In Downtown Providence, A Forgotten Piece Of Architectural History

Sep 7, 2016

 

Few people know that Providence is home to a plaza designed by the architect I.M. Pei, the man behind the famous pyramids outside the Louvre Museum in Paris. In the 1960s, Providence hired Pei to redesign Cathedral Square during a push for urban renewal. But the effort failed to attract people or achieve the renown of some of Pei's later projects.

The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Providence, used to be at the center of a bustling downtown commercial district.

These days, the square outside the cathedral sits empty. Even on a Sunday morning, the square is silent. The massive, gothic structure towers over a grey, concrete plaza. A car drives up onto the square and parks next to a large brick fountain. Many of the bricks are broken, and the fountain looks like it hasn’t run in years.

It wasn’t always like this, according to Tina Regan, former chair of the Providence Historic District Commission and a lifelong Providence resident.

“The area moved up into the neighborhoods like spokes, and they were very connected,” said Regan, tracing the old street patterns on a photograph. “Weybosset Street was very busy, doctors, dentists, department stores.”

When the church was built in 1878, it lay at the heart of downtown Providence. Shops and businesses drew throngs of people from all over the city. After mass on Sundays, hundreds of parishioners spilled out from the cathedral onto the cobblestone plaza.

But after World War II, the city changed. The dwindling textile industry and rising popularity of the automobile drew people out of downtown and into the suburbs, says Ned Connors, a Providence-based historian and preservationist.

“People couldn’t get out of the city fast enough,” said Connors. “The business left, the customers left, and what you were left with was just a shell of the old economic and residential life of this place.”

Connors was part of a team convened by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, to examine Providence architecture from the 1950s and 60s, and Conors says Providence wasn’t alone. Across the country, politicians and planners were facing a similar challenge.

Many planners in that era viewed their cities’ dwindling populations and crumbling 19th century buildings as a "cancer" that had to be stopped. City officials believed the cure was to tear down the old buildings and replace them with modern architecture.

Providence chose an up-and-coming architect to design the new downtown, I.M. Pei, a Chinese-American who would later win praise as one of the greatest architects of the 20th century. Pei’s plan for Providence centered on a grand plaza outside the city’s main Catholic cathedral.

During an interview at the National Gallery of Art, Pei explained his interest in plazas.

“Look through history, the Greeks had their Agora,” said Pei. “All civilized people had their plazas and squares. That’s where the life is where architecture has to perform its function.”

Marisa Angel Brown, an architectural scholar at Brown University, says there were cultural and political reasons for architects like I.M. Pei to look to a time when the square was the center of public life.

“It’s a pretty nostalgic and conservative archetype to go to in order to create a public space," said Brown. "By thinking about piazzas, it was in some ways sort of shutting a door on the chaos and on the race riots, and all of the things that were actually happening in cities at this point."

Fast forward from the late 60's to 1972. Cathedral Square is complete, and I.M Pei arrives in Providence for a ribbon cutting. Providence planners hail the city’s rebirth. There's just one problem.

“None of it worked,” said historic preservation consultant Ned Connors. “Cathedral square was dedicated in 1972. By 1974 the Providence Evening Bulletin called it a 'conspicuous failure.'”

Part of the failure was that the city ran out of money before Pei’s plan for a bustling commercial center could be completed. A new highway, Interstate 95, cut through the city, and a low-income housing development and office complex further isolated the square.

It's also likely that the creation of a new square simply wasn’t enough to counter the forces that were fraying city centers at that time.

“I’m not sure that success was really going to be possible given the rapidity of people fleeing out of the cities into the suburbs,” said Architectural Historian Marisa Angel Brown. “The deck was stacked so against these spaces being able to do anything.”

Because of a lack of general interest and funding, Providence's ambitious plans to redesign downtown were put on hold, and city blocks that once housed historic buildings were left empty. Preservationist Tina Regan says downtown of today is almost unrecognizable from the downtown of her childhood.

“The real sad part of developing the plaza was losing all these historic buildings. It’s hard to look at this and say how did they do that?” 

Providence Planning Director Bonnie Nickerson goes to work every day in an office overlooking Cathedral Square. She says city officials have been brainstorming ways to bring the plaza back to life for almost 20 years.

“There is definitely a lot of energy and interest in making this space more useful and more attractive, universally,” said Nickerson, adding that the city has invested tens of thousands of dollars into rebuilding the cathedral steps and planting trees.

She mentions food trucks and concerts among other potential strategies the city is considering to bring people back into the square.

“It is truly a hidden gem in our city,” said Nickerson. “It is a respite in the city. If you just squint your eyes a little bit, it is a grand European plaza in great cities around the world.”

After an era of demolishing the old to make way for the new, cities are now more reluctant to make sweeping changes, one reason Nickerson says the basic design of Cathedral Square is not likely to change anytime soon. But she hopes smaller measures will be enough to breathe new life into I.M. Pei's design, and continue a trend of renewed interest in downtown Providence.