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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

How University Heights Became What It Is

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I live on Doyle Street, and whenever I go to the Whole Foods--the nearest grocery store to me within walking distance--I stumble past the irritating parking lot moat around it. I always wonder what the neighborhood was like there before. So I asked Providence Preservation Society if they had any documents they could share. Here's what I got, un-redacted. If I come across photos, I'll update this as I go. The reading also includes some other neighborhoods, like Cathedral Square. I'm still reading through this myself, so I look forward to reader comments and any help coming across further documentation or photos.


II. West River Industrial Park (1954-1964)

The Federal government’s advocacy of an interregional highway system was paired inevitably with a program for urban renewal. The first major project of the Providence Redevelopment Authority (PRA), established in 1947, addressed both issues. With the passage of the 1949 Federal Housing Act, the essential elements for the reshaping of Providence were in place: statistical and quantifiable standards of “urban blight,” a Federal funding mechanism for “slum clearance” plans, and a broad consensus that America’s older cities should be reconfigured for the automobile. 

Hoping to reverse a postwar exodus of industry from Providence for suburban sites with easy access for autos and trucks, the PRA began planning in 1954 for eminent domain acquisition of the West River neighborhood, a 60-acre area north of downtown identified as blighted in earlier planning studies. This dense, 19th-century neighborhood comprised twelve streets and over five hundred, stores, factories and churches and the dwellings of some seven hundred families. 

The pattern of acquisition and development employed by the PRA, established earlier in Chicago, consisted of the following steps:

-- identification of an area as blighted,

-- procurement of Federal funds for redevelopment studies and design plans ,

-- acquisition of the blighted area through eminent domain,

-- demolition of existing buildings and, in most cases, street pattern, and

-- sale of the cleared property for private development carried out under PRA

    oversight

Patrick Malone, professor of Urban Studies at Brown University, has pointed out that residential neighborhoods were prime targets for this process. The Federal Housing Act of 1949 drew upon “housing hygiene” standards promulgated by the American Public 

Health Association in the previous decade linking sub-standard housing to a variety of measurable social and physical ills. The Housing Act, however, had no established standards for industrial blight. Although selected, private efforts had been made to beautify factory settings since the mid-19th century,1 most factory complexes remained degraded, functional places, an accretion of buildings and structures with little regard for appearance or environmental pollution. The Federal standards for residential blight were, however, unsparingly specific.

A rigid, deterministic logic found no place for urban rehabilitation or revitalization in this scheme. According to the calculus of the PRA, Providence had slums; these areas bred disease as well as social and moral ills; slum clearance and replacement with new, hygienic neighborhoods would produce a better and healthier citizenry. 

But this logic encompassed an added element. Blighted residential areas could also be removed for the greater public good of economic development. The City Plan Commission’s 1946 Master Plan for Fields Point Port and Industrial District made clear that the economic survival of Providence required the protection of its industrial tax base and the nurturing of jobs: “…large areas of substandard housing will have to be cleared through redevelopment procedures to obtain properly located industrial sites.”2

Addressing the space requirements of modern industry, the Plan noted the trend of industry to exit cramped, urban settings in favor of suburban industrial parks.

Manufacturing industries generally in their search for increased efficiency are trending toward more space per worker through provision of space for car parking; expanded lunch rooms, recreation and sanitation facilities; change from multi-floor to one-floor operation; increased use of automatic machinery; and more light, air and room for the worker.3

In practical terms, this meant a doubling or tripling of site acreage. As envisioned in 1954, the PRA planned an industrial park in West River that would replicate in an urban setting a suburban park--with access to the existing Route 146 and the proposed North-South Freeway as well as railroad service. Planning for the proposed “north-south freeway” was underway by this time and the city was aware that its ample right-of-way would eliminate industrial areas in productive use since the 19th century. Such an exodus was expected to have a profound economic impact on the City. 

