William Morgan

William Morgan: The tackiness of license plate grieving

America has a bizarre relationship with memory. We are obsessed with memorials. Do we really believe that one more teddy bear, cellophane-wrapped bouquet of flowers, commemorative tattoo, or one more awful sculpted bas-relief will somehow make it easier to gloss over the inexplicable deaths in a Walmart shooting or a senseless war in Iraq?

The Rhode Island license plate that honors the families of American military personnel who have been killed in service is just the latest in this superficial exploitation of grief.


There is no fee for this plate, but one needs an Official Department of Defense Report of Casualty (DD Form 1300).

Aside from evoking sympathy, being a Gold Star relative might be insurance against tickets: What police officer will fine the mom or father of a son or daughter killed in an ambush in Afghanistan?

There does seem to be a correlation between tacky remembrance and bad design. While by no means the worst of the Ocean State's specialty plates, the Gold Star issue is a minor graphic disaster.

The designers of these special plates seemed concerned only with content, with the result that most of these are embarrassing messes.


The Gold Star Family plate has the folded casket flag in the background, a seal, and the scarecrow-like Iraq War version of a battlefield memorial: helmet, assault rifle, dog tags and boots.

A license plate ought to serve only two functions: revenue and vehicle identification. Political agendas, club affiliations, and historical events should have no place on auto tags. They are distracting visually, while they often make a mockery of what they purportedly hope to remember or honor.

Va. RELee, wcr

Would this commemorative plate appeal to the mothers of Eric Garner or Michael Brown or Emmett Till?

If one's son/husband/wife/father/mother/brother/sister were killed in a secret operation in some godforsaken place like Niger, would a Gold Star Family license plate be the best way to ensure that these fallen warriors are not forgotten? Is this the most dignified way to remember them?

Princeton University has a tradition of placing a small bronze star beneath the dormitory window where an alumnus who was killed in service had lived. I taught at that university, and in my time there I could not pass by one of these simple, quiet reminders without being moved at the thought of such sacrifice.

William Morgan is a Providence-based architectural historian, essayist and author of many books.

William Morgan: From the inspirational Williams to a deadening waiting room

Amidst bathos and banality while you wait…and wait.    — Photo by William Morgan

Amidst bathos and banality while you wait…and wait.

— Photo by William Morgan

There are not many grimmer places than the contemporary medical office waiting room. And, as we get older, it seems we have to devote more of our lives to wasting time in such dreary, soul-deadening spaces. Carpets with busy patterns (to hide the dirt?), low ceilings with acoustical tiles, furniture (invariably in pale shades of rose or violet, sometimes stained), and dog-eared copies (several months old) of Sports Illustrated. The coup de grâce is often a television, too loud and tuned to medical info-mercials or a talk show with miserable human specimens who are in much worse shape than whatever it was that is sent us to the doctor.

We entered this particular foretaste of purgatory not to be healed, but to make an appointment. Feeling my life ebbing away, especially after the practice's telephone service informed me that I was Number 17 in the queue, my wife and I drove to the awful faux-concrete (yes, that plastic stucco-looking surface that looks nibbled at the edges) medical building on North Main Street in Providence. This is one of those rental office spaces that has been fixed up and repainted so many times, you can only pray that the mold and rodent droppings have been sealed in.

Our dermatologist at 345 North Main, blessedly, does not have a television, and we were not there long enough to start screaming. But amidst the only-slightly-better-than-cheap-motel wall art, an old photograph caught my eye.


The image shows a house I had never heard of, much less ever seen. But its demolition was a real loss. Underneath the 18th-century expansion, is clearly a rare 17th-century Rhode Island stone ender (note the large chimney to the right).

Less than a handful of these early cottages survive, so it is particularly painful to contemplate its destruction. The caption beneath the image makes it all seem more depressing:

“Our Abbott Street parking lot, with North Main Street visible at the left:

“Roger Williams {1603-1683, the theologian, writer and founder of Rhode Island} often visited here and led prayer meetings where our parking is now.’’

Providence-based writer and architectural historian William Morgan is the author of The Cape Cod Cottage. His Snowbound: Dwelling in Winter will be published next year by Princeton Architectural Press.

William Morgan: The door guy of Brooklyn, Conn.

Twenty years ago, we were restoring our newly acquired house, a 1915 vicarage in Providence, and needing a front door. My wife, Carolyn (who was our contractor), phoned Rudy Rzeznikiewicz in Brooklyn, Conn., and asked him if had a 42-inch wide, six-panel door. "I have one," replied the man who has over a thousand doors for sale.

Rudy Rzeznikiewicz and Carolyn Morgan

Rudy Rzeznikiewicz and Carolyn Morgan

Rudy's operation, Brooklyn Restoration Supply, is centered in two former chicken houses. One holds the doors, mantles and balusters from three centuries, along with salvaged hardware, while the other is filled with old wood–boards and beams. Spread across a large yard in between is a serendipitous collection of all sorts of architectural bits and pieces spared the wrecking ball or the landfill, plus dozens of granite millstones.

Some of Rzeznikiewicz's 1,000 doors

Some of Rzeznikiewicz's 1,000 doors

There's nothing fancy about Rudy's place: there is no computerized inventory, no refreshments, no place to sit, and you cannot pay with a credit card. Yet people in the antiques and home-restoration business know about this treasure trove and come from all over to this most rural part of Connecticut

Just a fraction of the flooring and paneling available

Just a fraction of the flooring and paneling available

Some of the many millstones

Some of the many millstones

But the best thing about Rzeznikeiwicz's operation is Rudy himself. Even if we are not in search of a specific board or piece of hardware, we like to go to Brooklyn just to spend time with this knowledgeable, fascinating, and honest antiquarian. (Rudy was a valuable source when I was researching books about early American houses and churches.)

Rudy Rzeznikiewicz

Rudy Rzeznikiewicz

Rudy looks much the same as when we first met him two decades ago, although he will be 90 his next birthday. Half of that span has been spent guiding those fixing up houses by rescuing and recycling the superior materials of pre-Home Depot days. He started dairy farming here as a teenager. And, typical of so many rural New Englanders, Rudy has patched together a life of all sorts of jobs – assessor, bus driver, postman, firefighter – that has let him stay on the family farm where he was born.

