Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Promise of Providence

The Rhode Island State House
The Promise of Providence
By Carol Joynt

In a word, Providence is a revelation. Maybe a little corruption can produce spoils for a town.

The city's colorful ex-con former two-time and longest-serving mayor, Vincent Albert "Buddy" Cianci, Jr., is credited with the remarkable Providence renaissance, which fans usually mention before citing the details of his most recent legal troubles: some nasty federal charges that included racketeering, one conviction on conspiracy, and five years in prison at Ft. Dix. Cianci, released a year ago, maintains his innocence, works on and off in broadcasting, and will be eligible to return to City Hall in 2012.

Earlier in his career, according to a native daughter, “he tortured his wife's lover with cigarettes, and got voted in again … a real character.”

Providence wasn't always as exciting as it has become. "Ten years ago it was an armpit," said one. "But now it's great."

No kidding.
A work boat chugs through town on the Providence River. The baskets on the median are used in the spectacular "Waterfire" show.
Providence is a city with water running through it. Up ahead, two gondolas available for hire; An underpass that allows pedestrians to stay waterside as they walk.
There’s so much to appreciate in addition to the characters: the food, the architecture, the water, the art, and the vitality. Best of all for anyone who lives along the northeast corridor, and thanks to Cianci, there's a boutique-sized Amtrak station in the very heart of the revived part of town. You can get from there on foot to most of what you’d want to see and do: hotels, restaurants, the attractive campus of Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design and its excellent museum, the Convention Center, the Financial District, the State House and City Hall.

Many of these walks happen along water, because a river runs through town. There are canals, as well as a unique water park with its "Waterfire" extravaganza that is a big draw for locals and tourists. Again, a Cianci project.
Sometimes Providence can feel like San Francisco, especially when hiking in the College Hill neighborhood.
The Providence Athenaeum, founded in 1753 and completed in 1838, is the city's oldest cultural institution. The Greek Revival building is the only New England building designed by the Philadelphia architect, William Strickland.
The Athenaeum boasts that as a member-supported library it will provide a collection of books, other materials and programs to anyone, of any age, who loves reading, appreciates literature, and enjoys intellectual discovery."
On a recent three-day visit we stayed at the Renaissance Hotel, an imposing former Masonic Temple that is literally across the street from the State Capitol. The rooms are compact but attractively done, with distinctive bathrooms. (Ask for a view of the Capitol). The gym has what you need and is open 24 hours. For what it’s worth, the room service menu has a sex toy offering and “turn down” includes a box of truffles plus a little bottle of foot spray.

The Renaissance is also adjacent to Providence Place Mall, another Cianci project. It strives to be a cut above the average, including up market chains and an Imax theater. As unrelenting and dispiriting as the mall genre can be, locals will tell you Providence Place was essential to the downtown area's revitalization.
The view of the Capitol from the front entrance of the Renaissance Hotel, which occupies a renovated and imposing former Masonic Temple.
A standard room at the Renaissance with its colorful and well-appointed bathroom.
My attention was drawn more to the older parts of town, particularly College Hill. The preserved 18th and 19th century homes on and around the Brown campus are beautiful. There's a wonderful ancient library - the Athenaeum - where the evocative smell of old books hits you at the door.

A must is the circa 1788 John Brown House Museum, which to the “businessman, patriot, politician, China Trade pioneer and slave trader who participated in the debates and practices that shaped the new nation and the world." It's at 52 Power Street. Around the corner, on Benefit Street, is the Nightingale-Brown house, built in 1792 and home to five generations of Browns, the last being John Nicholas Brown, his wife Anne and their children, Nicholas, Angela and the late J. Carter Brown.
Providence's introduction to the "English plan," Athenaeum Row on Benefit Street, was designed in 1845 by Architect Russell Warren.
A monument to Rhode Island (and Providence) founder Roger Williams has in its base a bronze container holding his ashes. With banks seeming a little wobbly these days, maybe more should have a solid name like this one: The Old Stone Bank.
John Nicholas Brown died in 1979, his wife in 1985, and the house was given by the family to Brown University. It is the school's Center for the Study of American Civilization.

I happened to walk in unannounced, and was given a courteous though brief tour, but if you can pre-arrange for a visit it is worth the call. The layout and decor of the house remain much as it was when the Brown's resided there, a handsome example of the Colonial Revival style.
The Benefit Street home of John Nicholas Brown and his family.
Nearby is the museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, a gem that is big enough to satisfy but not so big that it is exhausting. A particular pleasure was the room honoring the Hudson River school of 19th Century American painters: Fitz Henry Lane, Asher Durand, John Frederick Kensett, George Inness, William Bradford, Martin Johnson Heade, and Thomas Cole.

