After the Providence Preservation Society lost its previous executive director to a Florida art gallery, the organization turned to the Sunshine State for a replacement, hiring Jennings, Fla. native Charles Brent Runyon in October. Runyon, who goes by his middle name, brings a background in electrical engineering to a job that has traditionally focused on defending unloved structures from the wrecking ball. But like other groups across the country, the preservation society in its middle age has become more involved in “place making” and city revitalization efforts, or urbanism, which often combines new development with historic rehabilitation.
PBN: Had you visited Providence before you took this job?
RUNYON: Not at all. When I came up for the interview it was my fourth time in New England.
PBN: What stood out to you about the city when you first arrived?
RUNYON: What struck me was the tight urban grid with great architecture everywhere. Since then I have found where all the surface parking lots are. But the downtown, East Side and then the West Side – I did a two-hour tour of the West Side and that was the neighborhood I first started becoming interested in. It was gratifying to see the great work that has been going on there for 30 years.
PBN: It seems like the traditional opposition between preservationists and developers has muddied a bit in recent years as urbanism has become more popular. So where do you come down on the need for new construction versus preservation?
RUNYON: The change we have seen in preservation is a result of the time shift – the 1960s and 1970s were a vastly different time from now. But also the professionalization of the historic-preservation field has given us more sophisticated people with broader backgrounds. So we understand the importance of public-private partnerships and being at the table to guide good development and temper the visceral feeling of – on one end saving everything – and on the other end not wanting to make the investment in saving anything. Historic preservation is having a place at the table and inviting people to the table.