What, Exactly, is Historic Preservation, Anyway? Depends Whom You Ask

The stylistic and temporal diversity of Thomas Street in Providence. (Nicholas Boke/ecoRI News photos)

The stylistic and temporal diversity of Thomas Street in Providence. (Nicholas Boke/ecoRI News photos)

By NICHOLAS BOKE

PROVIDENCE — It had all seemed pretty straightforward: the city liked its old buildings, so it had done its best to keep them standing and in good repair.

Oh, I knew there was more to it than that. Skimming the illustrated placards along the Providence River that describe the city’s history — the impact of shipping, the reliance on railroads, the 1938 hurricane, the bridges and the rebuilding of the bridges, the relocation of the rivers themselves, to say nothing of the complex relocation of Interstate 195 — it’s obvious that Providence has periodically undergone various, often monumental changes.

Tugged and twisted by local, regional, national, and international events and trends — to say nothing of its sometimes unsavory internal politics — Providence seemed a city sort of in search of itself.

Little did I know, however, when I stepped into Lippitt House on a mid-October evening to listen to former Providence Journal architecture columnist David Brussat discuss his new book “Lost Providence” just how many layers lay beneath the surface of my oversimplified understanding of the city.

Sure, I liked Providence, but I was a bit taken aback by Brussat’s remark that a photo of the Memorial Park statue with the courthouse and the spire of the First Unitarian church in the background was quite as uniquely beautiful as he made it out to be. Nor did his comparison of a photo of Westminster Street with one of a Paris backstreet convince me that Providence was at least as attractive as the French capital.

The ‘stark architecture’ of the RISD Museum.

The ‘stark architecture’ of the RISD Museum.

And then there was his reference to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum as “stark architecture,” saying it destroyed the beauty of the surrounding traditional architecture.

Destroyed the beauty? Really?

What was going on here, anyway?

I dug deeper.

Turns out that it had all begun with Antoinette Downing, who, inspired by the threats posed to some of College Hill’s old — but often rundown — buildings in the 1950s, was among the first in the country to take up the banner of historic preservation. Acting in keeping the movement that had begun with protests against the demolition of New York’s Penn Central Station, Downing had founded the Providence Preservation Society, had gotten College Hill designated as a historic district, and had found funding for a variety of preservation-oriented studies, including of College Hill’s buildings as well as those of downtown.

But Downing’s work was just the beginning. An updated 2010 plan titled “Providence Tomorrow: Our City; Our Neighborhoods; Our Future” describes eight historic districts, including several on the East Side, much of downtown, several on the South Side, and one abutting North Providence. And nothing goes on in any of these districts without the approval of the Providence Historic District Commission.

But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Experts discuss
On my way home from a ramble around the city a few days after the event at Lippitt House — Downing and Brussat were right: it is a lovely city, excellent for rambling — I passed a poster announcing “Sites and Stories: Mapping a Preservation Ecosystem” at the First Unitarian Church.

I made it just in time for “The Death and Life of American Planning: Building Our Future,” a panel discussion including Providence and Central Falls principal planners Allen Penniman and J. Trey Scott, respectively, as well as a historian and a professor of architecture. The discussion was moderated by Marisa Brown of Brown University’s Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.

Moderator Brown framed the discussion in the context of the rise of the historic preservation movement in response to the post-war urban renewal movement, which had bulldozed neighborhoods, replacing them with sterile high-rises that were criticized for their anti-humanness by Jane Jacobs in her seminal “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

Jacobs’ book, all panelists agreed, had influenced their thinking, though Penniman and Scott explained that planning has expanded to include more community input, especially in the case of the disadvantaged and minorities.

But it was Elihu Rubin, Yale University professor of architecture, whose final words resonated as I considered how to continue my investigation

“We can’t turn a city into a museum of itself,” he said. “We think that everything that’s already there is probably better than what will come next.”

Is that, I wondered, what had happened to Providence? Had it somehow turned itself into a historically Disneyland-ified version of itself?

No, Brown told me in a subsequent phone interview. But there certainly are a variety of points of view regarding what, exactly, historic preservation should mean, when it should be honored, and when another approach should be tried.

On the Providence waterfront, a power-plant-turned-academic-building thanks to adaptive reuse.

On the Providence waterfront, a power-plant-turned-academic-building thanks to adaptive reuse.

New Urbanism
Brown sent me, among other places, to the New Urbanism, represented locally by the New England chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). I spoke with newly appointed executive director Jen Vincent, who also serves as director of the Pawtucket Arts Festival.

“CNU is a national organization that works, in part,” she said, “as a think tank to help create walkable, equitable, sustainable, lovable cities and towns.”

The New England charter emphasizes its commitment to restoring pedestrian-friendly urban centers that are “diverse in use and population,” rich with public spaces and community institutions, and “framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice” that bring together members of various communities.

To Vincent, these commitments are all dependent on ways “to connect people of all backgrounds so planning processes can be made more accessible and legible.”

CNU’s focus, then, entails more than simply making sure that historic buildings are preserved.

As is that of RISD’s Interior Architecture Department.

Markus Berger, RISD teacher and founder of Design InsideOut, noted that interior architecture “is more about understanding the existing built environment” than it is about saving or altering a specific building or set of buildings.

“Architecture schools,” he said, “teach what’s assigned for accreditation. It has to be either new or old. When you have a project that involves an old building, you go to an architect, who wants to either preserve something or to demolish it and build something new.”

Adaptive reuse lies at the heart of this approach.

“It’s the idea of finding a new use for existing buildings and structures and allowing them to expand their lifetimes not just in function, but in values and aesthetics,” Berger said.

He cited the report of a RISD adaptive reuse studio on re-envisioning Newport’s Jane Pickens Theater & Event Center.

