Preserving RI State House Landscape Character

State House black and white image

Title: 7. AERIAL VIEW OF SOUTH ELEVATION AND GROUNDS – Rhode Island State House, 90 Smith Street, Providence, Providence County, RI
Medium: 4 x 5 in.
Reproduction Number: HABS RI,4-PROV,180–7.

by Brent Runyon, Executive Director of the Providence Preservation Society

The landscape around the State House is one of the most character-defining in Rhode Island. City and State leaders at the latter half of the 19th century embraced certain ideas that made little sense at the time but have come to define how Providence re-engineered itself nearly a century later. What they sought was a setting that would contribute to the perception of the State House as being set above and apart from everything around it. Viewed from the town side, it appeared that way. Not too far away, along Smith Street, was a densely packed neighborhood. In addition to the building’s unrivaled architecture, the open space around it and its setting atop a hill are defining characteristics that make ours the most beautiful State House in America.

Why then, if this landscape is so magisterial do elected leaders and their staffs continue to pave over it? That the potential of developing it, floated by RIDOT not too many months ago, landed the landscape on The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s version of our Most Endangered Properties list: Landslide 2017: Open Season on Open Space. Among landscapes in Rhode Island, the State House setting is significant in its entirety. While there is some argument about whether the current lawn is what was planned by the architects McKim, Mead & White, there is no doubt that what currently exists has gained important meaning in its own right, including the site for recent citizen rallies and protests that occupied much of that open space.

As historic preservationists, we believe deeply that our actions today should be considered in terms of their impacts on future generations. For several years, we’ve expressed concern about the State’s opportunistic taking of land around the State House in order to meet parking “demand.” The State House landscape, including the walls, lawn, paths, and hardscape, all contribute to the beauty and sense of place. They do what well-designed landscapes should do: define boundaries that separate as well as spaces to congregate, create sightlines for observation and pathways for circulation, enable sufficient storm water management and much more. Tinkering with a historic designed landscape such as this, whether with incremental increases in surface parking or with the installation of an intermodal transit hub, should be done with the careful, professional consultation of landscape architects and historic preservationists.