More Providence Architecture

February 28, 2012

I was down on Thayer Street today having lunch at Andrea’s (gotta love their Greek Burger), and as started driving home I noticed a dome up on the hill. I drove closer to it and discovered this lovely building, the The First Church of Christ Scientist on Prospect Street in Providence. As you can see it’s a neo-classical design, and its placement at the top of College Hill makes it more imposing. Sadly, I wasn’t able to find out much about the building itself. It was built between 1906-1913 and its location had been used previously for warning beacons against Indians in 1667 and against the Brits in 1775.


Architectural Tour, part 1

February 21, 2012

On Sunday I went on a mission to check out a building I had briefly spotted at night a few days before while going out to dinner. I noticed a large church near the ramp to I-195, so I checked it out on Bing maps (I like the bird’s eye view) and was amazed to discover a huge gothic cathedral in Providence. Upon looking it up, I discovered it is the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and it was built from 1878 to 1889. It’s in the gothic revival style (the actual gothic period ended in the 16th century). Its two prominent towers made me think of Notre Dame and are 156 feet tall, 70 feet shorter than that great French cathedral’s towers.

My other target for this trip was this building, The Arcade, which was the first enclosed shopping mall in the United States when it was built in 1828. This granite structure was built in the Greek Revival style and its 21 foot tall Ionic columns are much heavier up close than they appear here. Its opposite end (Westminster) also features a portico, but differs in that it also has a pediment above them. The Arcade is currently closed but is expected to reopen this year as a one-story shopping area with student apartments in the upper two stories.

Finally, I noticed this attractive building. I was struck by it’s extensive use of glass, though it is obviously an older structure. It is the Del Sesto building (formerly called the Summerfield Building and the Morris Building), currently owned by Johnson & Wales University. This Early-Modern 72-foot low rise on Weybosset Street was built in 1914 and renovated by the university in 2004.

Look for my next architectural tour installment later this week. I might head north for this one…


War and Civil Disobedience

February 19, 2012

Last night I watched Gandhi, the 1982 biographical film about Mohandus Gandhi starring Ben Kingsley and directed by Richard Attenborough (the older brother of nature documentarian David Attenborough). Most people know of Gandhi in general terms as proponent of civil disobedience, likely because of this film. The movie focuses on his role in achieving independence for India from the British. I was aware of his role in that, but I did not know that he had lived in South Africa for nearly 20 years and fought (peacefully) for the rights of fellow Indians there (mostly educated Muslims) during that time with some success. This period was later cited by Nelson Mandela as influential to his work to end apartheid there (though Mandela resorted to armed protest as a last resort after years of non-violence).

This time in South Africa is also when Gandhi began correspondence with one of his major influences, Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who by this time was over 80. Tolstoy was a proponent of civil disobedience and anarchy, both major factors in Gandhi’s own philosophy (though he was willing to work with the state to achieve his aims).

After returning to India in 1915 independence became a focus of his work over the next 30 years, but was not his only cause. He fought for the rights of “untouchables” (the lowest strata of Indian society), women’s rights (women were a major factor in the famed Salt March of 1930), farmers (many of whom were required to grow unprofitable crops by law), and tolerance between Hindus and Muslims. When independence was achieved in 1947 he was displeased by the division of British India into two nations, Pakistan and India. Violent riots killed nearly half a million people as Muslims raced into Pakistan as Hindus abandoned it for the new India. In January of 1948 he was killed by a Hindu extremist who thought him too sympathetic with the Muslims.

Gandhi was also a major influence on Martin Luther King Jr., who traveled to Gandhi’s birthplace in 1959 and said that his trip to India convinced him of the power of non-violent civil disobedience.

The movie did make me think about how this type of activism works. Ultimately, it’s a public relations exercise and relied upon a free press and a government responsive to outrage (either from its own people or from outside powers). The Arab Spring uprising last year demonstrated the power of such tactics. In a world of instantaneous wireless and internet communication it is nearly impossible to suppress protests (and violent suppression only furthers the cause).

Of course, it helps to have an actual cause, unlike the misguided Occupy movement. Protesting Wall Street is a bit odd when the target Gandhi would protest is 227 miles down I-95.

Beauty and the Bridge

February 15, 2012

Imagine for a moment a world without bridges. Every river you cross on your way to work each day would be a major obstacle requiring a ferry or barge to cross. Traveling even short distances would be quite difficult. In a time when travel is effortless, that’s hard to imagine.

But bridges are more than just useful. They can be beautiful expressions of humankind’s ability to overcome nature. I have the pleasure of viewing this particular bridge every day, since it stands literally feet from my flat. I’ve admired it for the 30 months or so I’ve lived here, but didn’t know much about it until now. The bridge, known as the Ashton Viaduct, was designed in 1932 by Samual Engdahl. This type of bridge, known as a concrete open spandrel bridge, was quite popular at the time. The era of reinforced concrete bridges (using metal within the concrete to provide tensile strength to complement the compression strength provided by concrete) began with an arch bridge in San Francisco and spread east.

Construction of the Ashton Viaduct substructure (underground stuff) was completed in 1935, but the ongoing Great Depression took its toll and the State of Rhode Island had no money to begin the superstructure phase of construction. In 1941, during World War 2, work on the bridge finally was resumed and, with a small delay, was completed in 1945 despite a shortage of building materials at that time due to the war effort.

The Ashton Viaduct is one of the larger bridges of this type, with an overall length of 926 feet topped with a 44 foot wide roadway (Rt. 116) bracketed by sidewalks for an overall width of 56 feet, all of which stands over 70 feet high. The bridge carries the roadway over the Blackstone River, the Blackstone Canal (an interesting story in itself) and the Providence & Worcester Railroad tracks. In 1989, the bridge was renamed the Joseph A. Russo Memorial Bridge after the field inspector for the construction.

