Most Endangered Properties Program
Preservation can project and be perceived as an attitude of reactionary conservatism. Remember the broken tower clock in the movie Back to the Future, the one the local preservation society wanted to preserve “just as it is”? That’s an extreme caricature to be sure, but an all-too-often popular misconception nonetheless. The Most Endangered Properties List project takes exactly the opposite tack: it is a progressive planning tool that identifies problems and encourages positive action within the context of the community as a whole. It works in several ways.
The list’s foremost quality is focusing on properties whose deterioration and/or potential loss would erode historic urban character. Urban context for each endangered property may encompass a broad spectrum, from its immediate block to the whole region. The modest Mason Carriage House, tucked away behind 300 Benefit Street, may be little recognized, like a second premolar in your mouth, but both tooth and building are functionally important and visually significant placeholders. The Providence Arcade, a National Historic Landmark, and its Art Deco neighbor, the Industrial Trust Company skyscraper, together form a key locus on the streets of Downtown Providence and signify urban splendor from miles away. Around the city, every historic property contributes to the combined qualities that create the memorable atmosphere of Providence.
Like any city of its age and quality, Providence is home to a variety of building types, many of them having fulfilled their original functional demands, now antiquated or superseded. Large industrial complexes that processed cotton and wool, public bath houses for citizens without individual facilities, block-occupying Downtown department stores, and ample servant-staffed single-family houses were all once vitally connected to but no longer resonate with contemporary ways of life and economics. Big, solid public schools built in the city’s boom years between 1890 and 1930 no longer accommodate the academic or accessibility demands of today’s pedagogy. Even building types still in demand—warehouses come immediately to mind—no longer function technologically as they did a hundred or more years ago. As generations succeed their forebears, wants and needs for physical spaces change more dramatically with each year.
While obsolescence is the most obvious threat to historic properties, others exist. Location, location, location!—the realtors’ perpetual cry emphasizes not only properties’ desirability of youth but also quandaries of age: Who wants to live in a pristine, large Victorian single-family house in a once-stylish neighborhood that now stands among multiply subdivided neighbors or in an industrial zone? Then there’s the nastiest of nasties, ownership, and the permutations of possibilities are many: multiple heirs who cannot agree, a long-time property owner inured and blind to what it is, a new owner who has no idea of the property’s historic significance, the developer whose chief goal is to maximize profit, and—perhaps the most insidious—the developer who talks a great game with the preservation community while maintaining a separate agenda.
The Most Endangered List provides a springboard for discussion and action around threatened properties and their threats. Its annual exhibition, with documentation by members of the city’s large and extraordinarily talented photography community, brings the project squarely into the public domain. While historic properties are inevitably and regrettably lost, many key landmarks have resurged: Downtown Providence’s Shepard Company Building, Arcade, Strand Theatre, and Teste Block; the Jewelry District’s Phenix Iron Foundry; Fox Point’s Wickenden Street Bath House; and Elmwood’s Whitmarsh Apartment Building. Equally important as saving endangered properties, however, is generating interest and discussion among local preservationists and—even more important—engaging those who may never have thought about preservation as a vital force in Providence’s accruing appeal and livability.
The Most Endangered List ultimately keeps preservation in the collective forefront as well as maintaining the society’s founding charter statement to ”…accept the responsibilities as well as the privileges which come with living in an old city.”
Wm McKenzie Woodward