill study’s text was coy in describing the aesthetic shift it was recommending and equally unconcerned about illustrating it. The study’s summary points out that “the architectural designs of the planning proposals attempt to show how contemporary design can complement existing groupings of buildings of a past era.” It is difficult to reconcile the illustrations in the study with that goal. No reconciliation of old and new is shown, let alone explained or justified in words, except by naked assertion. Perhaps the closest the study comes to an attempt to justify such a goal is in a description of the South Tower planned for Benefit Street:

In the conception of this building, the project makes a break with the past in such a way that the structures of each era are clear expressions of individual integrity. (Page 148)

So the tower and its traditional neighbors express a sort of complement-by-contrast? Only in its condescension to the public’s continuing reverence for historic styles does the study abandon generalities. Regarding the scarcity of contemporary design on College Hill, the study is unable to resist thumbing its nose:

Most of the twentieth century domestic building [on College Hill] has been of mixed character with Colonial Revival predominating. Only one or two houses have been designed in the contemporary idiom. (Page 35)

Rhode Island building of the twentieth century continued in an eclectic path and in this respect is not representative of contemporary architectural concepts. (Page 38)

A few rather minor College Hill buildings have been executed in the contemporary idiom, although contemporary building modes are still suspect in conservative modern Providence. (Page 39)

A new Computing Laboratory at Brown is currently being designed by Philip Johnson. It will be the first Brown University building to reflect today’s approach to architectural concepts. (Page 70)

Get with the program, Providence! A passage from the study on page 187 reads:

Detailed studies of the structures in the area confirm the fact that College Hill does not have a concentration of any one style as is the case in many other cities that have enacted historic area controls. This fact emphasizes the validity of the statement that it makes no sense to prevent the design and construction of any one style of architecture.

And yet every style except for contemporary modernism had been excluded from recommendations by the study for new infill construction.

The passage quoted from page 187 is entirely incoherent. The fact is that the design element of the plan as a whole did not, in the eyes of the planners, need to make sense. It was assumed that there would be no critical analysis of any aesthetic judgment in the study from the design community, let alone civic leaders or the public – the latter were clearly expected to remain mute in the face of all this expert opinion. These expectations were largely borne out.

Proposal, for the renovation of the Golden Ball Inn was clearly modernist. (Author’s archives)

The planners’ attitudes resulted in errors of assessment. The errors fall into two main categories. First is the exclusion of houses built after 1830 from consideration as of primary or even secondary importance, as described in the “Categories of Building Priority” on page 80. This omitted many historic Victorian and revival-style buildings from the primary and secondary lists of buildings worth preservation rather than clearance. The second error is the grouping together of two necessarily separate categories of twentieth- century architecture. On page 78, a chart codes as blue all structures in the final category of architectural periods “modern: 1900 to date.” This lumps six decades’ worth of traditional buildings in a range of styles – neoclassical, eclectic, revivalist, regional, etc. – together with contemporary modernist styles, mostly of later vintage. More and more modern architecture had been popping up in Providence for three decades by the time the study was published in 1959; more and more, to be sure, but given the tut-tutting by the study’s authors, not nearly enough.

The production and public release of the College Hill study were generally coterminous with the production and release of the downtown Providence 1970 plan. Both plans embraced the conventional wisdom of their time. Both sacrificed patterns of urbanism and design that had evolved incrementally over centuries in favor of massive experimental dislocations based on untested planning and design theories that are viewed with suspicion by most people and had, by then, generally failed at every level of implementation over half a century. Both plans would have continued to deck over the Providence River.

The redevelopment proposals of both plans were abandoned with little or no acknowledgment of error. And redevelopment proposals that were implemented had minimal impact on Providence – almost all of which was detrimental to the city and its residents. But without diminishing the College Hill plan’s accomplishments outside the realms of planning and design, it has, unlike the downtown plan, a much better reputation in today’s public consciousness than it deserves.

In the early 1970s, the city sought to burnish the tourist allure of Benefit Street by bricking its sidewalks and replacing its highway-style steel cobra-head lampposts with historic posts reminiscent of gas lighting. “This is not preservation,” wrote Ada Louise Huxtable after a visit to Providence, “this is Las Vegas.” As the architecture critic of the New York Times, she was entitled to her opinion, but clearly she lacked the will to acknowledge traditional architecture’s potentially constructive role in a historic city. One naturally harks back to H.P. (“I am Providence”) Lovecraft’s letter to the editor of the Providence Journal in 1929 defending the Old Brick Row. Of the tendencies that dominated the currents of change even then, he wrote:

The side of tradition, which finds the soundest beauty in the retention of forms and proportions evolved from the continuous history of a proud old seaport, is well-nigh unrepresented; all the commentators apparently taking for granted the cruder, flashier ideal of a stridently modernized city of pompous vistas and spruce, mid-Western architectural luxury—not a haven to charm the connoisseur of richly mellow old-world lanes, but a tungsten-drenched midway to lure the hard-boiled buyer from Detroit, or a scenic flourish in deference to Seattle and Los Angeles aesthetes attuned to a futuristic Chicago.

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