I have been in Rhode Island for almost 30 years. I love our community and the friends that are our family, the beauty and diversity of our landscapes and vistas, and without a doubt, I am crazy about the buildings. I love observing how they were built, the materials they used, and how they aged. While my wonder about all things built started early in life, I did not really catch the building bug until I came to Rhode Island.
I attended Roger Williams College’s Architecture program in the late 1980’s, only to find a greater passion with something called Historic Preservation, where a whole world opened up. The program made sense of our built environment. I learned the science of how and why buildings evolved, stood, and failed. I learned how history is in our built environment, and how the natural environment, technology, and cultural influences like the arts, fashion, and politics, can be seen in every building throughout the ages.
Rhode Island was a place where pragmatism, activism, and a lack of investment saved our built environment timeline. Rhode Island has been a leader in the building preservation movement, saving architectural gems, places of significance, and unique buildings for generations. There were outspoken figures in Rhode Island’s preservation movement like Antoinette Downing and Doris Duke, as well as countless others dedicating their lives to saving places, including building owners who live in and maintain old houses for the love of them, practicality, and pride. There are thousands of historic buildings that survive by the will of the owners and the skill of the crafts. Only a small percentage of historic homes are actually protected.
Rhode Island is and was a melting pot of industry and craft. Early settlements, farms, and ports grew into town centers and cities. It was the biggest and busiest commerce center of pre-American Revolution, with a vast built environment to support it. Major Industrial Revolution innovations lead to millions of square feet of factories and wealth that completed the finest 18th and 19th century crafted mansions and simple vernacular houses. Prospering industries like boat building, metals, furniture, along with exceptional raw building materials and easy transportation, allowed the crafts to flourish and create almost every architectural style in American history right here in Rhode Island.
So this love for our built environment’s history is why I fix, maintain, and improve buildings. It is why I help people manage their resources, giving them humble opinions and honest choices. This is why I teach the next generation about craft and maintaining existing and historic buildings. And this is why I am excited to write this column.
So if it’s preservation by neglect or by design, by choice or by law, building owners ultimately save or kill buildings. They manipulate, patch, repair, and improve, making their mark on a building’s evolution. We cannot dismiss our role in maintaining and changing our built environment’s history. We are barraged by sales pitches from home improvement stores, contractors, and designers to change, improve, make more efficient, or replace with maintenance free products. My goal is to help building owners make informed decisions and break through all of the noise, where we can all be a part of keeping Rhode Island such a wonderful place.