Preservationists At Odds With Brown Over Historic Buildings

Dec 19, 2017

Update 12/20: Providence's City Plan Commission delayed a vote expected Tuesday, setting the next hearing for January 16 .

There’s a dispute brewing between Brown University and historic preservationists over the plan for Brown’s new performing arts center.  

Brown hired a prominent New York firm to design its new performing arts center and has now settled on a site near the center of campus. But preservationists say there’s a problem: five Victorian-era buildings will have be moved or torn down, under the university's current plan.

Brent Runyon, Executive Director of the Providence Preservation Society said he's concerned about a gradual degradation of the historic neighborhood around Brown. Runyon and his organization are asking the Providence City Plan Commission to delay a vote scheduled for Tuesday afternoon on Brown's plan, to allow the public more time to weigh in.

"College Hill is one of the most special places in the country," said Runyon, pointing out that seven historic buildings were demolished in the same area last year, and more than a dozen in the years before that.

“The entire neighborhood just feels like it’s under assault,” Runyon said. “And even though it happens over the course of years, people are really paying attention, and they’re concerned about this tremendous resource that we have in the community.”

The Blodget House is one of the historic buildings that would have to be moved or demolished to make room for the proposed performing arts center.
Credit Courtesy of Providence Preservation Society

Runyon said the five buildings in question date to the mid-to-late 1800s and are part of the College Hill National Register Historic District.

“They demonstrate the age, the building styles, the scale and the landscape that people experience in this historic district,” Runyon said.

One of the buildings, a former carriage house, houses Brown's Urban Environmental Lab. A Brown alumni magazine article touted the structure as one of the first green buildings in the country. But the article also makes it clear the building has been threatened before, as the university developed plans to upgrade its facilities.

"We deeply appreciate the importance of College Hill's distinctive and historic character," said Brian Clark, Brown's spokesman, who responded to questions via email on Monday.

"With that in mind, we work very intentionally at Brown to limit growth on College Hill to academic activities that are central to undergraduate education."

The Norwood House at Brown University, home to the Department of American Studies.
Credit Providence Preservation Society

Clark said Brown considered two alternative locations for the performing arts center, but this one provided the best fit. The site is close to the heart of Brown's main campus and situated along a greenway known as "The Walk," making it easily accessible to several university departments, a theater and the relatively new Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. 

Brown plans to relocate at least one of the buildings, the Norwood House, currently located at 82 Waterman Street. Clark said the university is proposing to re-site the building at 20 Olive Street.