Brent Runyon: 60 Years of Preserving our Past

Posted April 8th, 2016 by maryanthony and filed in Executive Director's Blog


We are reprinting an article written by our colleague, Brent Runyon, which was published today in the Providence JournalThe image above is of Brent at the Wedding Cake House on Broadway in Providence…

Brent Runyon: 60 Years of Preserving Our Past

April 8, 2016

A little more than 60 years ago, on Feb. 20, 1956, a group of Providence residents incorporated a new nonprofit organization: the Providence Preservation Society. The group was formed, in part, to protest a proposed urban renewal plan for the College Hill neighborhood. Like many such plans at the time, the proposal called for demolition of numerous 18th and 19th century buildings in an attempt to improve the area.

In response, PPS brought together planners, policy makers and preservationists to produce the iconic College Hill Study, which became a model for preservation as a means of community renewal. For the first time in national history, urban renewal funds were used to save old buildings — rather than to destroy them.

PPS’s “founding feat” preserved the past, but also contributed powerfully to the future. Walk down Benefit or Main Street today for a vivid picture of the lasting impact of that effort. Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design, College Hill and Providence would simply have far less appeal — appeal that is now recognized worldwide, and that has attracted and will attract investment in our city — had it not been for PPS’s forward-thinking founders who valued the past and believed that our future depends on it.

That kind of forward thinking is still one of our institutional values. It runs through all of our present day education and advocacy efforts, from a conversation on building livable neighborhoods at last fall’s Providence Symposium, to our 2016 Most Endangered Properties list, which features a collection of industrial, educational, and religious buildings that could net tremendous returns to Providence if repurposed.

We also recognize that Providence’s future success hinges not only on preserving the past but also on our city’s environment, economic development, and neighborhood vitality. There is an intrinsic relationship between these concerns and the quality of the places where citizens live, work, learn and gather.

That is why we introduced Jennifer Bradley, at the time a fellow and senior adviser of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, to Providence in 2014, when she discussed how Providence’s assets — chiefly our cultural heritage — can be used to build a bright economic future. Her former colleagues, Bruce Katz and Mark Muro, reinforced this notion in a Providence Journal Commentary piece, in which they cited Rhode Island’s “historic industrial character … and quality of place” as assets that “are investments in the fundamentals of economic development.”

Taking the long view is particularly critical as the city considers its single greatest present-day opportunity: the former Route 195 land. On the surface, development of the land is not primarily about historic preservation; it is about the city’s future. The future of this city has been a clear concern of PPS’s since our founding; in fact, it is stated in our mission to improve Providence by advocating historic preservation and the enhancement of the city’s unique character through thoughtful design and planning.

To that end, we concur with the recent Rhode Island Innovates report, which stressed the importance of including Downtown and nearby areas in the innovation district, which would help knit together Capital Center, Downtown and the Jewelry District, producing a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.

And even while we crave “cranes in the sky,” we should demand high standards for architecture and siting, knowing that what is built on the land must be excellent for this generation and all to follow. Where there is any lack of political will, or laws that do not ensure excellence, PPS will advocate, as it has since 1956.

Like our founders, we envision a Providence that celebrates and preserves its past, building a vibrant and sustainable future where people and the economy thrive. This vision is only realized with a breadth and depth of partnerships with our members, donors, volunteers, and event-goers. Please visit us often at our new headquarters at The Old Brick School House (24 Meeting St.) and on the web at We hope you will join us for an education program, advocacy effort, or signature event in 2016, our 60th anniversary year.

Brent Runyon is the executive director of the Providence Preservation Society.