The Preserver

Providence Preservation Society’s Brent Runyon keeps his eyes focused on the historic architecture of the city

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In print, Brent Runyon sounds like a firebrand. When the Providence Journal asked him about the long-empty Superman Building, he said, “It is a blight on the city to have the tallest building remaining vacant with a dark lantern.” When WJAR asked Runyon about the Hope Point Tower – popularly known as the Fane Building, after its prospective developer – he said, “We think this is really taking Providence down the wrong road.” When the Journal’s editorial board chastised Runyon and Fane Building opponents, Runyon objected to the paper’s “mocking” tone and insisted that the proposed zoning change is “short-sighted and destructive.”

Runyon is the executive director of the Providence Preservation Society. His activist tone – and his heavy involvement in East Side’s neighborhood associations – is unusual. Most preservation societies are quiet nonprofits dedicated to a single structure or monument, typically run by mild-mannered historians. In contrast, PPS dutifully covers the entire city; as symbols of their reach, the Society has placed more than 1,500 historic markers, and they have published a directory of more than 100 “endangered” buildings. Now, as Providence enters a phase of economic growth and fervor for new construction, Runyon and his colleagues have stepped into a very bright spotlight.

Yet in person, Runyon is a trim, mild-mannered man with a shaved head and coiffed, whitening beard. He speaks with a quiet voice and the wisp of a southern accent. Some have described him as introverted and shy, but more than anything, Runyon is calm.

“I think Providence has incredible architecture from nearly every era of building in America,” he says. “And it’s not just architecture; it’s good architecture. Providence is small enough where you can walk around and see these incredible levels of detail.”

Runyon grew up in a small town in the Georgia countryside. A skilled math student, he dreamed of becoming an architect, but he “didn’t go to the right school early enough,” and he eventually settled on electrical engineering. Runyon spent years working for a manufacturer of power cables, a tedious era that now makes him chuckle.

But then something happened: Runyon lived in an historic neighborhood, and the local college wanted to expand its campus. At the same time, the Department of Transportation planned to widen a road; both endeavors threatened to raze revered landmarks, and residents pushed back. Runyon became involved in the neighborhood association, and he watched the debate unfold. The results were mixed: The college proceeded with development, but the road expansion was abandoned. At 30 years old, Runyon was fascinated. “I wanted to work in some field that combined advocacy and architecture,” he recalls. Coming from a tiny town where little changed, these concepts were new to him. “There wasn’t this historic pride of place. There were no external pressures. I never knew the term ‘historic preservation.’”

Runyon enrolled in a master’s program in historic preservation at the University of Georgia. His thesis concerned another hot-button topic: the presence of mobile homes in historic neighborhoods, and whether – through zoning – the two building styles might coexist. Such scenarios have become a recurring theme for Runyon: the interaction between hallowed communities and contemporary needs. For eight years, he served as executive director of Thomasville Landmarks, a similar nonprofit in Thomasville, Georgia; a lot of his work focused on low-income families living in historic homes. Runyon spearheaded beautification projects and the rehab of old houses, among other projects.

In 2013, Runyon was offered the job at PPS, and he moved to Providence. He’d spent little time in New England, so he consumed books about the city and explored its neighborhoods on foot. He gradually met a network of community leaders, many of them on the East Side, where old houses are generally held in high regard.
Runyon is just one part of an old and influential organization, and he doesn’t take the attention lightly. PPS was founded in 1956 by Antoinette Downing, an architectural historian who wanted to protect notable residences on College Hill.

Today, PPS’s 450 member households are scattered across Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts. In 2017, PPS received nearly a quarter-million dollars in cash donations. The organization’s annual fundraiser, the award-winning Winter Bash, is one of the most anticipated parties in the state and its iconic Festival of Historic Houses held every June draws visitors from across the country. PPS has a board of directors, a full-time staff, an army of volunteers, and a vast web of allies and advocates.

“There aren’t any new issues in Providence,” muses Runyon. “Just different players, different money.” Case in point: Brown University’s performing arts building, which became a heated issue earlier this year. The original plan threatened to demolish four historic properties on College Hill; as PPS became involved, Runyon found that a coalition of opponents already existed, and they were eager to voice their dissent. After much debate, Brown offered an alternative design with a smaller footprint, the performing arts center was approved, and the houses were saved.

“In the past, the Preservation Society has had a lot of influence,” says Runyon. But the dynamic between PPS and policymakers has changed over the years, and the organization has had to become more assertive. “To find a voice has meant building coalitions. It’s a good role for us to play as a convener of ideas. It felt natural, like something we should be doing.”

