By Angela DiVeglia
The John E. Fogarty Memorial Building, located on Fountain Street in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, was built in 1967 to house the state’s Department of Human Services. The Brutalist building remained in use by the department until 1999; it served as a middle school until 2003. Developers have proposed numerous uses for the Fogarty Building in the intervening years, including making it into a police station, a parking garage, or even a sports museum, but it has remained vacant for over a decade. In early 2017, current owner The Procaccianti Group received formal approval to demolish the building to make way for a Marriott Hotel.
Demolition began on March 13, 2017; on March 17, a group of people held an outdoor funeral for the building, organized by members of Doors Open Rhode Island, Providence Preservation Society, and the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities & Cultural Heritage. The funeral included a procession with a floral funeral wreath, a chorus of kazoos, and a series of eulogies.
I interviewed two of the Fogarty funeral planners: Marisa Angell Brown, architectural historian and the Assistant Programs Director at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities, and Caroline Stevens, Director of Doors Open Rhode Island. Photos of the funeral were taken by Christian Scully of Design Imaging Studios.
Angela DiVeglia: What was the significance of the Fogarty Building in Providence’s downtown cityscape?
Marisa Angell Brown: The Fogarty Building was Providence’s most significant Brutalist building. Brutalism is an architectural style that dates from the late 1950s in the US and Europe and hit the mainstream by the mid-1960s. Early Brutalist architects include Alison and Peter Smithson in the UK, who designed the controversial headquarters for The Economist magazine in London in 1959; Eero Saarinen, who designed the Brutalist US Embassy in London in 1960; and Paul Rudolph, who designed the UMass Dartmouth campus in the mid-1960s. The Fogarty was designed by a local Rhode Island architecture firm, Castellucci, Galli and Planka in 1967 after the style of some of these earlier Brutalist icons. From our vantage point today, Brutalism appears ugly and imposing to many, but in the 1960s, the style was embraced by vanguard architects who liked working with cast concrete because it could be sculpted into new forms, it was textural as it contained the rocks and sometimes the shells that were part of the concrete mix, and it was cheap. To many of them, cement seemed like clay: a tactile material that could bring some of the artist’s touch back into architecture, which at that moment in the field was dominated by the high modernism of glass-and-steel corporate headquarters like Lever House in New York City. So, losing the Fogarty Building is a significant architectural loss for the city of Providence. Because Brutalism is now on the rebound — many Brutalist buildings have recently been renovated to great acclaim, like Breuer’s old Whitney Museum in New York, now the Met Breuer — we may regret this demolition in years to come.
AD: What was the genesis of the idea for a funeral for the Fogarty Building? What were you hoping to accomplish in holding a funeral?
Caroline Stevens: I had heard about the “Funeral for a Home” project organized by Temple Contemporary in Philadelphia, and thought it was brilliant. Like many good ideas, the idea for the Fogarty Funeral came to me as I was drinking a glass of wine with a friend — in this case discussing the impending demolition of the building. The next morning, I proposed a session around it at the Hacking Heritage Unconference, organized by Marisa on behalf of the JNBC, and people rallied behind the idea, gave it legs and put it into action. But its inspiration definitely came from Philadelphia.
The idea for the funeral came out of a need. Many people have trouble relating to architecture, and the Fogarty Building clearly suffered from this. I think that the act of personifying a building can help build understanding. Though it’s a bit late, holding a funeral is a great means of talking about a building in more accessible terms. For instance, I might describe the Fogarty as a bit rough around the edges and at times foreboding. But once you got to really know the building, you’d find it to have all of these great qualities: honesty, tremendous strength and integrity. It also had a great sense of rhythm.
In this way, a funeral was a means of providing new perspectives on the Fogarty, and fostering dialogue around our built environment more generally. We were interested in welcoming both friends and critics of the building, and used its demolition as an opportunity to consider how our downtown was changing — encouraging the public to take on a more active role in shaping its future. Regardless of an individual’s feelings on the building, its demolition marked a passage of time. It played an important role in our cityscape for nearly 50 years and that alone deserves reflection.
AD: What is the precedent for holding funerals for buildings?
