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April 22

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SEPTEMBER 22, 2008 11:42AM

Providence: Part Five

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For Part Five of my Providence series, I am discussing a study and publication that was developed in the late 1950s. Through a book dealer in Providence, I was able to purchase a copy of the 1959 publication "College Hill: A Demonstration Study of Historic Urban Renewal." This study and publication was funded by a combination of federal, city and private foundation sources.

College Hill is located just east of Providence's downtown business district. It is the home of both Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design. The publication contains a photographic inventory of the area's significant hsitoric structures and lays out concepts for integrating modernist architecture with existing historic structures. This plan was never acted upon, but its significance was to set in motion the restoration of hundreds of old homes and commercial buildings many of which dated back to the 1700s and 1800s.

Looking at the concept of the modernist low-rise and high-rise structures one is reminded of changing tastes over the last fifty years in urban renewal concepts. It was to Providence's benefit that there was never the funding available to carry out the modernist approach and the essential historic fabric of College Hill remained intact with just the incursion of some modern buildings here and there in the two college campuses.

Overall for Providence the lack of funds to raze older buildings and replace them with newer structures is what helped to make Providence the "Renaissance City" that became a popular tourist destination starting in the early '90s.



Benefit Street, recognized nationally for its mile long collection of historic homes and institutional structures.


An aerial view showing the area of College Hill. The Brown University campus is located in the central area of the photo. (Courtesy of Google Earth)



The cover of the 1959 study of College Hill.

Below are random pages showing sample historic inventories and proposals for urban renewal by mixing modernist architecture of that period with the older historic structures. The plan called for some older structures to be razed in parts of the study area.









Detail illustration showing new architecture overlooking the city.





Detail showing a mix of '50s style low-rise housung with older residential structures.




Additional concepts for low-rise and historic homes.



A modernist tower proposed for a street lined with historic homes.



Additional views of historic homes and newly created low-rise housing.


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This is fascinating. I think it's been mentioned before, but your posts really belong in the Sunday magazine section of a Providence newspaper. I like reading it, and I've only ever been there once, for a few days.
Stellaa, thanks for that, and I will add that you've probably seen schemes like this type of urban renewal for other cities, some of which were implemented and others that were shelved.
Rob, I appreciate your kind thoughts on this, and it could be that over the years The Providence Journal has run features like this, now and then, on their city.
Your obvious love of the city of Providence shines through on these posts. I have never been, but your posts make me want to go there.
procopius, I really enjoyed the city while I lived there and I do get nostalgic about it as these posts indicate. It's funny how on the one hand it was a great experience to live there and yet upon graduation I couldn't wait to get back to the NYC metro area, which has had so much change, too. Thanks for your comment!

Stellaa, I know what you mean about too much reliance on old architectural styles in the new buildings. I have seen a combination of buildings around the city that go in several directions--modernist, post modern and more traditional. Several of the newer downtown towers are basically modernist/contemporary and they seem to work well within the context of the city skyline. One of the towers that was finished in 1973 was nicknamed by us as the "IBM punchcard," as its windows and beige Travertine marble sheathing looked very much like one.
Love this! I grew up near Providence. When I was in high school ('80s), we would troll the East Side (Thayer St., etc) trying to be cool. The city was at a low point when I was younger, but as you note, it's been through a renaissance. When I go back there, I'm really thrilled to see the thriving artist communities alongside the more typical malls and the hotels...I still think it's somewhat undiscovered. I hope it retains some of that -
Hard to imagine how the 1959 plan would look now, or what would be left of it. As cool as it is, I'm glad it didn't get too far. If these buildings hadn't been contructed as solidly as the historic homes in the area, they might have been allowed to deteriorate--and now, 50 years on, things might not be looking so good. As a Providence resident and homeowner, I can tell you this city is not always the best at maintenance.

I just went back and read all of the Providence posts so far. The photos are amazing, fun, and a little wistful for me, and your insights are really enjoyable. I'm a resident of the West Side, where we don't get the kind of attention paid to downtown and the East Side...I'm working on a Providence-related post now on my own neighborhood. It's pretty different.
Alice, you knew the city after my college days there, although I would drop by to visit friends who lived there, from time to time, into the '80s before most of the changes began to happen. One of my friends who lives near me in New York, had grandparents who lived in Providence and her early memories from the mid '60s were of Benefit Street and the surrounding streets looking quite run-down. By the time I started in at college in September, 1972, nearly all of Benefit Street had been restored and work had started on the lower part of South Main Street. Thanks for your comment!

Vikki, that's great to hear that you are in Providence and I look forward to seeing your post about your part of town. One of my classmates lived, after graduation, in the western part of the city. He was close to Broadway and within walking distance of I-95. I think that's close to the part of town called Elmwood, but you would know the names better than I do. Bob Vila did a whole season on the Elmwood district a number of years ago and I've been trying to figure out how to do a post on that. (I recorded the whole series.) I remember seeing some great Victorian-era houses around there.

I would add that you are correct about not as much attention being paid to the western end of town. The biggest focus of media stories has been on the city center and then it kind of radiates out from there to a degree. Thanks for your comment and I can't wait to see your post!
The rendering called "a mix of '50s style low-rise housing with older residential structures" has an ornamental sign a la RSA's Moosburg post. And this kind of modernism - thank goodness for unanswered prayers and insufficient tax bases. I saw on the feed there's a six.
Great post, thanks! And an interesting reminder to take urban planning with a grain of salt.