The title of the report? “Past. Present. Future.” The same sort of vision that has gone into the renovations of the old, waterfront power station that has been preserved and renovated for Brown University, the University of Rhode Island, and Rhode Island College.

“For me,” Berger said, “the problem with Providence is too often its architects are either pushing for something new, or keeping something old. It’s about the present as past, with no exchange between the present and the past to make a new future.”

Respect the environment
Martha Werenfels, a partner with DBVW Architects (Durkee, Brown, Viveiros and Werenfels), agreed with Berger’s concerns, and is committed to designing buildings that “enrich the urban fabric and respect the natural environment.”

She worries that some preservationists want everything to look the same.

“Look at the historic buildings in Providence,” she said. “They don’t all match. There’s that row along Thomas Street where the Art Club is. They’re all different stylistically and certainly different from the Baptist Church across the street. But they all work together and everybody loves that row of buildings.”

She boiled DBVW’s approach down into three categories of work in historic districts: historic preservation, along the lines of the work begun by Antoinette Downing; a middle area between historic preservation and adaptive reuse, “which allows a certain amount of change and requires a certain amount of adaptation”; and new construction.

It’s the latter point that generates the most debate, but, Werenfels explained, “We are of the point of view that the new can be built in these areas without looking old.”

Regarding this, she noted a 15-story apartment building going up in the College Hill Historic District, The Edge College Hill, at 169 Canal St. “It’s a modern building, but it fits,” she said. “I don’t think a building in a historic area has to look historic.”

She contrasted the good work being done by architectural innovators who remain sensitive to the existing built environment with a new college recently completed at Yale, which, she said, merely “mimics the old Gothic Revival colleges.”

“There are situations when this is appropriate,” Werenfels said. “Sometimes a building is so iconic, it makes sense. I’m a preservationist, but I firmly believe that a city that embraces preservation also can and should embrace new design.”

Don’t stray too far
Among those charged with making sure that renovations and new buildings don’t stray too far from the established standard is Robert Azar, deputy director of planning with the Providence Department of Planning and Development.

Citing Providence’s long experience with historic preservation, he noted that the city’s historic districts contain more than 2,000 structures. He said New Urbanism has had an influence on Providence’s planning.

“The New urbanists think of cities as being dense, compact, and made up of mixed-use,” Azar said. “They were instrumental in getting people to think of zoning and planning in terms of form, as opposed to use. They took their cues from established places that people liked, such as Charleston, South Carolina, and European cities.

“It’s all human scale, but the places that we love most in this country were all, according to existing thinking about zoning, illegal.”

While concerns about the height and the “massing,” or bulk of a building, matter, Azar noted that a very important concern is the pedestrian experience, so that streetscapes are continuous and inviting.

What about green technology?

“Preservationists say,” he said, “that ‘the greenest building is the one that’s already there.’”

And although concerns about the visual impact of technology such as solar panels must be considered, he noted that if the only way they can be added is facing the street, they may be approved.

“We want new places for jobs,” Azar said, “but we want to preserve the character of the city that everybody loves.”

A home on Planet Street was recently approved for new windows and wood siding.

A home on Planet Street was recently approved for new windows and wood siding.

Historic debates
So how does all this come together to keep historic districts at least interesting, if not always exactly historic?

At least once a month, the nine-person Providence Historic District Commission meets to consider requests for modifications — from demolitions to building new structures — in historic districts. Five cases were heard at its Nov. 27 meeting.

The topics discussed ranged from the impact of Rhode Island’s lead abatement laws on renovations, to building materials, to surrounding structures, to the placement of windows and skylights.

Several of the applicants were sent back to the drawing boards for more information. Acknowledging the frustration that can arise when dealing with the details of altering a structure in a historic district, one board member said, “This is a legal document we’ll be agreeing to. The plan has to be to scale and detailed. We understand that you have a good idea of what you want to do, but we can’t know what’s in your head or taped to the wall of the bedroom.”

Learning that the applicant had agreed to use wood siding for the renovations to a somewhat controversial Planet Street project — and been granted the right to use Pella insulated replacement windows — I was reminded of Azar’s comment that, “We know exactly how wood behaves over hundreds of years. We don’t know how these other materials will behave, so we usually push for wood.”

The Planet Street application was approved.

Right direction
Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, who took a break from the annual conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to speak to me, is upbeat about the direction that historic preservation seems to be taking.

“Movements change and evolve over time,” he said, “and unfortunately this movement has become pretty stagnant, not developing new tools to deal with places like Providence, with all the changes it’s going through, including the influx of immigrants.”

The initial impetus to bring life, and prosperity, back to the urban core, he said, had earlier resulted in some unfortunate outcomes, such as the displacement of large groups of people. The losers were those who hadn’t been able to afford the rents in the renovated areas. The winners had been, in cities like Providence, the white middle class.

“But the question we have to pay attention to now,” Runyon said, “is how do we ensure that we have vibrant neighborhoods that people can enjoy? The key to that is not moving people out of the community.”

In addition to dealing with such demographic issues, organizations, such as the Providence Preservation Society, continue to face aesthetic issues as well.

“We’ve never been attached to a single architectural style,” Runyon said.

Speaking of one recent project he said, “The height took us by surprise, but when it went from 150 feet to 160, it actually looked better.

“I recently looked over the tenets of the CNU. I thought, ‘We’re about those things, too.’ They lay the principles out very well.”

He’s also pleased with the direction that the National Trust for Historic Preservation is taking, calling attention to its commitment to many of contemporary topics.

“Adaptive reuse should be the default, and demolition a last resort,” according to the organization’s website. “Historic preservation isn’t about casting buildings in amber; it’s about keeping old places alive, in active use, and relevant to the needs of communities today.”

Providence resident Nicholas Boke is an ecoRI News contributor.