As for Brown, the controversy ended smoothly. “It’s very much about communication,” Runyon adds. “Neither one of us is malicious in our intent. From our side, we clearly communicate what we think about our ideas and how we’re going to approach our advocacy. They’re not surprised. They understand it’s not personal. As a result, I think they’re more comfortable with coming to us earlier in the process than they used to. We won’t always agree. But for whatever reason, there turned out to be enough community opposition to their plans to effect a change in their decision making process. And I think it was because there were so many different people from different parts of the community that were really opposed to it.”

In Runyon’s ideal world, developers would bring proposals to the City for approval, and they would consult the PPS to see how their concept might integrate with the neighborhood. A prime example is the GTECH Center, the 10-story office building near Providence Place. There is nothing referential about this glass-and-steel structure, but that doesn’t bother Runyon. If anything, the PPS staff hoped that GTECH would be a little taller.

“Typically, PPS has always embraced architecture of its time,” Runyon explains. “We prefer good architecture of today rather than pastiche referencing things from yesterday. If you’re going to build contemporary architecture, make it interesting, make it address the street level.”

Still, PPS input often hits a wall. The Bilotti Group, a Cranston real estate developer, currently plans to demolish the century-old Beresford-Nicholson house and is proposing to build 10 new housing units. There has been an outcry from neighbors and advocates, who would prefer them to rehabilitate the manor house. But the Beresford-Nicholson house, located on Blackstone Boulevard, isn’t protected by historic landmark status, and its fate seems sealed.

So what does Runyon feel about this? “Sadness,” he says, but his tone remains strangely Zen. “I think humans generally have a sense of nostalgia about things – and that’s true for preservationists and non-preservationists alike – so I think you can simultaneously be saddened at the loss of buildings or estates like that, but also understand that it’s probably not feasible to maintain it. But I think it’s worth fighting for. It’s not wrong to want to preserve it, and it’s not wrong to think it might be better to have something more modern there.”

To a passive observer, all of these flare-ups might seem like a prologue. The real battle, the one everyone has talked about for months, is the Hope Point Tower known as Fane Tower, which has thrust PPS – and Runyon in particular – into the middle of the fray.

The Fane project has won its share of supporters – including many union leaders and most of the City Council – and it’s easy to see why. The proposal has portended hundreds of construction jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue. Building the tower would finally bring some construction to Parcel 42. Plus the Fane organization, headquartered at Rockefeller Center in New York City, already has an established portfolio of ambitious projects: a 47-story high-rise in Toronto, a renovated commercial complex in Harlem, and a range of other conversions and high rises.

But the real appeal of the Fane Building is its gusto. At 46 stories – and nearly 600 feet – the Hope Point Tower would be the tallest building ever erected in the state. The architecture, corrugated and modernist, with a mellifluous ridge down the center, is like nothing Providence has ever seen. But artist renderings never quite match the reality of a finished structure, which is part of why Hope Point Tower has been so fervently debated – and why Mayor Elorza exercisde his veto to insure City input. If it becomes our Eiffel Tower, we will rejoice. If it becomes our Prudential Tower, we’re stuck with it.

Yet Runyon hasn’t said one word about its visual appeal. Even in conversation, he offers no hint about his personal tastes. In principle, liking the tower is beside the point. What PPS objects to is twofold: the spot zoning, which could extend the height limit of 100 feet to 600, and the building’s parking garage, which PPS supporters believe will interact poorly with a new public park.

“One of the things about historic preservation is the idea of thoughtful planning and development,” says Runyon. “It doesn’t mean you can’t tear down a building. But you have to think about what you’re going to replace it with. No zoning plan is ever perfect. They do need to change. Spot zoning, by itself, is not illegal. But doing it in such an extreme way, for the sole benefit of one developer, is legally challengeable. It’s not thoughtful. It’s not consistent with the community’s planning process. If Providence City Council doesn’t think our zoning code is good, then we could be like Houston and have no zoning. And we could have a downtown where no one wants to be.”

In a written statement, Runyon publically objected to the Journal’s playful slur for Fane opponents: “B.A.N.A.N.A.S,” or “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.” If anything, Runyon finds the controversy “frustrating,” because it distracts the PPS and City government from projects that are far more important: the affordable housing crisis, the fate of the Superman Building, and the hundred-plus historic structures that PPS considers endangered. Each year, PPS unveils a list of 10 endangered buildings in Providence, a stirring reminder how fragile that physical heritage can be. That is where Runyon’s passions lie, and where he wishes to focus PPS energy.

“One of the coolest things about buildings is that they’re a portal to history,” Runyon says. “Isn’t it cool to just walk around, and these stories are everywhere, that you can see them? But you have to know something. You can’t just look at a building and go, ‘Oh, that’s where the Providence Gazette was published during the Revolutionary War, and they published the Declaration of Independence.’ But if the building’s not there, you’ll never know that. You’ll never even wonder about it.”