Providence is a film set. Its two-dimensional skyline reads like a greatest-hits list of the last century’s architectural design principles—the 1913 Turk’s Head building and its resemblance to Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron building. The 1919 Renaissance revivalism of the Hospital Trust building. The beaux-arts tackiness of the 1922 Biltmore. The 1927 art deco Bank of America building, which was not, as it turns out, the basis for Superman’s Daily Planet. The city has architecture to spare, but it’s not founded in any cohesive time period. Downtown sprawls out into old factories, into Victorian and colonial homes on College Hill and the West Side. Everywhere is history.
“It’s like a toy city. It’s like a city from a train set,” said James Hall, the executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to saving the buildings of Providence’s past. “It’s knowable. Like a perfect, small museum.”
“That encourages ownership,” he said. “It’s not known for much else now... Architecture is one of the only things we’ve got.”
Hall is right—it’s been a rough century for Providence. Once the shipping capital of the nation, then the site of its first mill and an industrial juggernaut, Providence was a place where things happened first, and in early 20th century, it threw its skyline together like any other city destined for greatness: fast, cheap, and unplanned. Providence brought sterling-silver cutlery and costume jewels to the masses. High-profile organized crime ran it for 50 years. The city always had a knack for shams, for fronts, for looking like something that it wasn’t, exactly.
How does one preserve the architectural character of a place like that?
Industrial decline and the Depression hit the city hard. Its story, since then, has been one of fitful recuperation. People won’t come back. The money won’t come back.
The first attempt to rehabilitate Providence (and there have been many, under many names, all failures) came in the years after World War II. Providence was ailing—it lost 17 percent of its residents between 1950 and 1960, the highest rate of attrition in the country.
“The US had just saved the free world,” said Hall. “There was a sense of the future.” The government turned to saving its cities. Its tool was modernist architecture—the new movement in the US that favored clean lines, flat roofs, synthetic materials; that flouted history in favor of progress; that meant everything from ranch-style glassy houses to imposing concrete brutalist monoliths. It was cantilevered balconies and form that bespoke function. It was the utilitarian cleanliness of the future. The Urban Renewal Administration, famous for its slum clearance programs, gave Providence a grant to raze old neighborhoods and build new ones with these principles—the misguided idealism that gave birth to Pruitt-Igoe and the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The URA relocated Providence’s highway to cut right through the city, so that suburbanites could get off anywhere to go to work. This was standard practice.
But Providence got a second URA grant, thanks to the 1956 formation of the PPS—one to save Benefit Street, home to the city’s oldest buildings, including its Victorians, which were, at the time, resoundingly out of style.
“Providence was unique in that respect,” says Hall. “It set the trend for including preservation in the renewal mix.”
The reports that resulted from these grants—1959’s “College Hill: A demonstration grant study of historic area renewal” and 1961’s “Downtown Providence 1970”—overlap more than you’d expect: preservationists wanted a city that could be both old and new, and modernists, usually dismissive of history, built Providence with context in mind. Their buildings abound in the city, if you know where to look.
On its creative capital website, Providence calls Benefit Street the city’s “Mile of History,” brags that it is “densely packed with beautifully maintained historic properties… that are sure to impress both historians and casual tourists.”
But Benefit is not so much a well-preserved remnant of industrial wealth in Providence as it is an imagining of what that wealth might have looked like. By the ’50s Benefit was dangerous, fit the bill as a slum. The Urban Renewal Administration wanted to level it. A group of wealthy Providence women formed the Providence Preservation Society to stop that—they saw value in the street’s decay. “This is a town of great patriotism,” Hall said, “and we were looking back to our colonial past as this rosy time… Those buildings had to do with Americanism and patriotism.” While the PPS rallied, in fact, the Rockefellers commissioned Colonial Williamsburg’s architects to restore the First Baptist Church—there was something inauthentic to history in Providence.
But unlike Williamsburg, the PPS was “making a neighborhood for people to live in,” Hall said. “Specific people, that is.”
PPS published “College Hill” in 1959. It outlined a calculated plan to reshape Benefit Street as a gem, so that “architecturally valuable houses which have been allowed to become slum dwellings can be rehabilitated in a renewal scheme and changed from neighborhood liabilities to important civic assets.” This meant erecting horse-posts, placing plaques. It meant demolishing triple-deckers that housed factory workers and immigrants, demolishing an entire mill complex on the north end of the street. It meant and relocating old houses from all over the city to line up neatly alongside each other.