Providence-based writer William Morgan has a degree in restoration of historic architecture from Columbia University. He is the author of, among other books, The Cape Cod Cottage and American Country Churches.

William Morgan: In a N.H. town, an oasis of high artistic creativity

The MacDowell Colony, a 400-acre artists' retreat in the woods in Peterborough, N.H., represents one of the most notable gatherings of creative energy anywhere. It is a refuge, an oasis, a special place where writers, musicians, and all kinds of visual artists, come to create. It provides, its mission statement declares, “an inspiring environment” in which artists can produce “enduring works of the imagination.” Despite its many famous alumni, MacDowell is successful because it is virtually inaccessible to the world beyond.

Artists, ranging in age from 25 to 80, are “here because they want to be,” says the resident director, David Macy. Competition is fierce for a place to work alone all day in the silence of the forest, in sight of Mount Monadnock. One thousand applications are received for just the summer session. The reputation of MacDowell is such that a MacDowell residency bestows an immediate career boost. (MacDowell alumni have garnered 65 Pulitzer Prizes.) The sole criterion for acceptance is artistic excellence.

Since the colony’s founding, in 1907, by composer Edward MacDowell and his pianist wife, Marian, over 8,000 artists have traveled far from New York lofts and ateliers around the globe (a tenth of the residents are from abroad) to make art there. Around 300 colonists come to MacDowell every year, and are blessed with housing, a place to work, good food, and the precious gift of time. Thirty-two studios provide working space from anywhere from two weeks to three months, but the average fellowship is for a month.

Edward MacDowell's composing cabin.

Edward MacDowell's composing cabin.

Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town, which some call the greatest American play, at the MacDowell. Peterborough was apparently a partial model for the town — called Grover’s Corners in the play. Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland found the quiet to compose here, while MacDowell provided succor and sanctuary to such writers as Willa Cather, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. Were their privacy not so carefully guarded, this demi-Eden might have become a magnet for celebrity watchers.

The colony welcomes the public only one day a year when its awards the MacDowell Medal. Medalists have included Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Mailer, Isamu Noguchi, Merce Cunningham and Stephen Sondhiem, among others. In 1997, the colony itself was awarded the National Medal of the Arts, America’s highest honor for an artist or an art patron.

One of the musician’s cabins.

One of the musician’s cabins.

A stay at MacDowell can feel a bit like visiting your favorite grandmother on the family farm. This kind of idyll, however, is hard won. Running a community with 30-some residents at all times, an equal number of staff, and a spread out physical plant requires extraordinary management skills. Despite an endowment, millions of dollars need to be raised every year to keep the colony going. Director Macy, who dropped out of biomedical engineering to go to art school, has been the ideal colony shepherd for almost a quarter of a century.

This is a campus like few others. Colony Hall, the administrative hub and center of post-studio social life (residents have breakfast and dinner here, but lunch is delivered to the individual studios), was repurposed from a late 18th-century barn. Concord, N.H., architect Sheldon Pennoyer renovated the building a decade ago to comply with current building codes. Although reminiscent of the main hall at one’s childhood summer camp, no attempt was made to hide the changes or make it overtly rustic. Pennoyer was also responsible for the recent renovation of a hundred-year-old music studio

Colony Hall.

Colony Hall.

That same frugal but playful spirit infused the other studios, most of which are scattered deep in the woods; some are in outbuildings and barns. The progenitor was small log retreat that Marian built for her ailing husband. After his death in 1908, she began building a series of non-pretentious workspaces. There are painting studios with high ceilings and lots of light, musicians have pianos, and suitable equipment is supplied for sculptors. The emphasis is decidedly woodsy, and the studios have fireplaces and rocking chairs. All display “tombstones,” wooden tablets inscribed with the names and dates of everyone who has worked in that particular studio.

A tombstone in Alexander studio.

A tombstone in Alexander studio.

The MacDowells, who met while studying in Germany, had a favorite monastery in Switzerland that provided inspiration for most the most impressive studio. The widow of the noted American portrait painter John White Alexander built this stone “chapel” as a gallery. Although impractical as an exhibition hall, it is now a most sought-after studio, with tall ceilings, exposed beams, and a giant north window.

A major part of the work of running MacDowell is maintaining and updating the mostly early 20th-Century studios; they are in constant use, but they also needed to be made more energy- efficient.Ca

A few years ago MacDowell decided “to combine comfortable vernacular forms with architecturally sophisticated ones,” remarks New York University architectural historian and colony board member, Carol Krinsky. Cambridge, Mass., architects Charles Rose and Maryann Thompson designed an interdisciplinary arts studio, but it awaits funding. Calderwood Studio, designed as a writer's haven by Burr and McCallum Architects, of Williamstown, Mass., is a contemporary tribute to its predecessors. Many of the early cottages were built for summer use and have had to be retrofitted for year-round use. So, Calderwood, a writer’s was built, says Macy, “to be indestructible,” with a two-story high living room and a long view across a meadow.

Calderwood Studio.

Calderwood Studio.

The 1926-28 stone library by the fashionable Boston architects Strickland, Blodget & Law is similar in its memories-of-medieval-Europe-style to the Alexander studio. Its single 1,000 square-foot, timber-trussed room outlived its role as repository for colony archives and residents' manuscripts, scores, and paintings. In 2013, a 3,000-square-foot addition by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects of New York, designers of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the Obama Library in Chicago, provided a home for such valuables as a first edition of Willa Cather’s Death Comes For the Archbishop, inscribed to Marian MacDowell. This gem of black Québec granite has been sensitively grafted to the meadow and woods by the equally exceptionable landscape architects, Reed Hilderbrand, of Cambridge, Mass.

Announcing its quiet presence is an outdoor fireplace that stands like an ancient stele, honoring the theme of the studio hearths. The selection committee liked that the design was “both harmonious and deferential to the older building,” Professor Krinsky recalls. It was “beautiful, sturdy outside, calm, light, and expansive inside.”

Outdoor fireplace, original library and new library.

Outdoor fireplace, original library and new library.

View from the library.

View from the library.