The Providence Redevelopment Agency took title to West River in January 1957. Demolition of the 508 commercial, residential and ecclesiastical buildings (including Immaculate Conception Church) in the neighborhood soon followed. From demolition of this dense, residential area, would emerge a new street pattern centered on a realignment of West River and Corliss Streets to form a U-shaped access road and fourteen industrial parcels, the most conspicuous of which would house the nation’s first fully-automated 

US Post Office (Intelex/McGuire, 1959, see separate HPDF). Apart from the highly-specialized design of the post office, the industrial buildings planned and built according to PRA standards were one- and two-story, steel-frame or concrete block buildings with brick and glass facades and sited on a minimum 20’ setback for required landscaping. 

Among the design standards intended to maintain the park-like setting was the requirement that there be 500 sq. ft. of automobile parking for each 1000 sq. ft. of industrial space. 

Current conditions: West River still bears the distinct look of a 1950s industrial park. Despite some changes in surface treatments, eleven of the approximately fourteen standard original parcels retain the scale and general appearance of the original design. 

The Post Office remains in excellent condition, as built, with a bland north extension. Two parcels along the east side of Corliss Street have been acquired by USPS and these buildings serve auxiliary postal functions. A modern medical office building, sited at the southwest corner of the park, is stylistically an appropriate addition to the park. Notable survivals of original construction are the Postal-Federal Credit Union Building (1960) at 179 West River St., the Adolph Mellor Company plant (C.A. Maguire, 1962) at 120 Corliss St., and the Machinery Parts Company building (1964) at 150 Corliss St. A free-standing building contemporary with the main post office is labeled as a “lubritorium” on a Sanborn map of the early 1970s. This term was introduced in the 20th century to indicate a dedicated service station bay for oil changes and lubrication. It appears to have been built to service the fleet of postal vehicles. 

Demolition. At the extreme north end of the park, the 1960 Cornell-Dubilier plant (later the B.B. Greenberg Company, C.A. Maguire, 1960,) one of the first tenants and a fine example of mid-century factory design, was demolished for construction of the present Stop and Shop.4 The Providence Gravure plant (Lockwood Greene, 1962), a printing plant for Providence Journal color gravure inserts was demolished after 1997; the site is now used for storage of truck trailers.

III. Weybosset Hill Redevelopment Project (1959-1984)

Aerial photography of Providence carried out by the state in 1951 shows a final, comprehensive look at the City before the implementation of postwar master planning: 

Cathedral Square is a busy confluence of roads at the western edge of downtown; retail shops sit cheek-to-jowl with multi-story dwellings. The Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul (1878) shares the square with a statue of Mayor Doyle. Weybosset Hill is a lively confusion of traffic, people and commerce—and a neighborhood in need of a lift. Weybosset Hill, a 50-acre area wrapping around the western and northern edges of downtown Providence, included four of eighteen sites identified in 1948 by the PRA as blighted. A Development Plan for Weybosset Hill released by the agency in 1963 provided the following rationale under the heading “Blighted and Substandard Conditions”:

The project area is a “deteriorated blighted area”, within the meaning of the “Redevelopment Act of 1956” as amended to date, because buildings or improvements either used or intended to be used for living, commercial, industrial or other purposes, or any combination of such uses, which by reason of (1) dilapidation, deterioration, age or obsolescence, (2) inadequate provision for ventilation, light, sanitation, open spaces and recreation facilities, (3) detective design or insanitary or unsafe character or conditions of physical construction, (4) detective or inadequate street and lot layout, (5) mixed character, shifting or deterioration of uses to which they are put, or any combination of such factors and characteristics are conducive to the further deterioration and decline.5

Using the Federal funds made available through the Federal Housing Act to identify blight, the PRA retained I.M. Pei and Associates Architects and Planners to carry out the study and design plan. Pei’s contemporary work in New England had included Boston’s controversial Government Center (1961), a brutalist development that included a new City Hall. The 1962 Weybosset Hill Redevelopment Project, bounded on the west by the right-of-way for the new interstate highway and comprising a crescent-shaped swath from Broad Street to Snow Street, provided few surprises. Following the pattern earlier established for West River, the dwellings and businesses of the blighted area were to be demolished, the residents relocated under the supervision of the City; the cleared parcels would be redeveloped privately for a mix of commercial, ecclesiastical and residential uses under PRA guidelines.

