The Mauling of Thayer Street: architecture critic Morgan



Saturday 25 September 2021

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Thayer Street on a weekday evening. PHOTO: Will Morgan

Thayer Street “is a vibrant and ever-changing area,” according to the Providence-Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The neighborhood caters to the student crowd, but it’s also popular with academics and locals.” The Bureau continues, “Thayer is constantly updating its offerings to stay up to date and engage in the community. This statement is six years old, which raises the question of whether anyone from the Convention Bureau has since returned to Thayer Street. A more accurate description of Brown’s once attractive shopping area would describe it as a seedy slice of Times Square.

The collegiate strip has always been a mixed delight for the city-goer. Whenever Carolyn and I traveled across the country, we headed to a college town, hoping for an oasis in a wasteland of fast food and sameness. We figured campuses invariably had an area nearby where you could buy a good pizza, and in the past, find a health food store, tobacco shop, florist, vintage clothier, and a good bookstore.

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Thayer Street in the 1970s: a mix of local businesses and national chains, and a little funky.

Thayer was still a bit like that when we moved here at the turn of the last century. There were two good bookstores, an Army & Navy Store (always an indicator of university clientele) and even a stationery store. After teaching at Roger Williams and Carolyn’s house after working all day restoring our house, we often went to what I called Brown Town to grab a bite to eat and walk around a bit. After a Greek salad at Andreas, a hot dog at Spike’s or spices at Kabob and Curry, we wandered by the Avon to see what was going on, browsed the College Hill bookstore, bought an ice cream and just hosted the student atmosphere.

Today, locals and academics on Thayer Street should be looked for seriously, especially at night when the street is crowded with teenagers who might otherwise be found in a suburban mall. And, of course, Thayer’s Corso, where the rivalry between crotch rockets and Harley-Davidsons means hearing is prone to fusion. Insomnia Cookies refused my money one night recently because cash in a crate is a temptation for thieves.

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An exhilarating and annoying mixture of noise and machismo. PHOTO: Will Morgan

Sure, the streets are changing, but the trashification of Thayer Street has taken place at an astonishing rate. My first story for GoLocal, “Architectural Triumph on Thayer Street”, was a review of Brown’s new dorms in Pembroke. This complex, designed by the radical San Francisco firm MLTW, beat 669 other contenders for the best design of Progressive Architecture for 1970; later, New Pembroke received the American Institute of Architects 25 Year Award. This little design genius was well suited to a time of optimism and promise.

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New Pembroke: A combination of dormitories for Brown and commercial space, is an inspired mix of city and dress. PHOTO: Will Morgan

Compare this award-winning, nationally recognized triumph of academic and community cooperation with the 257 Thayer building. Although designed by Union Studios, a company capable of doing decent new town planning, this contemporary building is nothing but an Ubiquibox with some cute details. It solves the growing problem of student housing on the East Side, but it adds little to the neighborhood and does nothing to visually improve the neighborhood.

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257 Thayer Street, a block-devouring juggernaut that insults the more human scale of the College Hill neighborhood. PHOTO: Will Morgan

Granted, Thayer Street has always been more of a promenade than a boulevard, but it now seems to be sinking under the weight of national franchises that push small self-sustaining businesses. Greed subverts the very qualities that made Thayer Street a draw to begin with. It’s one of the tragic ironies of how beautiful an Ivy League campus is in a historic setting: it draws students and visitors from everywhere, sowing the seeds of its decline, or perhaps killing the hen. golden egg.

Has the business association, college, or town given any thought to what happens when Thayer Street implodes with more bad buildings, more fast food, and more decibels? Still, much of the blame should be on Brown’s doorstep. Twenty years ago saw the start of a cooperative enterprise of townspeople to make the streets more beautiful. Thayer Street Revival faltered, however, in part because Brown didn’t want to be seen as taking over and therefore kept his distance. No more.

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257 Thayer has commercial space for rent, but the rents are either so sky-high or the space is dead, because no business stays here for very long. Is Aroma Joe’s the best business this prime location can attract? PHOTO: Will Morgan

Brown is changing the landscape of College Hill as the scale of new developments, such as the new wellness center on adjacent Brook Street (built where a half-dozen Queen Anne Residences once stood), can only increase congestion on Thayer. Thayer Street is an example of Brown’s inability to understand his responsibility to the city and neighborhood whose attractiveness fuels the academy – a modern university is about more than endowment, enrollment and expansion. Instead of exploring innovative solutions, such as expanding to East Providence, Pawtucket, or Smith Hill, he appears to be intent on simply planting aggressively anti-neighborhood behemoths, such as the Performing Arts Center and the proposed dormitories of Brook Street.

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Shake Shack: the epitome of an Ivy League campus experience? PHOTO: Will Morgan

Consider President Paxson’s comments on the Nelson Entrepreneurial Center, when she called it an example of Brown creating spaces where students can “hatch ideas, start businesses and hone their entrepreneurial skills.” So, will the university attract the best minds to work in an Ubiquibox with a Shake Shack on the first floor? Surely this is not the idyllic image of the famous hilltop university for which parents pay more than $ 70,000 a year?

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Architecture critic GoLocal Morgan holds an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and two graduate degrees from Columbia. He taught at Princeton and Brown. He likes to remind people that the Ivy League is just a 67-year-old collegiate athletic conference.

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