Success would be an understatement. Legend has it that Happy Chace, a wealthy housewife, bought 12 Victorians on Benefit, installed plumbing, painted them bright colors, and promptly resold them. The project placed PPS at the cutting-edge of preservation, as it were. Hence the lack of convenience stores on Benefit—they were razed. Hence the sense that, when you walk up College Hill, the confusion of the city calms itself into a period piece—it is one.
But the plan also made provisions for a Providence history of the future. It proposed that the defunct 1780s Golden Ball Inn be rebuilt as the Golden Ball Inn II, with a cocktail lounge and parking for 180 cars. The Inn was never built, but mock-ups depict tourists reading casually on its broad, checkered terrace overlooking the city. The exposed overhangs and support beams it proposes are hallmarks of midcentury design—a hotel of revamped modern luxury from which, the drawings show, a woman in sandals and a tweed suit might photograph the quaint steeples and gingerbread houses below.
“Downtown Providence 1970” came out two years after “College Hill.” It called for a city of the future, too, but saw the past as one of Providence’s many handicaps.
“The downtown area is now partially ringed by a high-speed expressway, and in the next few years the loop will be completed. This freeway will thus be a modern crossroads where drivers will decide whether to turn off and into Downtown Providence, or remain and travel further to another marketplace,” it reads. “The downtown Providence of 1970 will be determined by what the people in this area do in the future. The downtown Providence of today has been determined by what people have done in the past.”
The plan outlined a litany of modern goals for Providence—seven new multi-story garages, a helipad because “direct heliport access to the nerve center of the state is of obvious benefit.” High-rise apartment complexes for subsidized housing and a new Civic Center for “conventions such as Ice Capades.” Famous modernists—Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, I.M. Pei—were contracted. It was the last-first time that Providence spent big in the hopes of going big—since then, said Hall, the city has built “the architecture of reassurance—not challenging in any way.” Think of the blandness of the Westin. What does it look like, again?
The plan was influential, even though Providence could only afford pieces of it—a relocated train station that’s since been relocated again, a Providence Place Mall that wound up destroying small commerce downtown. The modernist plan for Providence backfired—it left the city emptier than ever. People kept driving when they passed it on the highways.
Much of “Downtown Providence 1970” has been destroyed, starting with Providence’s second revitalization effort in 1982, when modernism was just plain old: Philemon E. Sturges’s 1963 Bonanza Bus terminal, in all its futuristic spaceship glory, went down with the Convention Center and the Westin—its function was outmoded. A similar circular Gulf gas station went down in 2005. The Outlet Department Store, and its garage and skybridge after it. The JJ Newbury five-and-dime, once the elaborate beaux arts headquarters of the Providence Journal, was resurfaced with gridded teal metal and eventually destroyed. The diamond-shaped ridges of the IBM building on North Main has been resurfaced with red brick.
So what remains? You have to look. On Broad Street, for example, there’s Dexter Manor, a 1962 classic modernist high-rise in the style of Le Corbusier, and local modernist D. Thomas Russillo’s 1965 Boy Scouts of Narragansett County headquarters. Russillo built the edifice with sloped roofs, narrow windows, a long ranch style. This vestige of scout earnestness, its troop emblem inlaid into the floor of the building, has been vacant for several years. A “Will build to suit” adorns it.
So many of Providence’s modernist buildings are empty. The Fogarty building, which housed the state welfare office through the ’80s and bears an uncanny resemblance to DC’s FBI complex, is a late-modernist brutalist building that the PPS has campaigned heavily to save. The I.M. Pei plaza, Cathedral Square, housed the Catholic Chancery, its church and apartments all facing inward. It never got any traffic at all. “An example of failed modernism,” says Hall. It’s beautiful and empty.
“Mostly it’s the dorky optimism. The belief in technology, upward mobility, equality. All this stuff—the moon race, the auto industry, highways. The future, The Jetsons, new materials, new ways of building things, polyester… It was this myth that we were a classless society, than anyone could become president, anyone could go to college or get a better job. There’s an attraction to that belief—that anything is possible and nobody is holding me back but me.”
This, says Robert Stack, is why Providence now needs to save its modernist buildings, too: few as they may be, they mean something important to a city long defined by its decline—the last time the city built with its eyes on unlimited potential.
