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With New England in Mind

A Rhode Island firm enhances the fabric of the region's architecture through the creation of single-family homes and New Urbanist projects.
By Dan Cooper

Every architect holds some specific era close to their heart; no matter how proficient they might be at executing work from any point in history, their affection for this style is usually evident as one regards their portfolio. For Donald Powers Architects (DPA) of Providence, RI, the honored period in question is the early part of the 20th century, a transitional time in architecture that is seldom given the recognition it deserves.

"The first decades of the 20th century have always appealed to me," says president and principal Donald Powers, AIA, LEED AP. "It was the last generation of architects that were well-schooled in traditional forms and details, but who were also influenced by Modernism. It was a time when we were freeing ourselves from the Classical dogma, yet it hadn't been replaced by the Modernist dogma."

As with so many architects of the current generation who have come of age during the revival of traditional architecture, Powers embraces the past without being burdened by it. "I've always bridled against the constraints at either end of the spectrum," he says. "I want to push back against the rules while maintaining a respect for the foundation of tradition, but not in a cursory or condescending way. Tradition should be a springboard and not a straightjacket."

Post-Victorian, Pre-War
A fascination with post-1900 residential architecture manifests itself in the work of Powers and his associates. Their wood-frame, single-family houses reflect the styles that emerged from the Victorian era and still share some of these trappings while maintaining a decidedly 20th- and 21st-century vocabulary.

The Edenville Cottage in Warwick, NY, appears to be a ca. 1917 Dutch gambrel built from the pages of one of dozens of period patterns books until the observer notes the exaggerated shingle flare between the first and second stories and the gently bracketed bay window. DPA is adept at the subtle twist instead of the architectural bludgeon, as Powers notes: "Our work looks traditional at first glance, but then people look at it longer and become aware that it's more than that, they invariably say 'it's really interesting.' This gives me far more pleasure than creating another 'funny-shaped' building."

Similarly, a DPA-designed house amid Shingle Style and Colonial Revival residences in Westport, MA, features sharply raked rooflines merging with sprawling, Classically trimmed porches and shingled balconies projecting above tightly clapboarded first stories. It's a masterful and original reuse of architectural motifs from an era that drew from so many different styles.

In Carmel, NY, the architects played upon the late-Shingle Style vocabulary by designing a home with a first floor finished in wood trim, while the second floor and gable are shingled; the distinctively winged gable is uncommonly symmetrical for this architectural style. Once again, it seems like a roughly century-old building until closer examination reveals the modern interpretation.

The firm is more flexible about its interiors, and while these often draw upon time-honored elements such as tongue-and-groove paneling and substantial molding profiles, there is an airiness about them that is certainly contemporary. "As architects, we are not averse to designing a completely modern interior, as it owes no debt to the streetscape," says Powers. "Interiors do not have the same imperative to defer to a context, so we feel less constrained."

New England Urbanism
The majority of the New Urbanist architects typically work in the warmer climes of the southeastern part of the country, occasionally venturing into mid-Atlantic cities to create large mixed-use urban developments. But there appears to be a paucity of New Urbanist projects being undertaken in New England. As Powers explains, "The manner in which New Urbanism is viewed is certainly different in the northeastern part of the country; first of all, there aren't the large tracts of land available such as you'd find elsewhere, and there's also a tradition of political activism and the public's ability to object to developments that has reduced these projects to where New Urbanism suffers alongside the other proposals."

"The political reality in New England is that small towns are inherently Urbanist communities, and people here oppose the new developments perhaps more than elsewhere," adds principal Douglas Kallfelz, AIA, LEED AP. "I think they feel that it's trying to replicate history, and since they live in the original, it's somehow cheating. Everyone forgets that many of these 19th- and early-20th-century towns were originally planned developments with little trees sticking up between the newly built houses."

"It is more difficult to build a New Urbanist community in New England, and they tend to be smaller," says Powers. "It's harder to think in terms of a 300-unit complex. Instead, we focus on underutilized areas within an existing neighborhood and work on creating in increments of six to 20 units instead of 60 to 200 units. This has become our specialty, and we've taken the lead on finding developers to work with us."

