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architectural development of downtown providence

From the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, Providence experienced a period of great wealth and prosperity. Its downtown expanded to reflect this affluence and it grew to be, according to the Providence Preservation Society, “one of the most cogent, urbane centers of any city its size in the country.” During this growth, an emphasis was placed on design and by the end of the nineteenth century, Providence had established a fine architectural legacy.

Prosperity in Providence came to an end during the recent past period following the end of World War II. Between 1945 and 1985, the city’s population declined by forty percent. Residents across the nation were fleeing cities in favor of new suburban enclaves. In addition to a loss of population, Providence experienced a substantial loss of its industrial economic base as manufacturers that had made it through the Great Depression and were bolstered during the war were forced to scale back or close. The city was largely built out prior to this period leaving little vacant land. New development was either pushed out to the suburbs or required the demolition of old buildings for growth within the city. This combination of factors slowed development and growth in downtown Providence.

To aid ailing downtowns across the nation, the federal government stepped in, funding urban renewal projects and highway development in an effort to revive civic centers that had been negatively impacted first by the Great Depression then by declines in industry and suburban exodus. Progress was synonymous with destruction as whole blocks were razed to make way for modern buildings and open space. The City of Providence developed a master plan called Downtown Providence 1970 as a solution to the many issues plaguing the city center. The plan called for wholesale clearance of many of the blocks in downtown Providence including City Hall and most of the other buildings surrounding Kennedy Plaza. It proposed replacing historic fabric with grand plazas surrounded by buildings and parking structures, an automobile-oriented plan which largely ignored the pedestrian. Over thirty years, the Providence Redevelopment Agency, recipient of federal urban renewal funds, had 1,845 buildings demolished citywide, clearing 279 acres of land. Fortunately, most of downtown was spared but for those urban renewal projects that went forward, like Weybosset Hill, historic structures were lost in the name of to removing blight and replacing it with contemporary architecture, plazas, and pedestrian malls.

Much of the development occurring in downtown Providence in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s was funded or subsidized by the government. Economic constraints combined with a new focus on suburban growth limited privately funded construction downtown. Notable exceptions include two towers in the financial district, the Old Stone Bank Tower (1969) and the Hospital Trust Tower (1973).

Public and private development embraced many of the emerging architectural styles and design philosophies of the era. Architect and historian John Hutchins Cady described it in his book, The Civic and Architectural Development of Providence, published in 1957: “Towards the middle of the [twentieth] century architectural schools throughout the country were abandoning eclecticism and teaching only contemporary design. The principle exponent of the movement in Providence was the Rhode Island School of Design’s division of architecture which had expanded, under the direction of Philip D. Creer (1933-1956) from a preliminary college course to become a fully accredited school of architecture. The effects of the new principles in architectural education, and the accent placed on organic design in architectural publications, were stimulating the modern transition in the city as exemplified by new public and private buildings designed with machine-age technique and the use of prefabricated material.” Despite emphasis on contemporary design, the structures built in Providence during the recent past were not as high caliber as those constructed during the city’s more prosperous years. Following the urban renewal period, much of the development in Providence’s downtown (excluding Capital Center) focused on restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures rather than new construction.

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