History Lesson

November 6th, 2008

As the student who conceived the Group Independent Study (GISP) that resulted in the proposed Urban Environmental Laboratory, I have wonderful memories of doing the original drawings that adorned the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant proposal that helped fund the original renovations ("What's in a Building?" September/October). I am saddened that Brown would choose this moment in history to move or demolish the UEL. With greenhouse-gas reduction providing additional fuel to the alternative energy movement, the UEL represents Brown's early leadership in this area. While the last three decades have seen a loss of important funding for alternative energy research, finally the political and economic stars have aligned again to move forward. Now is the time to be recommitting to this important area of policy and research, not to be retreating.

Arianna Van Meurs '81
Ross, Calif.


I was heartened to see the BAM cover the proposed removal of the Urban Environmental Lab. While the loss of such a vital campus space is an important topic to discuss and resolve, the article neglected to mention the status of the adjacent community garden, an island between opposing streams of traffic on Angell and Waterman that was bulldozed, at least temporarily, to make room for the new mind, brain, and behavior building.

The article refers to the garden as an overflowing vegetable patch surrounded by "a bright new wooden fence." This temporary fence is hardly comparable to the taller, weathered one it replaced, which barely contained a vibrant edible perennial border, heirloom roses strung across arches, and raised beds. Facing the garden's destruction, dedicated community members took advantage of a pause in construction plans and replanted for this past season.

For nearly a quarter century the UEL garden cultivated connections between campus and community. It served as an outdoor classroom, a break room for nearby workers, a model for the increasingly demanded skills and theories of organic and urban agriculture, and a source of numerous teachable moments and innumerable memories. For alumni like me, tending the garden was a highlight of our Brown experience. A core group of gardeners artfully maintained plots, continued the stories of the plants from season to season, and contributed to the slow, vital task of soil and community building.

I visited with one of the long-term gardeners—our friendship was seeded there—to discuss this impending, tragic loss. At age ninety-six, she's not wasting time wondering why they didn't wait to clear the garden until the last possible moment (or at least until they had funding for the new building), not caught up in if-onlys: if only the decision makers could have spent an afternoon beneath the towering daylilies or on the hammock under the grape arbor, maybe they would have saved the garden.

I wish Brown could be bolder. Like any grad, I can appreciate intellectual and institutional progress. I wrongly assumed that Brown was an institution bold enough to foster both, to till soil while creating fertile spaces for scholarship.

Rebekah Doyle '98
Durango, Colo.


Your article on the fate of the building at 153 Angell Street, where the Urban Environmental Laboratory is housed, fails to address the architectural value of this nineteenth-century building or its significance for the distinctive streetscape of Providence's College Hill. One would have liked to learn something about the reasons the Providence Preservation Society has expressed concern about the potential destruction of the building. By looking at the issue strictly from Brown's point of view, the article did not take into consideration how the city or its residents view it. The article also does not discuss possible alternative uses for the building. Steven Hamburg's comment, reported in the article, is indeed true: "If you tear [the building down], you've negated the very existence of the building." You may also have negated a bit of the heritage of Providence.

Martin de Boer '70
Amsterdam, Netherlands


When I arrived at Brown in 1968, I felt the most interesting things about the school were its nineteenth-century buildings, its surrounding College Hill neighborhoods, and its location in one of the most intriguing cities in the Northeast. The allure of Providence was that it told a story of 300 years through one of the most distinguished collections of historic buildings and neighborhoods in the country. In its twentieth-century decline, the city had mercifully and miraculously failed to obliterate its physical history.

By the time I graduated in 1972, my initial assessment had been tempered by familiarity with a campus that had compromised itself and its neighbors with a building program almost shocking in its banality. Seeing what remained of the stock of superb examples of period domestic architecture on the Hill, I mourned for what I didn't see: entire blocks obliterated to make way for the West and Wriston quadrangles, crude and inept early attempts at contextualism. What came after was perhaps even worse. Consider the Rockefeller Library, surely one of the more conspicuous missed opportunities of the modern period, perched as it is on the crest of the Hill for all the western part of the city to see; and the truly incredible Sciences Library, a building so alien that even the passage of thirty-seven years has not turned it into something endearingly quirky. The 1980s and 1990s did bring some relief. The new buildings got better, but not good enough to match the University's status as a top-tier educational institution.

So, in answer to the question posed on the magazine's cover, "Should This Building Be Saved?" I pose another: Should the building proposed to replace it ever be built?

Jonathan Winer '72
Sarasota, Fla.

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Related Issue
November/December 2008