The architects thus actively pursue these more modest developments. "Rather than voice their objections to a whole green-field development," says Kallfelz, "these smaller projects are perceived much less skeptically by the residents in the existing communities, and they recognize that as the number of units gets incrementally smaller, they become much more positive and feel that we're restoring the fabric of the village structure; generally they're delighted with these sensitive additions."

"There's a phase in our job codes where we assign a certain number of hours for precedent study," adds Powers. "We want to be responsible and respect the existing neighborhood before we add onto it. If you think about it, architecture is different than any other profession in the world in terms of precedent; if you are a doctor or lawyer, you're always looking to the accumulated knowledge of the past. I wish architecture schools formalized historic studies instead of having this gratuitous attitude towards history."

Fifteen DPA-designed units are currently in the process of being built in Powers' hometown of East Greenwich, RI. "Because the project size is so much smaller, the design and execution can be so much more controlled, to the ultimate benefit of the town," he says. "It's funny – it's described as 'innovative housing' by the press, yet it's essentially a resurrection of the Bungalow Court of the early-20th century combined with New England workman housing. Both of these concepts were great models.

"Another distinctive difference about building this type of project in New England is that the weather here predetermines a certain kind of social pattern; people are indoors half the year, and there's the Yankee tradition of simpler architecture that is less expansive than the Southern idiom."

These parameters of climate and restrained ornamentation are evident in the firm's larger projects, such as Capitol Square and Broad Elmwood in Providence, which are derived from the three- and four-story frame structures built after the turn of the century in every New England city and larger town. The ground levels are comprised of retail storefronts of masonry and glass while the upper residential floors are clapboard or shingle. Powers and his colleagues utilized obvious architectural cues such as the steep gables, brackets and dormers to emulate the original buildings, yet subtly play upon them with variations; a bay window may be suggested by a paneled window casing that does not actually affect the footprint, but lends complexity to the façade.

In another example, 57 Parkis Avenue in Providence is a mixed-use building that is sited adjacent to a taller Second Empire structure. Ever mindful of the new structure's role in the streetscape, the architects specified the broadly overhanging, corbelled soffit similar to its older neighbor. It is only upon closer examination that the viewer realizes the angularity and finish reveals that this is indeed a recent structure that recognizes the aesthetic of the street while carefully stating its own identity.

It is this delicate use of indigenous ornamentation that is the crux of the firm's design philosophy. "New Urbanists are often accused of trying too hard with their architectural detail, and if you look at the best historic neighborhoods in the Boston area, they were built from a position of extreme frugality and simple shapes," says Kallfelz. "We try to deliver a great neighborhood cost effectively by bringing a superior level of craftsmanship down to the production-house level.

"The way New Urbanism is executed in New England is different than the Southern areas, where all the buildings tend to be designed to the highest level of that style. In New England, that would overwhelm the project; we have to suppress that urge and stress connectivity and the indigenously appropriate level of ornamentation, and elevate above this only when needed. Yes, there is a time and place to express your freedom architecturally, but you have a responsibility to knit a city together. A civic building can give you license to stand apart from the existing architecture, but with the underlying fabric, you have to be more reserved in terms of your ego."

The New England Aesthetic
The firm is fully cognizant that in keeping with vernacular housing, different architectural solutions contribute to the "believability" of a structure than might apply to a high-style public building or mansion. As Kallfelz notes, sometimes the "builder's interpretation" of a Classical detail can be charming in its own right. "The charm of the locally designed and built house can be observed in how, instead of the perfectly designed Classical cornice, a carpenter might fudge the returns on a more humble dwelling," he says.

"There's a place for the 'proper' use of ornament, but every two-bedroom cottage does not need to be the pinnacle of perfect detail," he continues. "There is a simple and intelligent solution that's not as complex as one might use on the courthouse in the center of town; the vernacular allows you to manipulate the manner in which the returns meet the rake edge of a heavy cornice."

Powers says that the firm has made a conscious decision to balance its custom work with a focus on the areas that are often neglected by other architects, creating the background fabric that forms the greater whole of a neighborhood. "It may not always be the highest form of architecture," he says, "but our work uses the best level of material and crafts possible. It's not that we would turn away a courthouse commission or a wing to the Museum of Fine Arts, but we pride ourselves on our ability to infuse our designs with a sense of appropriateness that is both congruent with history and reflects a tendency towards simplicity and frugality that we find throughout New England."  

 

 

 
 

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