The Providence Preservation Society: Advocating for the Preservation of Urban Neighborhoods and Landscapes

by Elena M. Pascarella, ASLA, PLA

State House, Providence, RI
State House, Providence, RI. This aerial image of the Rhode Island State House is from 1920 and shows the original landscaped grounds. A transportation hub was proposed for the area on the right side of the grounds between the State House and the road. In the 1990s some of the lawn area immediately to the right of the building was made into a parking lot for state legislators. / image: Rhode Island Photograph Collection, Providence Public Library

Many historic preservation organizations are founded to preserve a specific building or landscape. The Providence Preservation Society (PPS) was established in 1956 by leading citizens of College Hill in response to the threatened demolition of a number of early eighteenth and nineteenth century houses in Providence’s historic East Side/College Hill neighborhood. Had this demolition occurred, the entire character of this historic neighborhood would have changed and Providence would have lost a significant historic urban landscape.

The society’s mission is clearly stated on their website:

Our mission is to improve Providence by advocating for historic preservation and the enhancement of the city’s unique character through thoughtful design and planning.

The Providence Preservation Society was then and continues to be an advocate for the revitalization of neighborhoods. And within the past seven years, under the leadership of their current executive director, Brent Runyon, the PPS has led the charge for the preservation and revitalization of a number of threatened neighborhoods and significant landscapes within the City of Providence.

As the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) liaison for Rhode Island, I follow the advocacy work of PPS very closely, particularly with regard to threatened landscapes. The PPS was a strong partner with the Rhode Island Chapter of ASLA in 2017 when the RIASLA nominated the Rhode Island State House and its surrounding landscape for The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s annual Landslide program. This nomination was spurred by a plan for the placement of a transit hub on the east side of the state house landscape. The continued advocacy efforts of the PPS, along with other partners and the national recognition from TCLF’s Landslide feature, helped to stop the transit hub plan and preserve the context for Providence’s state capitol building, designed by McKim, Mead & White.

Providence’s riverfront is currently under threat from a number of development proposals. I contacted Brent Runyon by phone to inquire further about the PPS’ advocacy program and what he considers to be the key areas of focus for their organization.

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The Rhode Island Landscape Survey: An Overview

by Elena M. Pascarella, RLA, ASLA, and Jennifer Robinson

Kingscote
Richard Upjohn’s perspectival illustration of Kingscote, circa 1840. / image: Avery Architectural Library, Columbia University. NYDA.1000.011.00761.

In October 2017 Brent Runyon, Executive Director of the Providence Preservation Society, assembled an ad hoc committee representing various historic organizations and groups in Rhode Island. The committee was comprised of:

  • Brent Runyon, Executive Director, Providence Preservation Society
  • Rachel Robinson, Director of Preservation, Providence Preservation Society
  • Jim Donahue, Curator of Historic Landscapes & Horticulture, The Preservation Society of Newport County
  • Kaity Ryan, Deputy Chief of Staff, The Preservation Society of Newport County
  • Elena Pascarella, RLA, ASLA, Landscape Architect and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Liaison for the Rhode Island Chapter of ASLA
  • Karen Jessup, PhD, Landscape Architectural Historian and former professor at Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI

The purpose of this committee was to develop ideas for initiating a new survey of Rhode Island landscapes. The most recent survey of Rhode Island landscapes was Historic Landscapes of Rhode Island, compiled in the 1990s and published in 2001 by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

Given recent demands for developing open spaces, particularly in the Rhode Island cities of Providence and Newport, the committee felt an updated survey of significant landscapes was warranted.

The purpose of such a survey or inventory would be educational, helping owners or stewards of significant historic open spaces and landscapes to understand their properties and to apply appropriate maintenance and improvement schemes. Endangered landscapes could be identified, and potentially result in Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) documentation. The survey would be initially focused on Newport and Providence to establish a template from which other community surveys could be developed at a future time. Larger initiatives may also result, including:

  • An Historic Landscape Trail (working with RI tourism)
  • A statewide What’s Out There®-type public program similar to that of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

In 2018, Ms. Jennifer Robinson was awarded an Historic Landscapes Research Fellowship by The Preservation Society of Newport County. Her project represents the Society’s first collaborative fellowship with the Providence Preservation Society. I interviewed Ms. Robinson at the new visitor center at The Breakers mansion in Newport, RI.

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