Like the colony itself, the library wears the names of its famous designers lightly. This maybe one of the handsomest pieces of architecture in New England, but it is modestly tucked away, there to reinforce the MacDowell Colony’s role as an incubator of genius.


William Morgan is a Providence-based architectural historian and essayist. He conducted an historic resources study of Peterboro in 1971-72, and is the author, among other books, of Monadnock Summer: The Architectural Legacy of Dublin, New Hampshire.

William Morgan: Haunting words and images in Concord

All photos except the last by William Morgan

There are few better ways to spend an autumn afternoon than wandering amidst the headstones in an old New England cemetery. And some of the best old necropolises are in the historic town of Concord, west of Boston. Sleepy Hollow, the large garden cemetery with its Author's Ridge, resting place of Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne, is a big draw for tourists. But don’t ignore the Old Hill Burying Ground, overlooking the east end of Main Street, which has an astounding collection of carved tombstones from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Mary Minot, wife of Jonas Minot, who died at age 54.

Mary Minot, wife of Jonas Minot, who died at age 54.

Archibald Smith (1716-1780).

Archibald Smith (1716-1780).

Old Hill contains some classic and noted examples of New England stone carving: seraphim, death’s heads and hourglasses that have run out of time. This is the resting place of Captain Jonathan Butterick (1690-1767). The grave says “Weep not for me’’.

Old Hill contains some classic and noted examples of New England stone carving: seraphim, death’s heads and hourglasses that have run out of time. This is the resting place of Captain Jonathan Butterick (1690-1767). The grave says “Weep not for me’’.

Butterick, according to his stone, "lived a reputable & Useful life; in the field a good officer in ye Church a deacon." He was we can read, "not doubled-tongued; in private life a good Christian, loving husband, a kind father, a friendly neighbor." At his death, he was "followed to his grave by his aged widow & 13 well-instructed children."

Perhaps Butterick's captaincy was in the local militia, the very one that would hold the North Bridge against the King's regulars a few years later. Or perhaps he fought in one of the Indian wars.

But the quaint description of Butterick's life seems almost cozy and quaint compared to the memorial to the Concord men killed in the slaughter of the War to End All Wars, whose centennial we are now celebrating. Just across the street from Old Hill is the town's dark tribute to the carnage of modern warfare.


The seemingly straightforward recitation of the names of the 25 "Concord Men who gave their lives in the World War" provides an intriguing history lesson.

There are the usual soldiers, sailors, marines and national guardsmen, plus two deaths in the heretofore-unknown Aviation Corps. Another new wrinkle in modern killing are the members of the 1st Gas Regiment and the Gas Defence Service (given the spelling, were these two different outfits, one British?). There are medical corpsmen, quartermasters and ambulance drivers and maybe the most ancient craft represented, a farrier in the Veterinary Corps.

Being Massachusetts a century ago, there are a sprinkling of French (Gaudet, Bergeron and Bernier), Irish names (Toomey, Donovan) and Italian (Liberace and Napolitano).

Private Clemente Napolitano was in the Italian Army. Was he an immigrant drafted home, or did he go back to Italy to fight in the years before the United States entered the war? Captain Gordon M. Channel was in a Canadian light infantry regiment. Was he one of the many Americans who went north to join up to fight in Europe, not waiting for an isolationist America to confront the Hun?

The list of names tells us little more than the warriors' names and their outfits. Were that not poignant enough, Concord added the words of its own Ralph Waldo Emerson. While eloquent, the sentiment feels more high-minded Victorian, nobler than the grim reaper's cast of local boys lost in a senseless conflict, far from home.


Of course, Emerson has long been associated with Concord. Consider one of the most famous American poems, his “Concord Hymn,’’ written to commemorate the Battle of Concord (and, by extension, the Battle of Lexington, too), on April 19, 1775, at the start of the Revolutionary War. The most famous line is the fourth.

It was read and then sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, in Concord, on July 4, 1837.

By the rude bridge that arched the flood, 

   Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, 

Here once the embattled farmers stood 

   And fired the shot heard round the world. 

The foe long since in silence slept; 

   Alike the conqueror silent sleeps; 

And Time the ruined bridge has swept 

   Down the dark stream which seaward creeps. 

On this green bank, by this soft stream, 

   We set today a votive stone; 

That memory may their deed redeem, 

   When, like our sires, our sons are gone. 

Spirit, that made those heroes dare 

   To die, and leave their children free, 

Bid Time and Nature gently spare 

   The shaft we raise to them and thee.

The Concord Battle Monument, next to the Concord River.    — Photo by Dave Pape

The Concord Battle Monument, next to the Concord River.

— Photo by Dave Pape

William Morgan, an essayist and architectural historian, is a frequent contributor to New England Diary on the subject of cemeteries, among other topics. He is the author of The Cape Cod Cottage, The Abrams Guide to American House Styles and Monadnock Summer, among other books.

William Morgan: The evolution of the Mass. license plate from decorous to colorful kitsch


It has been a long time since the Massachusetts license plate was a model of good design. The Commonwealth was one of the first states to issues plates back at the beginning of the 20th Century, and during that early porcelain tag era was one of the few states that actually manufactured its own.

One of the porcelain tag makers in the early days of the automobile.

One of the porcelain tag makers in the early days of the automobile.


With the exception of the plates with the codfish logo in 1928 and 1929, most Bay State plates have been decorous, no-nonsense affairs.


From my college years, I remember the simple MASS plate. The background color was rotated every other year from black, to cranberry, to a rich dark green. The numbers were embossed and legible.


But 20 or so years ago, Massachusetts adopted the reflectorized surface, started to play with various "Olde Tyme" typefaces, and added the motto:“The Sprit of America’’. (Since Americans are fuzzy about the meaning of Lexington and Concord, one could be forgiven for thinking the moniker meant some kind of booze.)

While still way behind, Massachusetts seems to be trying to catch up with those states that crank out dozens if not hundreds of specialty license plates, complete with puppies, space disasters, endangered animals, household pets, sports teams, political slogans, various cancers and everything in between. Some recent Massachusetts offerings celebrate Cape Cod & Islands, Nantucket and vegetables.


