Updated March 28 at 12:28pm

The fight for historic preservation

When the Providence Preservation Society listed three Brown University buildings that could be knocked down on its 2008 Most Endangered Properties List, it cited not only the need to save the “historic residential context” of the Angell Street block, but also the need to communicate that institutional growth should not lead to “continually sacrificing historic fabric.”

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The fight for historic preservation


When the Providence Preservation Society listed three Brown University buildings that could be knocked down on its 2008 Most Endangered Properties List, it cited not only the need to save the “historic residential context” of the Angell Street block, but also the need to communicate that institutional growth should not lead to “continually sacrificing historic fabric.” (READ MORE)

Brown has studied 20 different properties where it could potentially relocate its Urban Environmental Laboratory (UEL) – a 124-year-old former carriage house that was one of the three properties listed – but there just isn’t a spot that’s viable, according to the school. The best place would be a nearby park and that raises environmental concerns, Provost David I. Kertzer said last week.

In 2009, the school hopes to build a new Mind, Brain and Behavior laboratory where the Angell Street buildings now sit. Unless the university finds a place to which it can move the three buildings, they will be knocked down. Brown has even offered two of them for free to anyone who wants to move them, and the UEL will soon be offered free, too.

Although their listing on the annual Preservation Society list has brought public attention to the properties, it is no guarantee that they will be saved.

It’s difficult to gauge just how successful the annual lists have been, but preservationists agree they have helped them focus resources where they are most needed. Newport Collaborative Architects Principal Arnold Robinson, who was PPS executive director from 1994 to 1999, got the program started in Providence.

“Often preservation bounces from site to site. A building in this neighborhood or that neighborhood is threatened and it’s almost like the dots aren’t connected” he said last week. “By using a tool like the endangered list, you’re able to connect the dots and talk about the larger issues, the policy issues in the city, maybe missing pieces – like funding across preservation.”

When it was started in 1994 in the city, the program was modeled after the 11 Most Endangered Places, a National Trust for Historic Preservation program, said Northeast Regional Office Director Wendy Nicholas, who was a PPS executive director in the early 1990s. Because it has such a small staff – there are only four employees at the nonprofit PPS – the program had to be suspended in 2005 and 2006 so that PPS could plan its 50th anniversary events. In 2007, the program was reinstated.

According to internal PPS records supplied to Providence Business News, there have been 67 properties listed over the years. They have stayed on the list for an average of 1.88 years.

Nine listed properties were eventually knocked down. They averaged 2.55 years on the list.

Sara Cannata Emmenecker, PPS director of preservation services, said many of those nine – including the Providence Fruit & Produce Warehouse, which had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2005, and the former Providence Police and Fire Headquarters – were high-profile properties that were demolished to make way for planned developments. Some of those planned projects were built, others were not.

To date, 34 of the listed properties have been saved, compared with the nine that were lost (the disposition of the rest is still uncertain). The saved properties averaged 1.54 years on the list – one year less than those that were knocked down.

The Providence program’s potential benefits can be seen clearly in projects like the Masonic Temple, which had been listed eight times, Robinson said. The second year it was listed, PPS and the state hosted a planning charrette to discuss options for its renovation. Some of the 150 attendees, Robinson said, happened to be representatives of the company that eventually rehabbed the building, transforming it into the Renaissance Providence Hotel. (READ MORE)

R.I. Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission Executive Director Edward F. Sanderson said PPS and its endangered list can advocate for rehabilitation and preservation in a way that his office cannot.

“I think that’s a really important role, and it’s a role that I can’t play. I can administer programs and I can regulate,” he said, but his office doesn’t try to sway developers’ opinions.

The R.I. Historical Preservation Investment Tax Credit program – which the R.I. General Assembly cut earlier this year – acted as a companion to PPS’s list, Robinson said. “It had an enormous impact – what it did, in my opinion, is leveled the playing field between historic properties and greenfield development,” he said.

Funding issues always have been the linchpin of preservation projects, said Foundry Development Corporation Principal Anthony Thomas, a PPS board member. From 1996 to 1998, PPS listed one of the buildings at The Foundry as an endangered property, but the company didn’t have the money and market demand was low, he said.

“We were embarrassed, quite candidly, [about being listed]. Owning the property for 40 years and having a building sit there vacant wasn’t our goal, our vision,” said Thomas. “We wouldn’t have bought the building if we thought it didn’t have the potential to be reused.”

Eventually, with the help of the RIHPHC credits, the building was renovated.

The PPS preservation program is now expanding beyond just the list, Emmenecker said.

After the list is released each May, local photographers volunteer to shoot the properties and an exhibit is held. As a way to get the community more involved, that exhibit last year toured Providence for the first time and will again this year. The 2008 exhibit opened earlier this month at Butterfield in Providence.

Emmenecker also has created a Wiki Web site for the project and an interactive property map, both of which are linked from PPS’ Web site.

“Ideally, we would like all endangered historic properties to be saved,” Emmenecker said. “And until that happens, the list has its place.”

At Brown University, the list might have stirred some community conversation about the buildings. But although the school is committed to historic preservation, Kertzer said, there are limits to how far it will go – and how much it will spend – to preserve individual buildings.

He said the health of Brown and the city are dependent on the growth of the school as a research center.

“I think our feeling is that we have to take a larger view of the preservation of the East Side of Providence,” Kertzer said. “There does have to be some kind of balance. If we’re going to hold onto every historic building that’s there and not build new space, we might as well pack up and leave Providence.” •


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