One gallery over are the Impressionists and then an engaging exhibition of what the 20th century wrought in painting, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, drawings, photographs, costume, textiles, and industrial design. For example, there are designs from Worth, Balenciaga, Pucci, Gernreich, Claire McCardell, and Rei Kawakubo, mixed in with works from Warhol and Frank Lloyd Wright.
The museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, with a sculpture by Jonathan Bonner, called "Mirth," in the foreground. An exhibition of design objects from the 20th Century.
The "Grand Gallery" is stunning, with its deep teal walls, a hundred or more paintings hung in the European style of layers, with each "jostling for attention."

There's a big sofa where a visitor can sit and comfortably let the jostling begin.
A Romanesque portal circa 1150. It belonged to William Randolph Hearst and was dismantled from his Long Island estate in 1940.
The "grand gallery" at the RISD museum.
All the walking and viewing works up an appetite, and a good appetite is well rewarded in Providence. We had several excellent meals.

Al Forno is a renowned Italian treasure by the water that was opened by Johanne Killeen and George Germon in 1980. The pizzas are legendary. We had the Margarita, plus clams "Al Forno," a “hand-made” bread Gnocchi, salad, a fruit tart for two, and vintage Chianti. They don't take reservations except for parties of 6 or more, but we got there at 8:30 and were seated immediately in the charming and romantic Tuscan garden - under gentle lights and next to a quiet fountain.
As romantic as Italy itself, the outdoor terrace at Al Forno, serving delicious pizza and pasta, and winning number accolades, since 1980. The signature "Clams Al Forno."
The next night we tried Mills Tavern. A handsome room with a big wood-burning stove and rotisserie that dominate the open kitchen. The decor is polished pub with flowers and a beautiful bar under high ceilings.

The menu features gently modern versions of the classics. We had the chopped Caesar salad, followed by Buttermilk and Rosemary Marinated Chicken Breast fresh from the rotisserie. The waitress recommended two Pinot Noirs by the glass and let me taste both before making a choice.
The Mills Tavern, which features meats and fish baked or roasted in a wood burning stove. Mills Tavern's buttermilk and rosemary marinated chicken breast, served with fingerling potatoes and other vegetables.
For lunch one day it was Cafe Nuovo, with its canopied outdoor terrace on the Providence River. Loved the Portobello fries, which were followed by a dense and saffrony Bouillabaisse that came with toasts and Rouille.

The next day it was a walkabout in the Financial District (great old buildings mixed in with great new buildings), and a visit to the basement bistro called Pot au Feu: brick floors, brick walls, the room adorned with tiny white lights and a wrap around display of wine bottles. It's cozy and convivial. The food is straightforward and delicious. Lunch was Creole chicken soup, grilled salmon, salad and crepes with caramel and apple.
Clockwise from top left: Lunch is served under a canopy with water views at Cafe Nuovo, a 10 minute walk from the Amtrak station; Portobello fries at Cafe Nuovoand their Bouillabaisse; Another view of Cafe Nuovo.
Pot Au Feu in the Financial District, a favorite of the late Julia Child.
There visited three interesting little eateries. First, the "Original New York System," for a lunch of "Hot Wieners" and "Coffee Milk." Another delight was Cafe Choklad, chiefly for their incredible blueberry muffins - fat with a brown and almost crusty top and packed thick with juicy blueberries. This colorful Swedish cafe also serves interesting sandwiches and salads for lunch, and has a selection of chocolates.

As the trailer itself says, "a Providence tradition since 1888." Note the table for three in the foreground.
A legend in Providence is the trailer-diner known as "Haven Brothers" which is hauled in and parked near City Hall from 5 p.m. into the wee hours of the morning. It's cute that they also set up a little plastic table for three outside on the sidewalk. A must is the burger with fries and a fresh milk shake – good at whatever hour.

So, you see, Providence is a great getaway. There's more than enough to do for an individual, a couple or a family. And, we never made it to Johnson and Wales University of the culinary arts and its museum, or the Dunkin Donuts ice hockey rink, home to the Providence Bruins (another Cianci effort).

What stands out about Providence, and lingers after departing, is the energy and vitality of this revitalized city. Also, that everyone seems to be into food and art and pushing excellence and creativity in both regards. With so many schools in a small area there are a lot of young people, but with the state house and city hall, and the colorful political heritage, and the Financial District, it's a haven for interesting professionals, too.
Breakfast delicacies at Cafe Choklad, particularly the Blueberry Muffins and excellent Cinnamon Buns - both warm from the oven.
As we prepared to depart, our hotel began to fill with many very fit men and women, some of the 1600 or so contestants in town for the “Ironman” competition, a 70.3 mile swim, foot and bike race that ends on the steps of the Capitol.

It’s a good example of the kinds of interesting events happening in Providence on any given weekend. But I’m told the next time I visit his city, the No. 1 “must” is to try to snag a meal with Buddy Cianci. Maybe we can have wieners and coffee milk.
The view from College Hill - the Renaissance Hotel to the left, the Capitol to the right.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.