While we Americans manufacture irony by the bucketful, we rarely appreciate its nuances. A recent appearance is a plate that that touts the need to conserve white sharks. One doubts that family and friends of Arthur Medici, the 26-year-old who was killed earlier this month by a Great White while swimming off Cape Cod, will be applying for this plate.

(Will there be a Save the Seals plate soon? Seals are a favorite food of sharks.)


From a design standpoint, one of the most egregious plates is the recent issue, LOVECAPEANN.COM. Who does not love Cape Ann? Yet an area known for brave fishermen and noted artists deserves more than this trite graphic disaster.


The Cape Ann Community Foundation, which will use the extra plate fee for promoting economic development and education, had a contest to find a design. The winner was Annalei Babson, a native of Rockport, who calls herself a branding specialist.

She gave the plate four wee pictograms–from Gloucester, Rockport, Essex and Manchester, along with an artist's palette. The triteness of the presentation makes one shudder to think what the other love fest schemes looked like.

But there is a more positive – or at least, happy – take on one couple's LOVECAPEANN plate. Susie and Don, who live in Hamilton, applied for the number 143, as in I love you, for Susie's Hyundai. Don went one better and got 1432.

Mass. Cape Ann, Don & Susie's

William Morgan writes on architecture and design from Providence. His Rhode Island license plate is OX. He’s the author of, among other books, The Cape Cod Cottage and Monadnock Summer.

William Morgan: A back-of-beyond town in New Hampshire


Union Church, Town Hall, and Congregational Church, Kensington, N.H.

-- All photos by William Morgan

Despite the grand-sounding name, there's not much to see in Kensington, in southeastern New Hampshire. "Downtown" Kensington is just a wide place in the road, with a cluster of two churches and the town hall. Many Granite State towns were named not for places back in the mother country, but for members of Parliament, in this case, 1st Baron Kensington.

The town library, a small late-Victorian gem, is some distance away, next to the elementary school (104 students in kindergarten through 5th grade), while the Bell Hill Schoolhouse, built in 1839, and the North School, built in  1842,  now unused brick boxes, were erected  farther out in the country to serve the scattered populace. No doubt, there is a country store-cum-filling-station at a crossroads somewhere else in the town.

The Union Church, built in 1840, is a conservative mix of the late Georgian and Greek revival styles.   

The Union Church, built in 1840, is a conservative mix of the late Georgian and Greek revival styles.   

Kensington has just over 2,000 people spread out over 12 square miles. As is typical of northern New England, many people wanting to live here will have to commute  considerable distances to work – to Exeter, Portsmouth, Haverhill or even Boston. Yet, though only a stone's throw from Massachusetts, Kensington captures that back-of-beyond quality of rural New Hampshire. As in  much of the state, the forests are reclaiming what was open grazing land for two centuries or more.

Gravestone of Henry Lamprey, who died May 12, 1764, aged 90.

Gravestone of Henry Lamprey, who died May 12, 1764, aged 90.

Samuel Tucke's stone of 1843 is of slate, the stonecutter's name is inscribed at the bottom and the urn and weeping willow motifs are more sophisticated than the primitive winged head of the early stones.

Samuel Tucke's stone of 1843 is of slate, the stonecutter's name is inscribed at the bottom and the urn and weeping willow motifs are more sophisticated than the primitive winged head of the early stones.


There are almost no gravestones beyond the middle of the 19th Century, suggesting that the town's young people had migrated to Yankee mill towns or out West. One gets the inescapable feeling that Kensington is a place passed over.

William Morgan is an architectural historian and essayist. He is the author of  American Country Churches and The Abrams Guide to American House Styles, among other books. He  has taught at Princeton University, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Louisville and his essays have appeared in numerous publications.


William Morgan: New Providence hotel -- suburban banality in a spot crying out for urban grandeur

What would a truly creative capital city erect on a premier spot in an historic downtown?  An art center? A library? A theater? A museum? Maybe a knock-your-socks-off hotel?

How about a cookie-cutter commercial travelers motor inn of the kind you could see along any highway leading to the airport in any American city?


Homewood Suites by Hilton near Kennedy Plaza, Providence

(Tocci Building Corporation)

What does it say about Providence that an anywhere hotel is being constructed on one of the most important lots downtown? This piece of suburban blandness joins such significant civic monuments as City Hall, the old railroad station, and two handsome courthouses, not to mention some notable statuary.


Federal Building Annex, 1939-40, and the 1908 Federal Building.

(William Morgan)

 The Hilton is rising on the site of long-gone Central Fire Station.  The firehouse architect gave the city a monumental piece of public architecture, a delightful yet dignified exercise in English Renaissance with a landmark tower (no doubt used for drying hoses).


Central Fire Station (1880-90) and the then-new Federal Building and Post Office.

 One does not need to see the finished product to know how ho-hum this purported “upscale” hostelry will be. As is often the case with projects such as this, the renderings look better than the actual building ever will. Yet, the designers, ZDS Architecture & Interior Design, claim to have created “a building that recognizes and is responsive to the grand and traditional neighbors that surround it without resorting to imitation.”


Homewood Suites. $20 million of blandness.

(Tocci Building Corporation)


 The 109,000-square-foot hotel will be eight stories, the first floor of which will be devoted to the parking of cars. The Homewood Suites is saved from being an overbearing rectangular block by the odd shape of the lot. And the designers have mitigated the building’s bulk by dividing the façade into three groupings, in a 2, 4, 2-story sequence, in a reference to a classical column.  Alas, the brick skin looks exactly like what it is, a thin veneer.


Homewood Suites under construction.

(William Morgan)

Do you ever wonder why so many uninspiring new buildings in Providence get wrapped in these contact-paper-thin brick panels? In the 21st Century we ought to be unafraid of exposing the structural frame, or crafting envelopes of contemporary materials. Perhaps the purpose of the brick is to give the allusion of Early American domestic architecture. But it is not easy to make an eight-story block homey.

The Dean Hotel

The very successful new Dean Hotel occupies an older brick building.

