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Wrenn GS: College Hill’s Grim Reaper

Since January, Brown has sought to exclude five University buildings — the Orwig Music Hall (c. 1850), Grant-Fulton Recital Hall (c. 1845), King House (c. 1895), 137 Waterman St. (c. 1910) and 190 Hope St. (c. 1865) — from a historic district proposed by the Providence Preservation Society. If accepted, the proposal would protect the 90 properties included in the district from destruction or unapproved exterior alteration. The University has been startlingly uncompromising in its opposition to a new historic district — the present proposal is practically neutered in comparison to its initial draft, which included 21 University properties, The Herald previously reported. Their relationship with the proposal is rife with contradiction: Although they “share the Providence Preservation Society’s commitment to preserving historic buildings on College Hill,” they object to the PPS proposal to concretize that commitment; while the University generally supports the creation of the historic district, they oppose the inclusion of their properties. Brown’s selective opposition reflects its own and its benefactors’ historically abusive relationship with College Hill — one defined by decades of demolition and expansion against the quaint backdrop of its yet-to-be-consumed neighbors. The PPS is right to be concerned.

The playbook of progress is simple: acquire, neglect, obscure and demolish. Consider, for instance, the recent case of Brown’s under-construction Wellness Center and Residence Hall. As Brown tells it, the University acquired the seven blighted lots of the future project site in July 2014: 434, 436, 442, 444 and 450 Brook St. and 167 and 169 Cushing St. The seven wood-framed houses on the purchased lots were, by all accounts, dilapidated. Stephen Maiorisi, then-vice president of facilities management, told The Herald in 2016  that “it would be more responsible to take them down now” than to leave them as a safety hazard. (Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, agreed that the structures were “unmaintained and in terrible shape”). University representative Andrew Teitz explained their dereliction to the City Zoning Board thusly:

(The former owner), who I think most of you know, accumulated these properties over a 15-year period, and he had them rented out to students and he did not put any money into maintaining them at all in 15 years of ownership.

In that 15-year period, the University located only a single electrical permit for repair. Former University Architect Collette Creppell testified that the houses “(were) not inhabited and (were) uninhabitable because of the level of fire code hazard(s), city code violations (and) lead asbestos.” Dutifully, Brown razed the structures, replacing them with a temporary parking lot. Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, executive vice president for planning and policy, called the demolition uncontroversial: “We have found that while there is significant concern about the performing arts center, there is very little concern about 450 Brook St.” In its Fall 2017 Institutional Master Plan, the University announced its redevelopment proposal: a combined residence hall and wellness center.

Unfortunately, this tale of benevolent revitalization is grounded in the fiction that dilapidation was inevitable; the loss of these properties was, in fact, a case of deliberate “demolition by neglect.” From as early as 2002 (the earliest date for which Providence’s tax rolls are available online) to 2013, all seven properties were, in fact, owned by organizations or persons closely connected to the University. The lots at 167 and 169 Cushing St. were owned by a prominent Brunonian and local real estate magnate, who had long hoped to develop the site as a hotel. The lots at 434, 436, 444 and 450 Brook St. were owned by Brook Street Properties LLC, and the lot at 442 Brook St. was owned by Cushing Street Properties, LLC — each listing Brown University P.O. box #1941 as their mailing address. If the University was an accomplice in the willful neglect of these lots, it deserves little credit for their rehabilitation.

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Artist’s rendering of the proposed Sciences Library. The domed building in the foreground is Angell Hall. Brown acquired Angell Hall in 1951, when it extorted Psi Upsilon to donate the property, lest the Chapter be expelled from the University.[/caption] 

Such “inevitable” demolitions are not uncommon in Brown’s history. A 1968 artist’s rendering of the Sciences Library (pictured above) projects a brick-red tower rising from a smooth green at the corner of Thayer and Waterman streets, co-existing remarkably well with historic Angell Hall. But as the SciLi neared completion, Brown community members were stunned by the scale of the outsized south entrance, which claustrophobically crowded the rear of Angell Hall. A Herald editorial demanded transparency: “Building priorities and locations should also be discussed in the open; hopefully students then would know … why the main entrance to the new science library faces the rear of Angell Hall.” Library staff condemned the entryway and Victor Robbins, construction coordinator with the Office of Construction Planning, remarked that “the main entrance to the library is absurd if Angell is not demolished.” Indeed. Angell Hall was razed in September 1972.

The playbook of progress is simple: acquire, neglect, obscure and demolish.

Or, consider the case of Angell Hall’s adjacent dormitory, Richardson Hall. The hall was a luxury, (initially) private dormitory erected in 1900, that treated students to suites with amenities such as window seats, fireplaces, hot showers and “needle baths” (a shower fixture surrounding the bather with multiple jets). Such decadence was not to last; as a 1995 Herald article dryly noted, “Today, Richardson Hall is not nearly as extravagant a living space as it must have been at the time of its construction.” As early as 1980, the University had decided that the dormitory would eventually be replaced by a geochemistry complex, against the protests of Residential Life Director Arthur Gallagher. In 1995, a Herald editorial pressed the University to reconsider demolition. Yet, progress demanded the razing of Richardson Hall in the summer of 1996. “There really wasn’t an alternative but to demolish it,” said Carol Wooten, assistant vice president for planning and construction at the time.

