Cathedral Square: hideous present, glorious future – architecture critic Morgan

Monday, November 29, 2021

Cathedral Square is one of the saddest places in downtown Providence. Rather, an area that should be the heart of the city is an empty, abandoned, totally unwelcoming and hostile “civic” space. Half a century after an internationally renowned architect and nationally renowned landscaping company designed and shaped it, Cathedral Square is an embarrassing urban disaster.


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Cathedral Square looking east on Westminster Street. PHOTO: Will Morgan


We have lived here for over two decades and have just been to Cathedral Square to find out about this history. Normally, visiting the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul by Patrick Keely, a monument to the most prominent Catholic architect of the 19th century, would have been a must-see destination. But the design of the area around the seat of the Diocese of Providence makes the visit difficult. The square is not so much protected as it is barricaded from the city. As a car-free zone, the area in front of the cathedral is a hike from any parking lot. One Sunday the cathedral itself was locked and there were only a few other people in the square.

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The cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul difficult to access, a Victorian mixture of Romanesque and Gothic. PHOTO: Will Morgan

The logical approach to the square, the main axis of Westminster Street, is a challenge for anyone who is not a fearless athlete. The major axis was completely cut off – literally without a way out – at the end of the 1960s by the Chancery Office and Auditorium (by EF Kennedy, an architect as talented as he is connected). The pilgrimage to the central space is marred by poor quality maintenance. Bricks, tiles and pavers are missing and there is trash everywhere. Even the homeless avoid this purgatory.

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Messy and unwelcoming. The sign on the left says, no skateboard, bike, roller skate or scooter. PHOTO: Will Morgan

The 1960s were the height of urban renewal; in 1965, we even had a new cabinet for Housing and Urbanism. The Kennedy administration encouraged the arts, while Jackie’s favorite architect was IMPei, designer of the Kennedy Library, the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, and the Cathedral Square in Providence. Under the aegis of John Nicholas Brown, Jr, Pei designed a beautiful science complex in Brown, which unfortunately was never built. Before Pei became one of the giants of modern architecture, he was a renowned city planner. And Pei’s partner in Cathedral Square was Zion & Breen’s leading landscape architectural firm.

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Rendering of the Providence redevelopment agency of the cathedral square. Note Pei’s brutalist-style concrete superblocks; these were scrapped for cheaper and less sturdy bricks.

The plan looked great on paper, and given the talent involved, what happened? This column often advocates for hiring the best designers, but that in itself is not enough to ensure success. As often happens, Providence hires great designers and doesn’t seem to know how to best use them. Pei’s beautiful concrete buildings were made from cheaper bricks. While there is plenty of space to gather and rest, the well-intentioned idea of ​​having a place completely without a car was too radical for Americans at the time.

Cathedral Square: looks like an open-air living room and a hill that was once the fountain of life. Restoring the water feature would be an important first step in attracting people here.

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PHOTO: Will Morgan

One of the most promising aspects of Cathedral Square is not really a square, but a somewhat amorphous rhombus, with a variety of different entrances – a classic square. This should have made this public space all the more dynamic. This square could have been the envy of many European cathedral cities, the kind that is full of outdoor restaurants, vendors, produce and flea markets, festivals, pigeons and tourists.

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The Cathedral Square has a few mature trees and plenty of places to sit. More trees, a working fountain and the demolition of the Chancellery at the west end would make the square more welcoming. PHOTO: Will Morgan

But several factors have doomed Providence Square, the subsequent construction of the interstate highway dividing the nearby city, which, along with the destructive Axis Chancellery, closed Westminster Street. In addition, there was the stigma of low cost housing. Perhaps the biggest contributor was the failure of the city to adequately finance the development of the place. And what happened to the feasibility study for the cathedral square carried out by the town planning department in 2007? It proposed an image of pre-urban renewal, where the Bishop McVinney Auditorium would be demolished and Westminster Street would pass. The estimated cost at the time to revive the square was over $ 10 million, but even if it doubled today, it would be a very attractive infrastructure expense.

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The cathedral could be a wonderful backdrop for the activity of the city center. Ultra modern

An imaginative remodel of the Cathedral Square would not be so difficult to achieve. Perhaps we could start by moving the small businesses out of the Providence Place mall, which will soon be closed. All the elements envisioned by architect Pei are still achievable and, as we should have learned by now, small-scale vibrant urban spaces are essential. Anchored by an impressive ecclesiastical monument, Cathedral Square could be a major catalyst in boosting downtown development.

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Map of Cathedral Square (Westminster Street is on the right). Extract from Vacant Providence 00 from Ultramoderne.

Now, which mayoral candidate is ready to commit to the rescue and revitalization of the potentially magnificent Cathedral Square of Providence?

Architecture critic GoLocal Morgan is the author of a number of books on American home design, including The Abrams Guide to American Houses Styles and A Simpler Way of Life: Old Farmhouses of New York and New England.

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