(William Morgan)

The “greatest works”  of the architect of the  Homewoods hotel,  ZDS's Eric Zuena, include “luxury hotels” in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Riyadh.” So, why didn’t Providence get some of that luxe? One should be wary of architects’ mission statements that announce they are “at the forefront of a NEW DESIGN ERA, redefining success by SOLVING UNPRECENTED PROBLEMS” (their capitalization).

Providence may need hotels. But why one at the lower end of Hilton spectrum? There must be something in between sheikdom glitz and the traveling salesman’s stopover.

Hotel Providence

The Hotel Providence, another attractive hotel in a repurposed building.

(William Morgan)

Well-meaning people – financiers, bankers, builders, developers, city boosters – are working hard to improve Providence. Yet something is missing. Maybe we need to begin any major project by asking what it will look like and what will it contribute to the commonweal.

William Morgan is a nationally known architectural historian and  author.


William Morgan: Block the schlock in Route 195 relocation area



(Photos are by William Morgan.)

The relocation of Interstate 195 away from Fox Point was one of the reasons my wife and I chose to move to Providence. The old highway was still a scar marring the base of College Hill when we came here city shopping 20 years ago. That the city had decided to remove that relic of misguided transportation planning convinced us that Providence was an unusually smart and creative town–one with a clear-eyed sense of itself and proud of its rich heritage.


The Providence River where Interstate 195 used to cross.

The Providence River where Interstate 195 used to cross.


Now, in a frenzy of construction, the reclaimed land is being developed and a pedestrian bridge will soon link both shores of the river. In early May the I-195 Commission held a public meeting to review three applications to develop the open space between Main, Canal and Wickenden Streets.



While the proposals varied in how many parcels they would cover, any construction here would have a tremendous impact. Given the most important undeveloped site on the East Side, one might expect that the city had solicited some of the world's most imaginative and respected designers. Alas, no. Two of the schemes are no better than the typical schlock found in any suburban office park.

The 160 luxury apartments of Post Road Residential were touted as having “distinctive amenities.” The Connecticut-based developers identified themselves as “the blue chip apartment developer in the northeast.” Despite such hyperbole, few of their completed apartments that Post Road illustrated made the heart race. Images of neighborhood details seemed disingenuous.

Schematic of Post Road Residential.

Schematic of Post Road Residential.

Bargmann Hendrie + Archpetype, Post Road’s architects, claim that their work is marked by “cost-effective design,” but this project has nothing to offer other than giving the developers a foothold in Rhode Island. Even the most build-anything-as-long-as-you-build-it diehards at the commission hearing could sense this was an also-ran entry.

The Carpionato Group went for an over-the-top sales pitch for The Row at College Hill, a scheme laced with clichés and too little in the way of good design. Carpionato president Kelly Coates declared that this would be a “lifestyle development – a catalyst for city and state” and would attract “the best of the best tenants.” But it was difficult to see beyond the box-store quality of this multi-parcel behemoth – a stepsibling of their Chapel View shopping center, in Cranston.


The Row at College Hill.

The Row at College Hill.


Lou Allevato, of Caprionato’s architecture firm HFA, declared, “We need to inspire with great architecture.” Yet there was none on offer. In a bit of hopefulness, HFA’s moniker is Creative Solutions Meaningful Places, a firm “focused on designing for the customer experience.” Headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., HFA designs for Walmart (which is based in Bentonville), Slim Chickens, 7-Eleven and Alex + Ani. In Providence this team has given us the Home Depot and University Market Place.




To be fair, the current Row at College Hill is a remake of the one originally proposed in 2013. That scheme was more thoughtful and urbanistically responsible. Instead of large blocks of building, the housing was broken up into several smaller units, the skyline was varied, and there was a communal courtyard in the center of the largest parcel. Although the new configuration of the Row apparently satisfies some neighborhood concerns, it would contribute far less to the cityscape.


The Row at College Hill, 2013 proposal.

The Row at College Hill, 2013 proposal.


Is this the level we aspire to for this near sacred plot of land? This place is part of our urban patrimony. It is where the Providence River joins Narragansett Bay. It has views of several bridges, as well as the iconic triple stacks of the power plant, and it is a strategic entrance to College Hill and Fox Point.

Rather than the tired mantra of “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” and boasts of square footage inflicted on other cities, the Spencer Providence presentation was three dimensional, considering appearance as well as economics. The architect, James Piatt of Piatt Associates, made the balanced and provocative presentation.


Spencer Providence.

Spencer Providence.


Based in Boston, the firm has a solid record as a builder of housing, schools, hotels and restaurants. Prior to establishing his own firm, the MIT-trained Piatt worked for the legendary urban developer James Rouse and with architect Benjamin Thompson on Faneuil Hall Market. The architect walked the audience through what the mixed-used village might actually feel like. His selection of historical images strongly suggests that Piatt understands Providence’s history, scale and unique vibe.


Spencer Providence.

Spencer Providence.


As opposed to the monolithic blocks of suburban junk offered by Carpionato and Post Road, Piatt’s town houses, hotel and retail establishments are knitted in a multi-faceted tapestry of palettes, materials, and massing, offering the “kind of variety this neighborhood deserves.”

How unfortunate that the I-195 Commission does not have three equally good proposals to chose from. Whatever we build on this prime location will be with us, for better or worse, for a long time to come. Good design is a better investment, and there should be just as many jobs to build a notable piece of architecture as a turkey.

We need to ask when will Providence accept that truly inspiring and lasting development is more than mere real estate, union jobs and lowest-common-denominator building wrappers.

Willam Morgan is a Providence-based architectural historian and author.




William Morgan: Yankee industry and architectural beauty in a rural setting

(All photos, except as indicated, by William Morgan)

Halfway between the suburban sprawl of North Attleboro, Mass., and the tired mill city of Woonsocket, R.I., lies the remains of a rural mill village, of the kind that once dotted the Rhode Island landscape.

Almost 300 years ago, a saw mill was planted along the edge of Abbott Run. Amos Arnold, who gave his name to the small settlement, erected a grist mill here in the 1740s, as well as a gambrel-roofed house.

The road through the village was long ago bypassed by Route 120, while the bridge across the mill stream is closed to automobile traffic. While the once agricultural landscape of northern Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts has fallen prey to thoughtless development, Arnold Mills offers a glimpse into the Yankee blend of industry within a rural setting.