Fortunately, this kind of bridge is actually quite common. According to this website, there are over 500 concrete open spandrel bridges in the United States.

Hallmark Holy-day?

February 11, 2012

I was at Target today and noticed the massive Valentine’s Day section of the store. I had forgotten about this holiday, which I haven’t “celebrated” in quite some time now. But as always, it triggered my learning reflex and I couldn’t help but look up whether this holiday was created by Hallmark (though I think restaurants benefit even more).

Well, it turns out that Valentine’s Day is very old! There were two early Christian martyrs named Valentine – one in Rome and one in Terni (not far from Rome) and about 70 years apart back in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. A third saint with that name was martyred in Africa and associated with the date of February 14, but nothing else is known about him. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius established the holiday, which remained on the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints until 1969. Apparently after 1500 years the church came to realize that it’s a bit silly to have a holiday for a saint nobody knows anything about.

The day didn’t have a romantic connotation until the poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about it in 1382. He wrote “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”

The romantic theme of the day built from there, and Valentine’s Cards became very popular in the early 1800s in England. Paper valentines were even manufactured in factories. That popularity spread to the states soon after, and in 1847 embossed paper lace valentines were mass-produced in Worcester, Mass.

So it turns out that Hallmark didn’t actually invent Valentine’s Day. The company was begun by J.C. Hall in 1910 in Nebraska, and today is based in Kansas City. The company has 16,000 employees and revenue of over $4 billion a year.

The ugly ducklings

February 7, 2012

F1 is back! Today is the start of winter testing in Spain, and many of the brand new F1 cars (each team designs and builds a brand new model each year to suit the current regulations) are actually running on track as I write this. It’s an exciting time that follows the launch events of the cars (media events where the car is first shown – though Ferrari’s event was cancelled due to snow of all things). As excited as I am about the start of the new season, there is some bad news – F1 cars are ugly this year.

If you look at the “nose” of the car you will notice an odd and dramatic bump that lowers the height of the nosecone. Sadly, this is due to a change in the regulations that requires a lower nose for safety reasons, but allows the bulkhead (the part where the driver’s feet go) to remain at the same height as before. Each team’s aerodynamicist has crunched the numbers and determined that this ugly bump is the best way to go (it allows more to flow under the nose, which is then directed around the car and to the rear downforce-generating diffusor). I have nothing against a nose with a little character, but I’m having trouble getting used to these abominations.

There is some good news, however. For 2013, the bulkhead maximum height has been lowered too, so this will only be a single season affliction. And the even better news is that I happen to be rooting for the one team that has gone a different direction and has produced a truly beautiful car. Behold the McLaren MP4-27 driven by Jenson Button…


Cars, indoors

February 4, 2012

Today I went to the Northeast International Auto Show in Providence. I’ve been meaning to go for years and finally got there.

For a very long time I’ve wanted to go to the Detroit Auto Show, where a lot of new models are unveiled with lots of hoopla, but in these days of internet leaks its impact is somewhat diminished so it’s a bit less appealing (which it has to be to justify a trip to Detroit in January). Incidentally, one of the other January trade shows I’ve long wanted to attend has also faded a bit – Macworld in San Francisco now suffers from a lack of an official Apple presence, leaving CES  (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas at the top of my trade show list (though the Geneva Auto Show in March sounds pretty good).

So back to today’s show… every major auto manufacturer was represented, and there were a few models that haven’t made it to showroom floors yet that were on display. The most important of these were both Ford products. The new Ford Fusion (out this fall) is an impressive looking car with a wide range of cutting edge power trains. The existing model, especially the hybrid,  has been selling very well despite it’s staid appearance. I expect sales to jump significantly with this stylist and more mechanically impressive model.

The other Ford that will surely make a big splash is the new Escape. It also replaces one of the least stylish models in the Ford fleet, and like the Fusion is nicely proportioned and detailed. Small SUVs (basically tall small cars these days) are a hot segment and this one should jump to the head of that pack in sales.

There was another small SUV that I was hoping to see… the new Mazda CX-5. From what I’ve seen so far I just may be tempted to replace my trusty Mazda3 with one in the coming year, especially if the diesel model that Europe is getting finds its way over here.

But it’s a dry chill

February 1, 2012

I have one of those Oregon Scientific weather stations (just one, not five like my Dad) that tells me the temperature and humidity indoors and outdoors (via a little wireless unit that sits outside on the windowsill). While I don’t pay attention to the clock that is always set to west coast (Oregon?) time, I keep an eye on the humidity level. If the humidity drops below 20% I really notice an unpleasant dryness in my throat in the morning after a (usually) good night’s sleep. The problem with having a loft-style apartment is that it’s nearly impossible to increase the humidity. But if you look at the photo, you’ll notice that the humidity outdoors is higher so I should just open the window and let some of that moist outdoor air inside, right?

In this case that wouldn’t work, because we’re talking about relative humidity here. The humidity numbers you see is the percentage of water that air of that temperature can “hold” at that temperature and pressure (and technically air doesn’t hold water, but it’s okay to think of it that way).  The rule of thumb is that for every 20°F you increase the temperature, the air can hold twice as much water. So there was actually less water in that 48°F outdoor air (not bad for evening on February 1st) than in my apartment’s air when I took that photo.

Humidity is also important in the summer, as we feel much hotter on hot humid days than dry ones. This is because humans don’t feel heat directly – we sense the rate of heat transfer from the body and the body has to work harder to transfer heat when it’s humid (perspiration doesn’t evaporate as quickly in humid conditions).