Stack founded Mid-Century Modern Rhode Island in 2011 as an organization devoted to preserving modernist buildings in and around Providence. It collaborates with PPS to highlight the city’s hidden modernism—the remnants of an architectural movement devoted to progress, to rejecting historical precedent for something that might, it was hoped, be better. Or else only slightly uglier.
In any case: now modernism is cool. “A lot of people credit Mad Men with creating this hype,” he said.
Modernist preservation groups exist in places like Palm Springs that are famous for their modernism, places where corrugated metal houses and glass walls first showed up in the US. But they are bizarre for an old New England town like Providence.
“On the surface,” Stack said, “It might seem ironic to be a preservationist of things that had no sense of the past.”
But all of Providence’s architecture might be said to exist this way—disconnected from time and context, and also defined by it—even its modernist buildings. While modernist buildings tended to deny history, in Providence they mixed metaphors—the Providence Public Library on Empire got a new wing in 1953, a steel structure with flat limestone surfaces and marble trimmings that clashed with the building’s 1896 Renaissance style. Philip Johnson’s List Art Center has a grid across it to match the Rockefeller Library and the Hay. Paul Rudolph, the brutalist who worked exclusively in concrete, built his one redbrick building in Providence—Beneficent House, a subsidized high-rise off Weybosset—to blend it sheepishly with the city around it. He hated it, but it’s unlike anything else he did.
Perhaps Providence modernism deserves saving for what Stack calls this “contextual” bent. Perhaps it’s worthy in and of itself. The paradox now is that forward-looking modernism is part of history. It is kitsch.
Now, the mid-century buildings that came out of Providence’s last glimmer of optimism cross the fifty-year threshold for eligibility in the National Historic Register. They begin to decay. Providence must decide if its well-preserved architectural history, its knack for looking like what it isn’t, includes a movement that came long past the city’s prime—a movement now too old to be new but still too new to be traditional. In the end Providence was never a modern utopia—no city was. The movement fits a place with a past in pretending.
David Brussat, the Providence Journal’s conservative architecture critic, wants modernist buildings in Providence eliminated: “I think they are ugly,” he wrote in an email to the Independent. Rather than preservation, “A camera and an architectural historian can save what needs to be saved of it. I would deny that they are important landmarks. They are landmarks, but not important ones.”
“There is not a lot of coherence in downtown’s style,” he said, “partly because the relatively small number of modernist buildings disrupts it. But the many traditional buildings are of many varieties, and they demonstrate the extent to which classicism introduces a commonality even among different traditional styles, and this results in a sort of variation on a theme that allows even diverse styles to play nicely together.” This coherence, Brussat’s reasoning goes, should be maintained because it makes Providence pleasant and beautification brings jobs back to the city.
Brussat and his allies see the rosy colonial past that inspired the PPS’s founders. “He’ll rail on that the color of streetlamps should be yellower because it reminds him more of Victorian London,” Hall said. But unlike Providence’s first preservationists, the architectural future and past are incompatible in his view.
There’s certainly a revitalized interest in modernism in the city—in 2011, the RISD School of Architecture published a biography of Ira Rakatansky, Providence’s first modernist, who designed homes on the East Side in the 1940s. They were boxy and windowed, with carports and frameless doors that melted into ceilings—novelties, weird homes for eccentric professors. They all remain.
The coherent eclecticism of Providence is a product of the passing of time—modernism will fit in the future. “Generationally, we tend to find our parents’ era questionable but embrace our grandparents’ and think it’s fashionable,” Hall said. “My generation didn’t care about modernism. I lived in a modern house but loved Victorian architecture. I used to think as a kid about adding a mansard roof to it. Your children will adore the architecture of your parents because it’s just distant enough to be cool and exotic.”
It’s cool, yes, but for Providence it means something. It means something for its copycat skyscrapers, its reconstructed streets, its failed revitalization. Providence’s modernism is not a blip in the city’s past like any other. It grew from the schizophrenic layout of the city at large. For the people who shaped Benefit it meant the future alongside the past. Now that its idealism rests tainted in history books, perhaps the question of preserving the city is how Benefit might look with its mills and triple-deckers intact.
MIMI DWYER B’13 was resurfaced with gridded teal metal and eventually destroyed.