The Impulsive Traveler: Looking up, and back, at Providence architecture

By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010;

An hour or so into my walking tour of Providence, I experienced what surely must be an occupational hazard for Kathleen McAreavey: the constant desire to look up. The education coordinator for the Providence Preservation Society had gamely agreed to indulge my fascination with old buildings on a cold January morning, and every few feet there was some eye-catching detail that caused us to stop in the middle of the sidewalk and gaze skyward. Thankfully this wasn't too much of a problem in the narrow downtown streets of Rhode Island's capital, but in Washington, we probably would have ended up as commuter roadkill.

Founded in 1636 by religious-freedom rabble-rouser and Massachusetts exile Roger Williams, Providence has no shortage of historic structures. But my interest settled on an era more than 200 years later, when downtown was the state's thriving commercial hub. In the mid-20th century, a combination of suburban flight and highway construction forced businesses to close or relocate. The area lost its sheen. Strangely, the low period may have preserved much of what you can see today.

"We haven't really flourished in many decades, and that has been what really saved the buildings," McAreavey said. Downtown suffered more from neglect than from wholesale bulldozing of the sort that marked so many "urban renewal" projects post-World War II.

Today, however, Providence's downtown is experiencing a sort of renaissance, with boutiques and restaurants moving into storefronts beneath stylish lofts. "Downcity" is the label applied to this concentrated area of hipness. All, of course, in a historic setting.

But if shopping or eating isn't your thing (blasphemy!), fear not. You can easily spend hours engaged with the buildings themselves instead of what's inside them. The remnants of downtown's golden age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries make it an ideal destination for architecture buffs, or those who aspire to buffness, such as myself. My vocabulary consists primarily of "gorgeous," "beautiful" and "wow."

That's where McAreavey came in. We began our tour in the lobby of my overnight digs, the Hotel Providence, a boutique hotel housed in an 1897 building, which McAreavey said was one of the city's rehabilitation success stories.

Once outside, she offered one truism of Providence architecture: Even if the ground level of a building doesn't seem all that extraordinary, chances are that all the action is a few floors up. Thus began my hours-long backward head tilt.

The details range from the expected -- graceful arches, bay windows -- to the whimsical -- a lion's head, say, or my personal favorite, a peacock whose tail climbs three stories between window panels before fanning out at the top.

McAreavey seemed to know the names of tons of historic downtown buildings. Everyone else can look for the organization's bronze markers, which provide the names and dates of structures around the city.

Just as fun as admiring the grand old facades is seeing how they collide with their modern inhabitants. The Providence Public Library was a good place to start, beginning with the building itself. The original Italian Renaissance-style structure dates to 1900, and a dramatically less showy addition was completed in 1953. It's a strange marriage best viewed catty-corner to the library.

Inside, I admired high ceilings and elaborate cornices. The third floor, which houses the library's special collections, is well worth a visit, too, for both its 19th-century construction and the informative display of old photos of city buildings.

But nowhere is anachronism more apparent than at Nazo Lab, home to the performance troupe Big Nazo. The storefront framed by elegant stone columns has windows chock full of trolls, green monsters and other colorful creations that come to life through the group's combination of dance, music and puppetry.

Founder Ermenio Pinque laughed at how the lab stands out in the neighborhood. "We're the creature shop" across the street from City Hall, he said.

Big Nazo welcomes curious passersby to pop in, and as a battalion of interns worked to prepare for an upcoming appearance at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., I was jovially waved in and even offered an opportunity to try something on. Maybe next time.

Just a few steps down from Big Nazo, several storefronts were decorated as part of Providence Art Windows, a rotating installation that brightens up empty retail spaces. I was partial to Jillian Piccirilli's "The Paws Family," which features an exhibit of artifacts and historical accounts of the soap opera-worthy story of a clan of rabbits.

Around the corner was Westminster Street, home to many of the retail and food shops that comprise Downcity. McAreavey remembered visiting the strip as a child, when it was a pedestrian mall. Perhaps contrary to intuition, the city felt that closing the thoroughfare to traffic impeded the area's vitality, and it reopened the street to vehicles in 1986.

I made a beeline to Westminster for lunch one afternoon at Tazza, a restaurant-bar-coffeehouse with sexy red walls dotted with work by local artists. Disco ball notwithstanding, waitress Cailary Silvia told me that the place hosts an occasional 1920s-vintage cabaret that people attend dolled up in Prohibition-era garb.

You can find another throwback a few blocks away at restaurant Local 121, where the darkly glamorous decor harks back to the space's previous life as a dining room in the 1917 Dreyfus Hotel. And in the basement is the Speakeasy, which serves up food and music in the latter half of the week. (Upstairs are live-and-work spaces for artists, part of the non-profit arts group AS220.)

Toward the end of my stay, once the skies had largely cleared -- this is New England in winter, after all -- I kept my camera in easy reach to capture any edifice that piqued my interest. Peering at the historic architecture through the digital window, I smiled. The intersection of centuries was typical Providence.

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