This project has been made possible by a grant from the Creative Arts Council of Brown University.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Back to the archives

I wrote the title of this post offhand, but the phrase it recalls- the title of the film "Back to the Future" featuring the unforgettable Mart McFly- actually prompted some reflections on the nature of the archive. A play on the fim's name (and themes, since it deals with time travel) might frame delving into the archive as going "back to the past", but perhaps the classic title of "back to the future" suits the archive just as well as it suits Doc Brown and Marty McFly. After all, the archive concerns the future just as much as the past, perhaps even more so, since the project of the archive is to preserve and provide (and often control) a legacy for the future. The archive addresses select pasts (however distant or immediate), exists in the present, and projects a future; it deals in visions.

To return to the original thought that prompted this post, as the project progresses, I am aware that I have been more drawn to talking to people about the Arcade and recording those conversations than to archival research. The effect is that I have somewhat neglected the archival side of the research. While I am noticing this about myself and honouring it, I do want the archives to feature among the research materials in a meaningful way, and not just use a few images as a token gesture. 

That said, my visit yesterday to the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) involved both engagements. As one of the archival repositories in Providence and the state agency for historical preservation and heritage programs, they were sure to have some material on the Arcade. Specifically, I had an appointment to meet Sarah Zurier who works at the RIHPHC, and who knows Laura and Rosanna (whom I interviewed last month) from growing up in Providence together, and who was willing to share some of her experiences with me. 

The RIHPHC has a file on the Arcade that contains two nominations for the National Register of Historic Places from 1968 and 1976. There are some interesting details among the information included in the form, and there are also some wonderful photographs. Since the RIHPHC is a state agency, the copyright regulations are less strict than those of the Rhode Island Historical Society Library, a private research library, and so I will be sharing those photographs on the blog. Here's one to get started:

Air view of the Arcade from the north showing the Westminster Street portico, 1944. 
Photo credit: Providence Journal-Bulletin. Negative at the RIHPHC. 

On the 1976 nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, one paragraph in particular caught my eye:
It recalled the paragraph in the 1919 article from the RIHS Library that mentioned "the recent fire in the Arcade [that] calls to mind that just 50 years ago the building also suffered from a slight fire." I have not found any other details on these fires, but it might merit some more looking into. It would be interesting to be able to establish how much damage was done, and to know to what extent renovations were required after the fires. 

The clarity of the photographs in the RIHPHC file provide a wonderful insight into the stores that were in the Arcade during the 1950s. In the photograph below, the shop signs are clearly visible, projecting out from the balconies of the Arcade. As Sarah pointed out, it is interesting the way that private, commercial, and civic entities were all present alongside one another in the Arcade at this time: the RI League of Women Voters, Don Turner, advertising artist, the Maintenence Dept, Ira Rakatansky, architect. 
Interior view of the Arcade, facing north from third-floor balcony cross-over, showing balcony setbacks and central bridge at second-floor level. 1957. Photo credit" Providence Journal-Bulletin. Negative at the RIHPHC.

Ira Rakatansky's sign for his shop on the second level features prominently in the photograph. Sarah provided some interesting information about Rakatansky, who I had not heard of before. He still lives in Providence and is known for his role in realising the ideas of the modernist movement in the New England area. Sarah said that at the time of his retirement his office was on Meeting Street, right by the Providence PReservation Society building, and that his wife now runs a gallery in that space. He trained under Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, two giants of the modernist movement in architecture, and is described on a RISD blog as "the only architectural practitioner consistently committed to Modernism in the Providence area during the 40s, 50s, 60s." I came across a ProJo article which provides a lot of similar details to those that Sarah gave me. It would be wonderful if I were able to talk to him about his experiences in the Arcade, so that will be a direction to follow up in the next week. 

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