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Prior to Brown University’s acquisition of Young Orchard Avenue, the street was bordered with lush trees and historic homes.[/caption] 

Or, consider the dormitories on Young Orchard Avenue. Prior to Brown’s acquisition of Bryant University’s east campus, Orwig Music Center was complemented by a row of historic houses — Allen Hall, Jeannette Carroll Hall, Salisbury Hall and Stowell Hall — that were demolished to facilitate the construction of Brown’s Young Orchard dormitories. In Brown’s original plans for the site, Stowell Hall was to be saved, The Herald reported, “in consideration of the aesthetic character of the local neighborhood.” Not only did Brown reverse that decision, it notably failed to disclose its reversal to the Building and Planning Committee of the Corporation. 

The new dormitories are, to say the least, starkly out-of-place with the neighboring, wood-framed 125 Hope St. (c. 1819), 150 Power St. (c. 1882) and 7 Cooke St. (c. 1837), but, unsurprisingly, complement neighboring Perkins and Theodore Francis Green halls, previously constructed by Bryant. The architecture of whatever someday replaces Brown’s Young Orchard dormitories will, undoubtedly, be even further removed from the historic neighborhood they inhabit. Therein lies the rub: The demolition of historic buildings irrevocably diminishes the historic character of a neighborhood, paving the way for future demolition and redevelopment.

For instance, Barus and Holley altered the landscape of its neighborhood so drastically that President Barnaby Keeney offered to buy surrounding private property devalued by its construction. Yet, with the construction of the Geology-Chemistry Research Building in 1982, it became the four historic homes sandwiched between the Geo-Chem building and Barus and Holley that appeared out of place — not the other way around. Recently, the University leveled these houses — against the recommendation of the Providence Preservation Society — to make way for its Engineering Research Center. In his Nov. 6, 2014 column, Evan Sweren ’15 described the (then-impending) loss of these structures more eloquently than I could hope; I will therefore only remark that apparently only two of the razed structures actually conflicted with the footprint of the ERC — the others, like Angell Hall, merely conflicted with the landscaping.

Today, at least six of Brown’s houses stand vacant, facing uncertain futures. Once a rental property managed by the Office of Auxiliary Housing, 22 Benevolent St. has remained vacant since at least 2019. The Facilities Management Newsletter of Fall 2010 touted the renovation of 287 and 291 Brook St. into five 1-2 bedroom condominium units, but the houses remain stripped and shuttered. Last fall, the University placed the house at 66-68 Charlesfield St. for sale for the nominal price of $10, on the condition that the buyer move the structure; it will be demolished to make way for Brown’s planned Brook Street dormitories unless moved by Oct. 31, 2021. (The houses at 245-247 Brook St. and 70-72 Charlesfield St., presently used as auxiliary housing, face the same fate). The house at 25 George St. was used for administrative offices as late as 2019; its future purpose has not yet been announced. Brown seeks to sell 383 Benefit St. — the resplendent former home of the Annenberg Institute — but has struggled to find buyers even at the deeply discounted list price of $2.5 million.

There is cause for optimism; the ornate homes of College Hill are not unavoidably doomed to be razed and replaced with sterile boxes. On Young Orchard Avenue, Bryant University showed a way forward: Existing historic homes can be adapted for University use. Today, Rhode Island School of Design best carries on this tradition: It houses students in a mixture of high-rise (e.g., the historic Rhode Island Hospital Trust Building), mid-rise (e.g., North Hall) and historic homes (i.e., the “Hill Houses”). The RISD buildings between Benefit Street and North Main Street, particularly the RISD Museum, provide a masterclass in melding old and new structures.


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The renovation of “South Street Landing” preserved the historical character of the former South Street Powerstation, and secured this Providence icon’s survival for the foreseeable future.[/caption]

Brown might be taking note. The 2015 public-private rehabilitation of the long-neglected South Street Power Station was a preservation triumph. In 2019, four historical buildings at Brown (including the Urban Environmental Lab), avoided demolition when University plans shifted the site of its new Performing Arts Center. The revised construction plans required the demolition of zero buildings, and the relocation of one: Sharpe House on Angell Street. A glass bridge now connects Sharpe House and the adjacent Peter Green House, enhancing the function of the two historic buildings. Similarly, Stephen Robert ’62 Hall neatly adjoined a modern wing onto a historic home. And, promisingly, the University’s once-frosty relationship with the Providence Preservation Society is now “very collaborative and very collegial,” says Carey.

I am cautiously optimistic that the University, going forward, will take a cue from its neighbors and strive to complement — rather than replace — its historic home. There need not be public outcry, like that faced by the Performing Arts Center, each time new construction is proposed; the revised PAC project is a testament to the rewards of a preservationist mindset. Yet, making the shift from community adversary to ally will require a concerted effort on Brown’s part to regain trust. Accepting their inclusion into a historic district is a good first step.Courtesy of Brown University Archives


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