Columns

Sweren ’15: Growing, growing, gone

By
Thursday, November 6, 2014

The second in a series of columns on Brown’s libraries and academic spaces.

 

Here are some highlights from President Christina Paxson’s letter to the Corporation on plans for the new applied mathematics and engineering buildings, as quoted in a recent Herald article: “ongoing engagement with neighbors … to ensure we are sensitive to the needs and interests of the surrounding community … preserving the character of Hope Street … comfortable with the style of the building.”

It’s easy for leaders to make big, $80 million decisions when the past is off the table. It’s even easier to make those decisions when so few people are involved. A school can marginalize a department, or two, to the outskirts of a campus and then, overnight, inform those departments that their buildings will soon be destroyed. Money talks and, well, academia takes that long walk.

Here’s the play-by-play. Four University-owned buildings, one home to the Urban Studies Program and one home to the Division of Applied Mathematics, are slated for destruction — all are eligible for historical status. No Brown students were consulted in the making of the decision. No building schematics have yet been released to the public. And recommendations made by the Providence Preservation Society to move the buildings have been ignored. Mike McCormick, assistant vice president of planning, design and construction, said moving the buildings poses a risk of “causing collateral damage to the streets,” The Herald reported. Trust me, I love creative problem-solving, but demolishing the buildings to save the streets seems a bit like burning the paintings to save the frames.

But Brown does have some standards. McCormick noted that, in order for Brown to save buildings, “there needs to be other historic significance to them other than they are just old in the neighborhood and kind of nice.” I couldn’t agree with him more. If only there were someone or somebody with that type of “judgment of the true value of them.”

Let’s start with 37 Manning St., an example of a Colonial Revival house built in 1897, according to the University’s online campus map, and renovated by Albert Harkness in 1936. Harkness also designed the Summerfield Building, or Del Soto Building, on Weybosset Street, in 1913. Johnson and Wales University renovated the structure and won an award for the renovation in 2004.

Or maybe we should start with 29 Manning St., an “uncommon example of the Modern Style in the College Hill Historic District,” according to a document published by PPS this year. It was designed and lived in by J. Peter Geddes, a well-known Providence architect who later partnered with — you guessed it — Albert Harkness, son of Albert Granger Harkness, son of Albert Harkness, class of 1842. All three generations of Harkness family members attended Brown; the elder two taught here, while the latter’s office designed the sundial on the south wall of Faunce in 1939.

But I cannot argue with McCormick. The buildings are old — I’d even say “kind of nice.”

Surely Brown saves buildings with true historical significance, such as the home of Edward Bannister, a preeminent African-American painter of the mid-19th century and founder of the Providence Art Club, peer institution to the Rhode Island School of Design. I’ll save you the walk down Benevolent Street. Brown does not save this structure, either. The house is wasting away, and the University has no plans to sell or renovate it. Brown’s main interest in the Bannister House, now that refrigerators are no longer stored there, is one of “strategic value” for expansion, said Richard Spies, former executive vice president of planning, in a 2012 Herald article. In comparison, check out the Nightingale Brown House on Benefit Street for another example of a Brown-owned building; Joseph Nightingale was a slave trader. Justifying which buildings should be saved and which should not can lead to overt instances of racism and other issues.

I have no doubt KieranTimberlake, the architecture firm chosen to design the new engineering building, will create a state-of-the-art building where the four historic homes now stand. And I have no doubt that the University’s new building will provide added space and attract great researchers. But I find these expansionist policies worrisome. Somehow, we need to ensure that construction and renovation do not mean obliteration. Paxson’s letter to the Corporation, the 250+ celebration and the University’s continual destruction of the past are at odds with each other. It’s time to stop focusing on the + and start focusing on the 250.

The University is repeating disturbing trends. We tend to move things around when we should build new buildings, and build new buildings when we should be looking inward at the spaces we already have. Consider Manning Hall and Robinson Hall, originally designed as libraries. The buildings have been repurposed; their original intent and history are gone, and they take up prime locations that are grossly underutilized. The facilities crisis Brown now faces is a result of this poor decision-making. Books must be stored offsite in downtown warehouses, while places like Andrews Commons and the Leung Family Gallery, intended as social spaces, are largely used by students as quiet libraries. It’s a shame we eviscerated what we had and ate our history.

Unique spaces are integral to the formation of cultural identity, and history helps to inform how these unique spaces should develop and unfold. Edmund Burke wrote extensively on the role of culture and history in unifying a community. Brown is systematically stripping itself of all these spaces. The bar at the Underground is gone. The Gate is gone. And the Hourglass Cafe, a student-run cafe formerly in the basement of Faunce, is gone. And all we are left with are multipurpose study spaces that, in themselves, are void of purpose.

Inefficient floor plans make no allusion to the past, history, intent or location, and instead are modeled for a generation of group study and social media. We are creating buildings of hallways, spaces void of personality and a community void of interior substance. Without culturally unique spaces, Brown ceases to be Brown.

It’s time we look our gift horses in the mouth. It’s not bad manners. It’s our obligation. One day, the University sends out a campus-wide email about an operating deficit, and the next day it accepts more strings-attached donations and pats itself on the back for another $1 million perversion of space. At some point, we have to learn that demolishing buildings and subjecting history to minimalist renovation isn’t sustainable practice, isn’t economically sound and isn’t conducive to creating a historical, incorporative College Hill. It’s a betrayal of the community, and it’s a betrayal of ourselves.

 

 Evan Sweren ’15 is a senior at Brown.

  • ’17

    All of this. Thank you for writing this.

  • Sam Davidoff-Gore

    Bravo. Well done.

  • Reality Check

    What’s unsustainable is running a 21st century university with 17th and 18th century infrastructure. I’m not saying bulldoze U. Hall, but passing on opportunities for necessary advancement in the name of nostalgia for minor buildings with little historical value rises to the level of negligence.

    • Balance Needed

      …The tension between joining the march of progress and preserving Brown’s historical legacy and cultural identity. Perhaps the question is how can we make a new engineering building uniquely Brown versus looking like every other modern engineering building currently being built as top liberal arts universities rush to counter years of underinvestment in STEM. Advancement must be made, but issues of historical relevancy and significance must be part of the conversation

    • jones

      So who determines whether a building is one of the so-called “minor buildings with little historical value?”

  • Euro Kidd

    gone