The centerpiece of the new plan was a pedestrian plaza to be anchored by the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. This plaza would take the name of the previous square formed by the west confluence of Weybosset and Westminster Streets. The reorganization of Cathedral Square, described by Pei as “the most exciting design opportunity” in the larger redevelopment project, drew its inspiration from the great piazzas of Europe where ancient cathedrals dominated vital civic and commercial squares.6 Cathedral Square, “the heart of the Weybosset community” would do the same: automobile access would be limited; Westminster Street (at the time a pedestrian mall) would continue westerly across Empire Street and terminate at a planned Diocesan Chancery Building (1967) occupying the former street alignment at the point where it crossed the interstate, sunken below grade as it made its way through the city. 

Extending north from Cathedral Square, Jackson Street would become a pedestrian walkway leading to a proposed Weybosset Hill high-rise apartment building (later named the Regency). Key components of the plan included a high-rise motor hotel (Holiday Motor Inn and garage), several office and commercial buildings (including Blue Cross and the NET&T building extension), and high-rise elderly apartments (Beneficent House), and a sports arena (Providence Civic Center).  

Although the Cathedral would occupy an honored space within the plan, Weybosset Hill’s most conspicuous symbol bore witness not to the past, but to the possibilities of a city redefining itself around the automobile. One requirement of the PRA was the siting of a “regional travel center” to be perched above and adjacent to the freeway, serving as a welcoming symbol to the motorist. No simple filling station, this round concrete, brick and glass structure surmounted by a tall center beacon would guide auto tourists and business visitors to a renewed Providence.7 An architect’s rendering furnished in Pei’s 1962 design proposal shows the view from a planned park at La Salle Square looking northwesterly toward the motor hotel, the sports arena, and the existing Providence Police and Fire Headquarters (1938, demolished 2008). Rising in the distance is the beacon of the regional travel center (Gulf Station, 1968, demolished 2001).  

The Weybosset Hill project was launched officially in May, 1964. The first buildings were completed three years later. Cathedral Square was dedicated in 1974. A year later an Evening Bulletin article lamented that Pei’s “most exciting design opportunity” was desolate.8  Construction continued throughout the 1970s; the most recent building, One Empire Plaza, occupying the corner of Empire and Washington Streets, was completed in 1982. The area includes some nineteen low- to high-rise buildings, extensive paved areas, and landscaping. Listed in approximate chronological sequence: 

Cathedral Square (I.M. Pei with Zion and Breed,1962-1974) 

Weybosset Hill Apartments, later One Regency Plaza (Curtis and Davis, 1966) 

Diocesan Chancery Building (1967) 

Blue Cross and Physician’s Service Building (Fenton Keyes, 1967) 

Beneficent House (Paul Rudolph, 1967) 

Public Welfare Building (Castelucci Galli Planka, 1967) 

Holiday Motor Inn and garage (William W. Bond, 1967, redesigned 2008) 

Gulf Regional Travel Center (1968, demolished 2001) 

Regency East (Curtis and Davis, 1970) 

Regency West (Curtis and Davis, 1971) 

Jackson Street Apartments (Robinson Green Berretta, 1971) 

One Weybosset Hill (1971) 

NET&T Building Extension (Howe Prout and Ekman, 1971) 

Providence Civic Center (L. Kenneth Mahal—Ellerbe Associates, 1972) 

Telephone Credit Union   (Zane Anderson,1976) 

4 Cathedral Square (Robinson Green Berretta, 1976) 

5 Cathedral Square (Robinson Green Berretta, 1978) 

Gilbane Office Building (Gilbane,1979) 

Grace Church Apartments (RGB,1979) 

One Empire Plaza (1982)

Note: Providence Housing Authority’s first high-rise elderly apartment building was Dexter Manor (Creer Kent Cruise and Aldrich, 1960-62; new wing Catelucci Galli, 1984), situated at the edge of the highway right-of-way at 100 Broad Street. Although its design and scale is in keeping with the monumentality of the later construction of Weybosset Hill, it should be viewed as forerunner to the redevelopment plan. See separate HPDF.

