Providence Public Library

As many Rhode Islanders know, the Providence Public Library undertook a MAJOR renovation that largely wrapped up in 2020. The capital campaign focused on the 1953 wing (the portion of the building that fronts to Empire Street), greatly updating the interior space but also lovingly restoring the mid-century facade of the ‘new wing.’ People in Providence had long drawn unfavorable comparisons between the beautiful, classical ‘old wing’ on the Washington Street side to the ugly, modern Empire side. The brilliant restoration has raised the ‘deco’ beauty of the 1953 wing to an equal footing with the well-loved 1901 classical wing. I greatly urge anyone in New England to visit the library and be sure to tour the inside and the outside thoroughly.

The ‘Old Wing’ AKA the 1901 wing AKA the ‘old building’ AKA the Washington Street entrance. PPL Photo
The ‘new wing’ AKA the 1953 wing AKA the ‘new building’ AKA the Empire Street entrance. My photo in the middle of the renovation, October 2019. Note how the South End of this wing is not flush to the Washington Street facade. This was intentional; mid-century thinking was to block out ‘the old stuff.’ One can see in this photo how the ‘new building’ had gotten tired looking pretty quickly, but also how good renovation was restoring a lot of ‘jazz.’

In the summer of 2019, Director Jack Martin, COO Aaron Peterman, and Programs Director Christina Bevilacqua reached out to me to discuss creating a Lego model of the library. Every awesome building has to have one! I had previously worked with Christina holding public talks about public school architecture. Modeling a public library is not far from my mission of celebrating overlooked public school architecture; one could say they’re ‘cousin’ structures. So I was certainly interested and created a couple of mock-ups and estimates that I presented to the library staff. I was very excited that they opted to ‘go big!’

I started taking pictures and ‘thinking’ in October 2019. I attended a series of public panel discussions that Christina organized about the history of the building. While I don’t necessarily need to know the ‘back-story’ of a building to model it, I like to and I do believe it influences my final product (something I can elaborate on in another post). In particular, I learned a lot at the panel discussion that focused on the opening of the ‘new wing’ in 1953. The ‘deco’ look of the new wing was a purposeful break with the classical Providence style around it, and its height and width was chosen to hide the old Washington Street façade as people accessed the library from its new main entrance on Empire Street. This is shocking to 21st century preservationist ears, but it was stressed that this was in keeping with urban thinking at that time – ‘new looks’ were in. As we know in retrospect however, a lot of the new urban design, coupled with the construction of highways through city centers, did not create revitalized urban spaces, but tended to cut them up, create traffic, and disengage structures from an urban pedestrian environment. Providence and its new main library wing were no exceptions, and over time, the new wing did not look so nice and seemed to become a good example of a poor 20th century idea working against the classic beauty of the streetscape around it.

That was the general tenor of the discussion. The panelists were mostly architects and historians, but Christina also invited Guy Lombardo, a longtime patron and eventual PPL trustee to the panel. Mr. Lombardo has been frequenting the library his entire life and remembers visiting the new wing when he came back from Korea. Since much of the discussion was a ‘post mortem’ of the era of the new wing, I asked Mr. Lombardo directly what he thought as a patron when he first toured it. He said it was marvelous and he loved it; he used the word ‘jazzy.’ He said that to people his age it wasn’t that they didn’t like the ‘classic’ cityscape, but after spending their youth in war and depression, something new looking felt so good. These comments stood out to me, and they gave me the perfect way to describe my admiration for the renovation as I started to see it unfold in late 2020/early 2021. The 1953 wing seemed to be recapturing its ‘jazz,’ and I sought to convey that in my model.

The Empire Street entrance post-renovation; the ‘Jazz’ is back! PPL Photo.

I worked on the model in earnest after Christmas. I and PPL kept this work semi-secret, and we released ‘teaser pics’ via the PPL’s social media through January and early February. So as I built it, I periodically sent Tonia Mason, PPL’s Marketing Director, close-up pictures of an architectural detail that hinted at a bizarre art project, but were not dead giveaways that it was a Lego model.

By mid-February, enough of the model was complete to take a good ‘reveal’ picture and Tonia and I simultaneously made a Valentine’s Day announcement!

A detail that I considered important to get into the model was the ‘Providence Public Library’ lettering that is carved into both facades. Lettering is not easy to do with Lego, so I worked with Blood Drop Design in East Greenwich, RI to 3-D print those pieces. They did excellent work; the custom pieces looked great, and fit well. The really hard part, however, was color matching the custom bricks to the blue-gray standard bricks I was using. They would have to be painted, and for this, I got expert help from artists Tovah Stevenson and Bill Martin from Fleurmarteau Studios in Warwick, RI.

Of course, February 2020 is best known as the ‘last normal’ month. As I was working on this model and listening to the radio, news reports of a virus in China increased. By mid-March, I had finished enough of the model to move it to the Library in time for their planned April grand-openings and gala events. Of course, we knew by this time that those events weren’t going to happen. I went through with the move anyway as the library simultaneously completed the last steps needed to re-open, but like everything else, the doors remained shut through the spring and most of the summer of 2020.

I moved the model in sections on a beautiful March day. It was so nice, I took the models golfing on the way over, hahaha!
Installing the model, Spring 2020

The library is largely reopened at this point, and as I’ve already said, I urge everyone to visit; the renovation is stunning! That said, as of Fall 2021, there are some hour and space restrictions, so I would CALL ahead if you would like to see the Lego model.

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