Amos Arnold house, Arnold Mills, Sneech Pond Road, Cumberland, R.I.

Amos Arnold house, Arnold Mills, Sneech Pond Road, Cumberland, R.I.

The Metcalf Mill, gone by c1963.    -- Photo: Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission

The Metcalf Mill, gone by c1963.

-- Photo: Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission

Abbott Run, with dam and mill pond beyond (now the Pawtucket Reservoir), the bridge is an early 20th-Century Pratt truss.

Abbott Run, with dam and mill pond beyond (now the Pawtucket Reservoir), the bridge is an early 20th-Century Pratt truss.

This Cape Cod cottage overlooking Abbott Run was built around 1800, but it got a Greek revival update in 1837.

This Cape Cod cottage overlooking Abbott Run was built around 1800, but it got a Greek revival update in 1837.

The Dr. Addison Knight House, 1847. Still the cottage form, but thoroughly Greek revival with its Doric columns, full entablature and doorway with sidelights.

The Dr. Addison Knight House, 1847. Still the cottage form, but thoroughly Greek revival with its Doric columns, full entablature and doorway with sidelights.

William Morgan is a Providence-based architectural historian, journalist and book author.

A superb and overdue book about a great American architect

The building above is the Merchants Exchange, Philadelphia.

The building above is the Merchants Exchange, Philadelphia.

William Strickland (1787-1854) was one of the most important American architects. His re-interpretation of Greek temples for a modern democracy in such monuments as the Second Bank of the United States and the Merchants’ Exchange, both in Philadelphia, along with the Tennessee State Capitol, in Nashville, are among the noblest landmarks of this country’s civic identity.

William Strickland, by John Neagle, 1829, with Second Bank of the United States in the background.    -- Courtesy, Yale University Art Gallery.

William Strickland, by John Neagle, 1829, with Second Bank of the United States in the background.

-- Courtesy, Yale University Art Gallery.


Although  a pioneering monograph on Strickland was  published in 1950, a serious study of this master has been desperately needed. Now, Robert Russell has written the definitive book, William Strickland and the Creation of an American Architecture (University of Tennessee Press).

Despite his national stature, Strickland designed only one building in New England, the Providence Athenaeum. The building committee of one of the city’s oldest cultural institutions “ascertained that William Strickland of Philadelphia had a reputation second to none in this country and in his profession” and invited the architect to Rhode Island, where he submitted a design. The library opened in the summer of 1838, having cost $18,955.76.

The Providence Athenaeum (1837-38).

The Providence Athenaeum (1837-38).


Professor Russell, who wrote his dissertation at Princeton University on late medieval architecture in Italy, is one of those civilized, non-politicized historians whose interests and abilities range far beyond one narrow field.  He has written a book on the buildings of Memphis and is a noted authority on gravestone restoration. His last academic post was at Salve Regina University, in Newport, where he was the director of the historic-preservation program. He is now breeding goats in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Robert Russell, in Richmond, R.I., in 2013.

Robert Russell, in Richmond, R.I., in 2013.


Architectural histories, like that exemplified by William Strickland, set the standard in the profession before academia was sabotaged by political correctness and infected by pseudo-philosophical posturing. Russell’s writing is clear, eloquent and without the overlay of verbal obfuscation that characterizes so much contemporary writing about buildings. The sort of scholarship that characterizes the Strickland book will undoubtedly be dismissed as old-fashioned, and, since its subject led an upright life with no sex scandals or financial skullduggery, it is unlikely that the book will receive much notice. Yet the Strickland book it is the kind of treatment that so many inadequately documented American architects need, and far too few will receive in our increasingly know-nothing culture.

Architectural historian William Morgan wrote his Columbia University master’s thesis on William Strickland’s contemporary Alexander Parris, and is the author of The Almighty Wall, The Architecture of Henry Vaughan.





William Morgan: R.I. celebrates the tacky


Rhode Island's newest specialty license plate is yet another instance of the state's inability to put forth a decorous image. No wonder that Rhode Island keeps faltering at trying to sell itself as a tourist destination and a place to do business.

Perhaps the parade in Bristol is America's oldest Fourth of July celebration. So what? (This silly plate reminds me of one of my favorite instances of pathetic local boosterism. As you enter Mitchell, Ind., a sign declares: "Welcome to Mitchell. Home of the Mitchell Bees. State Basketball Championship Runner-ups 1948''. Or to echo the 1969 Peggy Lee ballad, "Is That All There Is?'')

American independence is, however, something to celebrate. Despite ongoing unhappiness with Thomas Jefferson because was a slaveholder,  the Declaration of Independence, of which he was the chief author, changed the world positively forever. Why not remember that document and the events it spawned as the zenith of the Enlightenment? Instead, Rhode Island commemorates a parade in only one of its 39 towns.

Could we have come up with a license plate that did not look like the cheapest sort of political bumper sticker, another "patriotic" pimping of Old Glory?

As a design, the plate is as silly as it is illegible. Why add the impossibly small drum with crossed flags (the simple graphic clarity of the Rhode Island Regiment's flag might have served as a template for the overall design)?




The waving field of stars and stripes is simply a distracting mess, while what are presumably fireworks explosions seems to have been borrowed from Maryland's equally dreadful War of 1812 commemorative plate. Never mind that a disastrous, unnecessary war that we lost (Fort McHenry did not fall, but Washington was burned) is the object of identifying motor vehicles boggles the mind. What’s next: a Vietnam War plate? (Its motto might be the legend I saw on a soldier's jacket in 1968: When I die I am going to heaven, because I have already been to hell: Vietnam.)



Official Rhode Island needs to stop trying so hard. With license plates, as with most aspects of our image, simple is best.

William Morgan is an architectural historian, based in Providence. He has written about license plate design for such publications as the Hartford Courant and Slate.

Willliam Morgan: Tacky corporate picture at Bowdoin


Jon Friedman, an artist known for portraits of  such celebrities as Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates and Ted Turner, donated this painting of Leon Gorman to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Gorman, the grandson of Maine sporting-goods store pioneer L.L. Bean, was a graduate of Bowdoin, in Brunswick, Maine, and served the college as a trustee. Gorman died in 2015.         

