Sunday, December 30, 2012

Providence, 1846

Becket, December 30, 2012

The beginning of the 19th century brought the Industrial Revolution to America, and Providence was at the center of all the changes that came with it.  As the number of mills grew so did the need for transportation.  New turnpikes and a new canal were built.  And in 1835 the railroad got to Providence.  A decade later, under great pressure from the rail companies, the recently created City Council allowed them to reshape the "Great Salt Cove" north of Weybosset  Point to serve as a major node in the emergent rail network.

I must confess a serious ambivalence about this project.  I certainly understand that the scheme was a blatant land grab and the first chapter of a long history of ecological and urban degradation.  Still... it's an exquisitely brilliant project!

The project reshaped the cove into an ellipse, carefully placed to connect the original east side with its rapidly expanding downtown.  The geometry addressed perfectly the turning radiuses of the trains and the newly acquired land provided space for workshops and other maintenance facilities.  And the large body of water surrounded by a tree-lined promenade introduced a major recreational space in the city (infrastructure and recreation, a 21st century kind of project!)  Finally, as a sort of clasp to the necklace, Thomas Tefft's Union Station, curving around the arc of the ellipse, aligning with Westminster Street and opening to the cove through a center passageway (actually this scheme also allowed Tefft to deal with two separate stations, one for the P&W and B&P to the right and another for the NYP&B to the left.)

Unfortunately--and almost predictably--the beautiful elliptical cove would be gone in less than fifty years, victim of the pressures of infrastructure on both city and geography.

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