Providence Preservation Society: To Protect, Serve, & Preserve

This is a 5-paragraph piece (read: brief enough to miss many worthwhile points) from a young practitioner in a tangentially-related field (read: I’m not a preservation expert), in response to architectural critic David Brussat’s recent thoughts about the role of preservation and the Providence Preservation Society.

First, I share the idea that contemporary cities would do well to build more buildings with traditional design principles. We should both save existing historic fabric and take time to learn from and extend its success with new, well-considered, contextual structures. This doesn’t mean that “modern” design has no place in the city, but aggressive design within a historic neighborhood can, (just like cheap traditional design), eventually erode the architectural integrity of that place. The distinct, built character of a city is one of its greatest social and economic assets. This seems best protected by not letting the city become a museum of untouchable historic buildings nor a blank canvas for unbridled architectural expression — while allowing new buildings and additions to use the same architectural language as their neighbors. A preservation society is vital to this endeavor.

Each year a new vintage of structures becomes eligible for historic preservation, and buildings from the 1950's, 60's, and 70's are beginning to enter the conversation. Many of these buildings, particularly of the “Brutalist” ilk, are not beloved by the general public in the way that buildings from the 19th and earlier 20th century are, so the conversations become more complicated. This makes the question “why preserve” all the more crucial for both industry specialists and the broader public to engage with critically. I feel strongly that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to what (or why) we should preserve. I agree that saving a building which doesn’t contribute to a beautiful or productive public realm only because it’s an example of a specific era risks turning the city into an unwieldy exhibition space — but given the immense environmental toll of demolition and new-construction, creatively re-skinning and adapting an unloved 1950’s office building may actually be more responsible (though not always possible).

The public realm of a city belongs to its people, and like all democratic opportunities, opinions vary. Majority decisions about this realm made by an under-informed public could be dangerous. I think this is where a good Preservation Society comes in — not in the role of “dictator,” but as a “facilitator” and “informed arbitrator.” They can offer education and resources to those involved in the decision-making process; provide opportunities for critical conversations to take place about the value of building preservation to the city; illustrate through awards, tours, and open-houses excellent examples of responsible, creative preservation that reinforces a city’s character; and organize advocacy efforts to reach politicians, zoning boards, developers, and funding agencies.

I have only been a resident of Providence for 2–1/2 years, but in that time I’ve witnessed the Providence Preservation Society (under the leadership of Brent Runyon) do significant work in all of those areas, hardly with a bias against Providence’s traditional buildings. This includes: standing with the West Broadway Neighborhood Association in providing critical feedback for a suburban-styled new development on the west side (despite the unfortunate use of the phrase “architecture that is decidedly of its time” — see here for my thoughts on that phrase), mounting a hard-fought effort to save the Southwest Pavilion at the Rhode Island Hospital, advocating for a more community-oriented 6–10 connector as part of the Fix the 6–10 Coalition, hosting a sold-out lecture series with Mack Woodward discussing the history behind Providence’s distinct built-environment, advocating for the extension of the College Hill Local Historic District, and using their annual 10 Most Endangered Properties list to build public awareness around saving important but often-unknown buildings and districts (notably all of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 properties are traditional buildings), not to mention sponsoring or co-sponsoring countless regional events and conferences that allow conversations about preservation to occur.

It is true that PPS has not singlehandedly been able to stop some recent buildings going up which don’t contribute to Providence’s distinct character (Brown’s new engineering building, anyone?), but in many cases PPS doesn’t have the legal standing, nor unlimited resources, to undertake this effort. I would contend that all of the work mentioned above amounts to a Society that is hardly twiddling its thumbs on the sidelines when it comes to advocating for preservation’s role in improving our city — imagine the fate of Providence without their previous 60 years of work! I hope the conversation about their priorities in preserving and extending the unique, lovable qualities of Providence (particularly as we consider the fertile I-195 land) will continue with a variety of voices at their upcoming symposium and beyond.