CS: I think, but I’m not entirely sure, that the first funeral for a building was Temple Contemporary’s “Funeral for a Home”. Unlike the Fogarty Funeral, which was planned in just one week, the Philadelphia funeral was planned over the course of a year. The row house coming down was the last remaining one on the block, in a predominantly African American community. Its demolition was further evidence of the dramatic changes happening in the neighborhood. And though the building wasn’t significant architecturally, it had been home to lots of different people — all with their own stories. Temple Contemporary conducted several oral histories of its former inhabitants. From what I understand, the funeral was an amazing means of community engagement — the whole neighborhood came out for it. A local pastor spoke; a gospel choir sang. It brought people together.
Since then I’ve also heard of a couple of other funerals — for trees! There may be many more that I don’t know about.
AD: Right, people organized a funeral for a beech tree in Newport, Rhode Island last spring—and it was because the tree was nearing the end of its life span, not because it was already dead or cut down. Can you briefly describe the Fogarty Building funeral?
CS: About 30 people gathered for the funeral — an open casket. Demolition was well underway. Despite the sad state of the building in front of us, the mood was mostly lighthearted. It’s safe to say that it was the first building funeral for all of us, and everyone came with a smile and an open mind. We heard several short eulogies, each one offering a different perspective. Jana Planka, the daughter of one of the building’s lead architects, gave a moving eulogy on what the building meant to her father. It happened to be the fifth anniversary of his death, making her tribute especially meaningful. The notoriously anti-modernist architectural critic for the Providence Journal, David Brussat, likewise delivered a eulogy. His was more critical, but still respectful. We heard from an interior architect, a preservation consultant, and someone who shared a brief biography on John E. Fogarty, for whom the building was named. Afterwards, we piped “Oh Danny Boy” on bagpipes through our portable speaker and processed around the building, led by a young woman carrying the funeral wreath. We all sang along on kazoos, and ended at a local bar where we could continue the conversation over beers.
Everyone, including those sad to see the building go, was happy and smiling. In this sense it felt like a celebration of a life more so than grieving of a loss. I think people were happy because we brought them together to do something new to all of us. I didn’t know everyone there, but felt connected to all the people, as we all had this building — and experience memorializing it — in common. The whole thing felt really special, to the degree that I now wonder why we don’t memorialize our buildings more often.
AD: Can you say a little bit about the relationship between urban decay and grief?
MB: It feels to me as though we often overlook decay in our cityscapes — it’s as though our eye literally jumps over moments of decay and focuses only on what appears new. In this country, we tend to value the new and the young — decay makes us uncomfortable. This isn’t the case in other countries, and this is actually something that interests me quite a lot. I think this tendency is embedded in our inability to think about preservation and contemporary design as things that can complement each other, not as opposites. In Europe, there is more of a comfort level with what is being called “experimental preservation” — preservation projects that bring innovation and even a contemporary look and feel into the preservation of older structures. Here, we tend to like to embalm our buildings — we like them young and timeless, or we like them dead/demolished. I hope that this changes as we are missing out on the richness of experience that comes with productively and creatively synthesizing our past with our present.
AD: What is the role of media in documenting and preserving individual and collective memories of buildings and other physical spaces?
CS: Every building tells so many stories, from the architects behind their designs, to how their designs reflect the times in which they were built, to the people who lived and worked in the building, and what the building was trying to achieve. Documenting these stories in accessible ways is key to the preservation not only of these stories and memories, but also of the places themselves. It’s only when we’ve heard these stories and built understanding with our buildings that we care about them, and become advocates for their preservation.
AD: What is the value of well-maintained historic buildings in a contemporary landscape? What about the value of poorly-maintained historic buildings? What is lost when those historic buildings are demolished?
CS: When every building looks somewhat the same, coming from the same time period, it’s easy for a city to feel static and boring. I prefer walking through a city that has buildings spanning time, representing a variety of styles. That’s how a place starts to feel more dynamic and buildings are able to converse with each other in exciting ways. A contemporary building might disagree with its historic neighbor, but in the process the two create energy. That’s why the demolition of the Fogarty Building was such a loss — it was our most significant Brutalist building in downtown Providence, and so different from its neighbors. Something that Marisa said recently really rings true to me: she doesn’t hate ugly buildings so much as she hates boring buildings. I couldn’t agree more.
AD: Anything else you’d like to add?
CS: The thing that made the planning of this funeral so special for me was how it brought all of these awesome people together. Many people played a role in its planning — everyone volunteering their efforts. Working as a team was energizing and fun. And we planned the whole thing in just one week! The quick turnaround time and teamwork was empowering, making me see potential for projects that I might not have before.