This seemingly generous gesture is really a slap in the face of one of the great college art museums in the county. Housed in a neoclassical gem designed by McKim, Mead & White, the Bowdoin museum is home to an exemplary collection of American art by such luminaries as Winslow Homer, John Singleton Copley, Edward Hopper, Gilbert Stuart and Abbott Thayer.

Based in New York and  on Cape Cod, Jon Friedman cranks out trite, officialese portraits of the rich and famous – CEOs, physicians and congressmen. All follow the same bland photo-realist formula. Leon Gorman's is one of Friedman's worst, looking like a knock-off of one of the L.L. Bean catalog covers, complete with the ubiquitous Maine hunting shoe, barn coat and a couple of incompetently rendered bird dogs.

            To be fair, the Bowdoin visage is a preliminary study for a portrait at L.L. Bean, which is based in Freeport. Museums often try to collect artists' sketches, believing them to be fresher, more immediate, and less fussed over than the finished canvas. Alas, the Leon Gorman study is neither appealing nor revealing..

William Morgan, based in Providence, taught the history of American art at Princeton. He was also a visiting lecturer at Åbo Akademi, the Swedish-language university in Finland.

William Morgan: Albert Quigley -- a king of Monadnock Region's culture

The Cheshire County Historical Society, based in Keene, N.H., has mounted an exhibition on the Monadnock Region painter Albert Quigley (1891-1961); it runs through early September. The show includes 45 of the artist's paintings – landscape and portraits, mounted in frames that he made. Additional material on Quigley's fascinating yet little-known story, his creative contemporaries, his frame- and violin-making, and his role in the musical life of contra dancing in southwestern New Hampshire complete the comprehensive 182-page catalogue, beautifully produced by Bauhan Publishing, of Peterborough.

Quigley exhibition at Cheshire County Historical Society    --  Photo by William Morgan

Quigley exhibition at Cheshire County Historical Society

--  Photo by William Morgan


Unlike most of the famous members of the famous art colonies in nearby Dublin and Cornish,  N.H., Quigley was self-taught and was never able to devote himself entirely to his art. Born in Frankfort, Maine, he joined his father as a stonecutter in a quarry there. After service in France during World War I, Quigley settled in Keene; married and later moved to a small house in the nearby village of Nelson, where he helped raise three children; worked in the Cheshire Mill, in Harrisville, and also cobbled together a living as a mural painter, greeting-card designer and frame maker. His best client was Dublin painter Alexander James; they often worked together and Quigley's quiet landscapes and no-nonsense portraits show Mr. James’s influence.


Mount Monadnock

Mount Monadnock


One of the pieces of writing in the catalogue is a tribute to Quigley by his long-time neighbor, the poet May Sarton. At Quigley's funeral, the minister read Sarton's tribute in honor of her great friend. One verse reads:

            "Lately, he lay downstairs, a dying king,

            His violin at the end of his bed like a couchant beast

            In some old tapestry or heraldic painting,

            The battered orange cat blinking by the fire.

            The fat asthmatic dog snoring beside him–

            Family, neighbors gathered there all day''


Providence-based architectural historian William Morgan is the author of the book about the cultural legacy of Dublin, N.H., cultural legacy, titled Monadnock Summer.

"House in Sullivan, New Hampshire, Looking Toward Sugar Hill.''

"House in Sullivan, New Hampshire, Looking Toward Sugar Hill.''

William Morgan: First Communion

A bit of kitsch in the town where Henry David Thoreau made Walden Pond world-famous.

A bit of kitsch in the town where Henry David Thoreau made Walden Pond world-famous.



            Despite its trite name, Thoreauly Antiques, on Walden Street, in Concord, Mass.,  remains a fertile hunting ground for old photos that suggests many a tale of everyday New Englanders.

            Maybe with computers and their sophisticated photo programs, a lot of images are being stored for future generations – knowing that all my floppy disks are unreadable, perhaps not. Maybe the shoebox of treasured images was just as good a storage system.


            For 50 cents I was able to recapture the day of this young woman's first confirmation three quarters of a century ago. The Regal Magic-Eye Enlargement was made in Quincy. The girl's name and other information may have been in the scrapbook in which this memory was pasted. But one does not want to contemplate the demise of the scrapbook or the journey of this snapshot of one of life's landmark moments to a junk shop.

            May 19, 1942 was a Tuesday, so we can guess the confirmation took place on May 17. On that day, German and Soviet forces were battling for Kharkov, American submarines were chasing their Japanese counterparts following the Battle of the Coral Sea, while in the Atlantic U-boats sunk almost a dozen Allied ships.

            But back in Boston, the day was sunny and full of hope.

William Morgan is a Providence-based writer and architectural historian. He has taught the history of photography, and co-authored the book Bucks County with  the late RISD photography professor Aaron Siskind.


Amidst kitsch and the drive to show off, a Quaker aesthetic still survives in the prepster Brigadoon


The Nantucket Island license plate appropriately displayed on a Land Rover, a classic off-road SUV for navigating Nantucket's cobblestone streets.


Can the precious island made wealthy by Quaker ship owners and whalers, but now the purview of Ralph Lauren-clad hedge-funders, stand any more cuteness? Would that the hauntingly beautiful island rebel against yet more trite merchandising of this demi-paradise of cedar shingles and windswept moors. Once, the ultimate status symbol was an over-the-sand permit for the bumper of a Jeep, or better yet, an old Land Rover. Now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has offered another bit of snobbery with a special license plate.



Even so, the new plate is not nearly as exclusive as the various out-of-state vanity plates that are seen on the island. Imagine the pride of the Mr and Mrs Gottrocks, summer residents from somewhere near the horse country of Morristown, N.J., constantly announcing their second domicile on their Audi "Afrika Korps" urban assault vehicle.

