Op-eds, Opinions

Mackie ’59: Performing arts and Brown’s obligations to historic preservation

By
Op-ed Contributor
Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Several years ago, Brown engaged famous author-illustrator David Macaulay to chronicle Brown’s historic campus. Macaulay’s tour resulted in a brilliant film entitled “Brown: A Sense of Place.” Among his reflections was the importance of Brown’s smaller buildings. Macaulay states, “They are, in a curious way, the glory of the Brown campus. They move like currents … giving Brown a texture held together by the streetscape.”

Nowhere is this assessment more evident than along the northern edge of Waterman Street, where the vista stretches from Prospect Street (with the exception of J. Walter Wilson) to Thayer Street. All who traverse this section of campus are rewarded with an unending array of architectural delights, a veritable trip back in time to a long-ago era of horse-drawn conveyances. Next to the Walk between main campus and Pembroke, Norwood House (82 Waterman St.) and the unique brick house (86 Waterman St.) share a small green park, a welcome oasis for relaxation and contemplation under a magnificent shade tree. How ironic that this gem — named (at least on campus maps) for Mary Elizabeth Sharpe, who in the 1940s volunteered her time and expertise to beautify the campus with trees, gardens and green spaces — might soon disappear.

As Brown moves closer to the creation of a long-awaited performing arts center, it is important that the leadership carefully examines the proposed building’s impact on the people and structures that occupy the proposed site west of the Walk. Each of the five buildings — all of which date to the mid-19th century — contribute to the charm, livability and sense of belonging enjoyed by everyone on College Hill.

The Waterman Street trio need to be preserved intact. Eliminating them would create a historic void, a gash which could not be filled by the butt end of a new structure, regardless of how creative the performing arts center architects might be in filling the empty space. Saving them would make it difficult to fulfill the space requirements for the center, but alternatives such as creating underground spaces for practice rooms and even encroaching on the Walk itself could be considered to preserve the historical structures of the area.

On the north end of the site sit historic side-by-side Greek Revival houses on Angell Street. Built in the mid-1800s, they are the last survivors of a neighborhood. Like the brick apartment building on Waterman Street, they traditionally house graduate students. Given Brown’s acknowledged lack of graduate student housing, it seems counterproductive to lose any of them, so Brown could instead move the Angell Street houses. The larger one could be relocated the short distance to the parking lot on the northwest corner of Brown and Olive Streets. The smaller one might take a longer trip up Brown Street, to where the University plans to build a new Brown-to-Brown house at 181 Bowen St., near the corner of Brown Street and Bowen Street.

There is also supreme irony in the case of 129 Angell St. Before Brown acquired it, the owner’s family lost their George Street home in connection with the massive land clearing for the Wriston Quadrangle in the early 1950s. This owner vowed never to let Brown own her home, but despite her legal mandate, it ultimately fell into Brown’s hands, The Herald previously reported.

In 2009, when Brown was considering construction of a Mind Brain Behavior building on the Walk site, the two Angell Street houses were offered for sale at $10 each, plus up to $1 million to help defray moving costs. Now nearly a decade later, their reprieve seems near its end. Brown should either move them or guarantee they will be sold and moved by a buyer in order to preserve them on the East Side. Demolition should not be an option.

Finally, the question of the Urban Environmental Lab remains the most difficult and painful. This 1885 converted carriage house sits in the center of the plat and is simply too large to relocate. Regrettably, it will become the sacrificial lamb. Though it is unique and irreplaceable, the hope is that Brown will offer alternatives to all of the various components and groups who have made the UEL such a valued part of Brown history.

Before plans for the performing arts center are finalized, my hope is that Brown will reflect carefully on its architectural inheritance and honor its obligation to history. As Brown alum and former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said in his Commencement speech in 1937, “It is always Old Brown and it is always New Brown.” Let’s have both!

Peter Mackie ’59 can be reached at petermackie@verizon.net.