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?

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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.

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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).

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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.”

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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.

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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.