Clearly the appeal is for more than the 10,000 or so locals, and anyone across the state can get a Nantucket Island plate for their car. It is a desirable trinket for those who regard the Far Away Land as nirvana – a place of Nantucket baskets, Nantucket red khakis, red brick sidewalks, and more take offs and landings at the airport in the summer than Boston's Logan. $28 of the island plate's $40 fee does go to non-profits that help children, but one wonders if there were not another way to raise charitable contributions than a design that pimps the island's history


  Massachusetts paid a Boston brand consulting firm in Boston to glop up a license plate with several fonts. Thank goodness, the identifying NI and numbers are embossed – other states would have offered a tableau of Moby Dick in full-on Nantucket sleigh-ride mode. But no kudos should go to Nantucket artist David Lazarus for his confusing and complicated logo of a sperm whale superimposed on a detailed map of the island.

Such silliness makes a mockery of the centuries-old Quaker aesthetic that gave Nantucket such a strong design identity,as  in the house below.




William Morgan is a contributing editor at Design New England magazine and is the author of such books as Yankee Modern and The Abrams Guide to American House Styles.





William Morgan: An architectural gem and a mysterious postcard


It is amazing how much history we can glean – or maybe imagine–from a postcard (in this case, one purchased for $3 in an antiques shop in Chatham on Cape Cod).

The back of the card reads: "Sept. 17. Hope you are getting along all right at home. Hope to get along the road quite a piece today. Will write again tonight. Anna''


The card was sent from Kingston, N.H.,  in 1906 to a family member back in Everett, Mass. Anna, the writer, promises to write at the end of the day. Where is Anna going? She has only been 40 miles or so from home, yet she feels the need to report on her progress into the New Hampshire borderlands. Is the addressee, Mattie Colline, a sister who is holding the fort with an invalid or maybe alcoholic parents? Or perhaps Anna has eloped?

The postage is but a penny, and the stamp rightfully memorializes the U.S. Postal Service's  founder, Benjamin Franklin. Anna is secure in the belief that wherever she is that night, the post office will efficiently get her next missive off to Everett.

While Miss Anna is able to get a lot of message on the front of the postcard, she exhibits no curiosity at all about Kingston (supporting our theory that she was just passing through). The attractive village was named for King William III, who gave the town its royal charter in 1694. It was also the home of Dr. Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (One suspects that Anna Colline was not the kind of lady to search the local cemetery for such an ancient notable's final resting place.)

Neither Anna nor the postcard says anything about the Nichols Memorial Library (above) itself. Built in 1898, this architectural gem is one of many small New England book repositories that paid homage to the late great Boston architect, Henry Hobson Richardson. Some of the most satisfying works by the designer of Trinity Church in Copley Square were his Romanesque-style libraries in Quincy, North Easton, and Woburn. 

The architect here was important in his own right. Joseph Everett Chandler was an authority on colonial architecture, and is best remembered for his restoration of such early Yankee landmarks as the Paul Revere House, the House of Seven Gables, and the Old Corner Bookstore. But there was so much more, as Prof. Timothy Orwig has catalogued more than 500 projects by Chandler, and as the Nichols Library attests.

Joseph Everett Chandler.


Providence-based architectural historian William Morgan has written extensively about New England buildings. Among other books, he has published The Cape Cod Cottage and Monadnock Summer: The Architectural Legacy of Dublin, New Hampshire.


William Morgan: Touring the treasures of a cold campus

Spring in northern New England is a sometime thing. It does not usually come until May, if at all, and it doesn’t stay very long. (There's a bit of Yankee humor: "Spring around here is short. Last year, we played baseball that afternoon''.) A recent visit to Maine reminded me that we were still very much in what  the late Noel Perrin, my favorite Dartmouth professor, called one of New England's six seasons: "Unlocking''. Except for a few brave daffodils, there were no flowers to be seen and few leaves on the trees.



Waiting for spring: House neat Wiscasset, Maine.

My wife and I walked around Bowdoin College during this period of grayness. Where, we wondered, were the crowds of prospective Polar Bears touring the campus on their spring break? Our own son had seen the Brunswick school in the flush of summer. Would an introduction in November or March have chilled his ardor for Bowdoin? What about students from Virginia or California showing up expecting Maine to look as it appears in online college promotional material?



Main Green at Bowdoin College, looking north.

Yet, we found something strangely appealing about Bowdoin at this time of year–a kind of astringency, a stark honesty defined by barebones trees. There was a sense of what it means to live in Maine year round, or to have attended Bowdoin, say, back in the 1820s, along with Longfellow and Hawthorne, when Brunswick was far away and pretty isolated from the world.



View of the green from Massachusetts Hall (1802),Bowdoin's oldest building.

Minus the leafed-out of shrubbery and flowering trees, it is a lot easier to appreciate the astounding collection of notable 19th Century and early 20th Century architecture that forms the center of the Bowdoin campus.


Charles McKim, of McKim, Mead & White, was the most famous American architect to build at Bowdoin. The Walker Art Museum (1894) is a perfect Renaissance revival jewel. The Western canon of painters, sculptors  and architects whose names are carved on the façade might now be seen as a group of dead white men, but it was a typical homage found on Beaux-Arts civic buildings



Richard Upjohn was another giant of American architecture, best known for his Gothic revival churches, such as Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York. Upjohn, however, employed his beloved English Gothic only for Episcopalians. So the Bowdoin Chapel, 1844-55, was built in a severe German Romanesque for the Maine Congregationalists–a commanding if stern house of worship.



The tall and narrow chapel, with its large murals and painted ceiling, is an unexpected change from the starkness of unadorned white interiors of the typical New England meetinghouse.



Although not as famous as either Upjohn or McKim, Boston architect Henry Vaughan was a major designer of churches and colleges. Like Upjohn, he championed English Gothic. Here, Searles Science Hall of 1894 is an early example of a Jacobean-inspired collegiate building in America.



Echoes of Oxford and Cambridge, where Vaughan worked before emigrating to America, inform his Hubbard Library (1903). Soon, the lawn would be home to Frisbee games.


Above the entrance to Hubbard Library is this flowing banner carved with the admonition: Here Seek Converse With The Wise Of All Ages. Would such a motto be welcome in today's politically correct academy?


William Morgan is a longtime architectural historian and essayist. His books include Monadnock Summer: The Architectural Legacy of Dublin, New Hampshire and A Simpler Way of Life: Old Farmhouses of New York and New England