IV. Lippitt Hill Redevelopment Project (1959-1968)

Lippitt Hill, a dense, predominantly African-American, 30-acre residential neighborhood on the northern edge of College Hill and bounded by Olney St., North Main St., Doyle Avenue and Camp Street was identified as “blighted” by the PRA through the provisions of the Federal Housing Act of 1949 and the City’s Redevelopment Act of 1956. The PRA took ownership of the project area in 1959, releasing its Official Redevelopment Plan the same year. Its vision for the transformation of this area was unambiguous:

The community expects that there will be created on the East Side of Providence a vigorous and outstanding neighborhood consistent with the position of America as a leading moral force in a pluralistic world.9

While “slum clearance” was being carried out by the authority, the PRA initiated a competition for proposals for private development according to the agency’s vision. Although the PRA had made no requirement for a plan addressing the inevitable displacement of minorities and ethnic communities, the chosen developer, University Heights Inc., led by Providence merchant Irving Fain, addressed the matter with some clarity. From the Philosophy and Objectives section of the 1962 proposal:

It is their [the developer’s] determination that University Heights will become a wholesome, desirable area of Providence, outstanding not only for its environmental advantages but…as a demonstration to Providence and to America that people of many backgrounds can live in harmony.10

Lippitt Hill as a neighborhood would cease to exist. University Heights, the name adopted for the project, would be designed as a diverse, harmonious community of residents of various income levels and ethnic composition in a distinctly modern setting. UHI had good reason to address the matter of racial harmony. Within five years of this proposal, rising racial tension would explode nationally in the summer of 1967. South Providence saw its own riots the same year. 

UHI retained Victor Gruen Associates to design a group of low-rise, modern apartment buildings in a garden setting with an abutting shopping plaza. Since the 1940s Gruen had been a strong advocate of the suburban shopping mall idea. In Mall Maker, M. Jeffrey Hardwick’s study of Gruen’s work, he addressed the siting of suburban-type malls in declining cities:

Long the nation’s most glamorous shopping districts, downtowns had been declining precipitously. Though automobiles had made the downtown functionally obsolete, all was not lost. With a combination of slum clearance and suburban shopping centers, downtown could regain its prominence, with regional shopping centers serving as “satellite downtown areas.” The latter then would accommodate “the hordes of automobiles” with “restfulness, safety and aesthetic value.”11

And so would it be in Providence; the anchor of this commercial plaza was Star Market, the involvement of which was sought by UHI as a 50% partner in their visionary enterprise. As stated in the proposal:

Star’s initial interest in Lippitt Hill was sparked by the potentialities of the shopping center. However, at the outset, Star recognized the important social challenges of the residential area. It also recognized the role of modern community developers in open-occupancy housing.12

Gruen proposed the removal of the earlier street pattern and its replacement with a “superblock” as articulated earlier in the work of urban designer Clarence Stein. At the time Gruen was completing the Charles River Park redevelopment project in Boston. His plan for University Heights included about twenty 2- to 4-story, flat-roofed, garden apartment buildings with interior views into common, landscaped quadrangles and peripheral parking at the edge of the development. A stairway (now demolished) led from the residential areas to the shopping plaza fronting on North Main St. Income diversity was assured through the availability of two types of FHA mortgages. The exterior design of the low-income blocks was such that this status was considered to be indistinguishable from the higher income units.

Tension between the idea of slum clearance as a necessary precondition for urban renewal versus the possibility of historical preservation is evident in another University Heights innovation, the creation of an “annex” along Doyle Avenue which rehabilitated a small group of 19th-century Lippitt Hill residential houses at the northern edge of the project. This concession was likely influenced by the ongoing restoration being carried out along Benefit and North Main Streets.13

Current conditions: 

Much of the housing component of University Heights retains the original design, with little or no intrusions to the original garden apartment idea. The exteriors of several units at the center of the development have undergone a recent redesign. This renovation, including balconies, creates some visual discord with the buildings of the original design.

