Greater City Providence

PPS March Lecture – Place/Displace: Providence and the Twentieth Century (03/17)

Image from Providence Preservation Society via Facebook

On Wednesday, March 17, R. Tripp Evans, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Wheaton College, will present an overview of 20th century architecture in Providence. Providence is a city known for its extraordinary architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries. This month’s lecture, Place/Displace: Providence and the Twentieth Century focuses on the lesser known and underappreciated eras of the 20th century, the International Style of the early 20th century and the Modern movement which gained popularity after World War II.

There is growing concern within the historic preservation community that significant buildings, landscapes, and sites of these periods will be lost before their true value is fully recognized. The goal of this lecture is to educate our community regarding the design significance of these singular movements and their innovative accompanying styles.

The lecture will take place at the Providence Career and Technical Academy Auditorium, 91 Fricker Street, Providence. Please enter through the main lobby on Cranston Street.

This event is free to members of the Providence Preservation Society and costs $10 for non-members. Membership applications will be available that evening for attendees who wish to join PPS. Membership information is also available at

Pre-registration is encouraged, but not required. For further information about this lecture and Providence Preservation Society educational programming, please visit

R. Tripp Evans is Associate Professor of American Art and the Chair of the Art and Art History Department at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. He earned his B.A. in Architectural History from the University of Virginia and his M.A. and Ph.D. in the History of Art from Yale University.

Greater City Providence

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  • The Fox Point Vartan Gregorian School is outstanding mid-20th Century architecture. Classrooms step down the shallow slope of the hill. The cafeteria and audiorium are distinct volumes that express their uses. Skylights and glass walls provide beautiful light (okay and leak energy…), and the front doors are generously scaled and address the sidewalk casually and meaningfully. The school gets an A+. Rigorous and modest.

  • I think it’s interesting that 20th century architecture in Providence is automatically equated with insensitive modernism. Sure, there’s plenty of that, but lets think about some of the less obvious 20th century buildings that make the city distinctive:

    The Biltmore (1922)
    Industrial Trust (1925-28)
    PPAC/Columbus Theaters (1928 and 29 respectively)
    O’Gorman Building (1925)
    Manchester Street Power Station (1903, additions 1913, 1940,1945,1947)
    Summerfield Building (1913)
    Coro Building (1929)
    Providence County Courthouse (1930)

    The list goes on. There’s more than enough to keep David Brussat entertained.

  • All modernist buildings are not insensitive. A good building is a good building, whether it’s colonial, neo-classical, modern, post-modern or neo-modern. There are good and bad buildings from all periods.

    In the mid 20th century neo-classical architecture and planning was deemed bad, the effect was the tragic re-facing of building facades and the demolition of buildings and neighborhoods. The same was true in the late 20th century with postmodernism. The difference was that they didn’t tear down neighborhoods quite as much, thought they did. Modern buildings were refaced with phony decorative elements. Public housing no matter how well designed, laid-out or constructed was torn down as rapidly as possible, instead of addressing management problems or bad landscape and site planning.

    Vilifying an entire period or style and favoring whatever’s the current fashion or sentimentalizing historic periods has proven to be destructive to cities. Unfortunately it’s also very American.

    The follow are examples of good mid-century modern buildings in Providence:
    Turnkey Post Office (Central Providence Post Office) (1960)
    Rockefeller Library Brown (1964)
    Beneficent House (1967)
    List Art Center Brown (1970)
    Brown Sciences Library (1971)
    Textron Tower (40 Westminster) (1972)
    Sovereign Bank (Hospital Trust) (1973)

  • What is lost is not necessarily about building architecture but a sense of how to develop land in order to add a sense of vibrancy and community to a city. Rather than figuring out how to preserve buildings, we first need to figure out a way to develop land in a more “Jane Jacobesque” sort of way – i.e. get more eyes on the street. I love the character of historic architecture, but I also think historic architecture had more design elements that fostered pedestrian activity and street life which heightens its appeal. To me, we first need to focus solving the problem on why our current development paradigm fails to foster this activity. Until we do, we will continue to throw good money away on developments that become quickly obsolete, thus perpetuating the debate on whether they should be saved or preserved.

  • This is in large part about preserving architecture. There is no question that a vibrant streetscape is activated by street walls, retail, ‘contained’ urban plazas, building lobby entrances and sometimes townhouses. Conflicts with good land development can often be created by architectural fashion, car culture, and American disposable culture.

    The debate about the evils of Modernism and the virtues of the traditional urban streetscape is in a way a side issue. Agreed that the effect of Modernist planning has been destructive or at best problematic on the urban environment, on the other hand Modernist architecture is simply a style. There’s good and bad. Whether it’s liked or not is a question of taste. The addition of fake cornices or EIFS “stucco” is an effort to create an architectural character or conform to regulations that are dictated by a style or fashion. This kind of façade has actually been approved downtown, through fortunately not built. The effect would be to diminish or mock authentic historic structures. There’s more of this Disney-fication in Newport than Providence, which is result from dictating a few idealized styles over others, yet not being able to afford it.

    On the surface Providence has fully engaged principals of traditional urban streetscape. While much of the destruction of the city occurred before the adoption of the current Downtown New Urbanist code, more has been lost since, and more will continue to be lost. Even with streetcar proposals there persists a blind cultural acceptance that the car should be the primary transportation mode downtown within the city, whether government or the public. Parking and loading requirements in place downtown are suburban and make it difficult to utilize traditional development patterns, which are key in making a vibrant streetscape. Anytime a developer is in a pinch due to a down market magically regulatory or political bodies approve “temporary” parking uses and some of the staunchest defenders of urban traditionalism complain the loudest when they can’t find a parking spot.

    The practice of disposing of buildings and neighborhoods because they’re “obsolete,” has been a recurrent theme in American cities irrespective of the “-ism.” Many New Urbanist reject Modernism as brutal and insensitive in the same way that the Modernist rejected everything that came before because it encouraged poverty and filth. Aerial photos of the city from before World War II; show a downtown that’s twice its current size with few empty lots. The present reality is that 40 to 50% of Downtown land is dominated by automotive uses, most of which are surface only. How many buildings had to be destroyed to create this auto-centric vision? How many more will go to accommodate garage structures attached to new buildings? We need to find a way to work with and re-work the built environment that we have no matter what the style.

  • Addressing the street is less about style and more about designing with the pedestrian in mind. Perfect example is right down at Memorial and Francis. Which building does a better job of addressing the street and ultimately the pedestrian: the GTECH building or the Courtyard Marriott? Certainly, the Marriott “blends” but it is a suburban hotel dropped down on top of a parking deck because it was the only way to get parking. It doesn’t even open up to the outdoor area behind the old union station. You have to descend a couple of levels on an ugly steel stair case that looks like an afterthought. I know a lot of people don’t like the wrapping on the GTECH building but it addresses the corner, contains storefronts at street level and opens up to Waterplace Park with the Ruth’s Chris patio and walkways around the building. I wish they would consider opening up the deck at the back of the building to the public during a waterfire.

Providence, RI
5:22 am8:20 pm EDT
Feels like: 77°F
Wind: 7mph SSW
Humidity: 93%
Pressure: 30.12"Hg
UV index: 4
90°F / 70°F
93°F / 73°F
93°F / 77°F