Gruen’s animating idea of a vital link between the residential and commercial components has been lost over time. The stairwell that once connected the apartments to the plaza below is now partially demolished behind a stockade fence. Because of this and successive redesigns of the various plaza stores, there is no longer any visual or organic connection between the commercial and residential areas.

Note: Plans on file at the Providence City Archives Blueprint Collection dated 1966, 

attributed to the firm of Collins, Kronstadt, are located in Box 7.

Notes:

1 See “The Day of the Mill Beautiful is at Hand,” Providence Sunday Journal (23 May 1909): S4.

2 Plan for Fields Point Port and Industrial District, p. ix.

3 ibid, p.2.

4 This plant was considered to be the embodiment of the suburban, auto-and truck-accessible plant 

anticipated in the 1946 City Plan Commission report. A 1960 artist’s rendering of the ideal Rhode 

Island industrial park (combining in one park the best of new, statewide suburban industrial 

construction) placed the Cornell-Dubilier plant in the focal center of the illustration. See Things 

are Happening in Rhode Island, Providence Sunday Journal supplement 2 October 1960. 

5 Weybosset Hill Redevelopment Plan, p. 1-2.

6 These are: the Piazza San Michele (Lucca, Italy), the Piazza Grande (Modena, Italy), the 

Domplatz (Regensburg, Germany), and the Piazza del Duomo (Vicenza, Italy). See Weybosset 

Hill, p. 10. 

7 It is interesting to note that until the demolition of this building in 2001, two circular plan, mid-

century buildings served as bookends across the interstate: the Gulf station on the east and the 

community center for Bradford House (100 Atwells Avenue). The latter building survives.

8 “Cathedral Square Stays Desolate, Yet to Prove Urban Dream.” Evening Bulletin (2 September 

1975): 1.

9 Lippitt Hill Official Redevelopment Plan, p. 16.

10 University Heights: A Proposal for Lippitt Hill, p. 4.

11 Source: M. Jeffrey Hardwick, Mall Maker, p. 120. Quoted passages were taken from a 1952 

Progressive Architecture article by Victor Gruen and Larry Smith.

12 University Heights: A Proposal for Lippitt Hill, p. 4.

13  Noted preservationist Antoinette Downing was a member of the University Heights 

corporation.

3 comments:

  1. It’s often said that Providence escaped the worst of urban renewal. I’m not so sure that’s true when highways and other “improvements” are considered.

    I’m dating myself. I remember asking my parents as we drove down the new service road next to the cathedral, before 95 was complete below, seeing an old Weybosset Hill theatre half demolished, named either the Olympic or Olympia. I asked why they were tearing down the theatre. They didn’t have a good answer other than it was old.

    Earlier, when I was four we moved to Summit. Lippitt Hill was already down. It was weird because there was overgrown grass, like rural fields fronting Olney and North Main Streets. My father told me that they tore down the neighborhood because it was a bad place. My father wasn't at all racist, but he seemed to have bought into the tale of the day.

    A good friend who grew up in Lippitt Hill told me that it was a stable and beautiful neighborhood. “They just had to tear it down because black people lived there.” I can only imagine as the housing stock was probably similar to College Hill, the Camp and Hope Street area. If Lippitt Hill was never demolished would South Providence still be Jewish and Irish? Would the hospitals have been able to gobble up all those buildings for parking lots?

    Other neighborhoods that should be looked at for mid-century damage are Hoyle Square along with the eastern section of the West End, as well as Niantic.

    Peter Brassard

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  2. Remembrances like these are really important. Thanks for reminding us of the disproportionate effect of "urban renewal" on black communities.

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  3. This late Nineteenth Century map shows Lippitt Hill before the "redevelopment": http://www.historicmapworks.com/Map/US/32335/Plate+F/Providence+1875+Vol+1+Wards+1+-+2+-+3++East+Providence/Rhode+Island/

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