Trends change, but RI’s traditional architecture may remain in style – by presidential order


NORTH SMITHFIELD – Architecture trends come and go, whether in remodeling or construction of homes or buildings.

Local architects pointed to a variety of styles now in demand.

But thanks to a recent order from the country’s top office, the historic/traditional styles popular with America’s founding fathers – and common throughout New England – likely won’t be going away anytime soon.

The pandemic, of course, has brought on its own trends.

Lately, people are putting money, “into their own property – a kitchen, a bathroom – instead of taking a vacation,” noted Susan Belanger of Roger Belanger General Contractor in North Smithfield.

Belanger notes that one reason for adding on to a house is that, “Parents are coming back home, such as from assisted living, to live with their adult children.”

Another popular addition right now is the home office.

Home trends, however, come and go.

One trend a few years ago was log homes.

The period between 2000-2008 was the busiest for log homes, said a spokesperson for R.E.P. Construction Company of North Smithfield, who recalls building a log home for each of three friends. One friend had the house built, and then others admired the house and had their own homes constructed.

An interior design and remodeling trend that’s been hanging on for decades, meanwhile, and is currently especially popular with younger customers, is the, “gray and white and stainless steel look,” said Jason Ruotolo of J. Ruotolo Construction, Inc. in North Smithfield. Ruotolo’s company does excavation, site work, builds roads, and buys and rehabilitates properties.

He says gray, white and stainless steel is contemporary and nice, but he jokingly refers to it as the sterile, “hospital look.”

People often want more traditional wood cabinets of cherry or walnut ripped out and replaced, an idea Ruotolo finds short-sighted. It’s not unusual these days for a homeowner to, after just a few years, tire of the look of a kitchen, or a bathroom vanity, and have it removed, he explains.

“That’s what will happen to the hospital look,” Ruotolo predicts.

People apparently love – or at least desire – the Florida contemporary look, a style of residential architecture with floor-to-ceiling windows, said Ruotolo.

“It’s a trend that’s coming here,” he said.

However, the steep price deters some who want to have a Florida-style house built.

Ruotolo said that the high cost of construction in New England is problematic, pointing to the price of the land, the permitting fees, the closing and the site work – and Rhode Island is, “the worst,” he says.

Moreover, the modern Florida house style generally requires a large foundation and roof – factors that add to the prohibitive expenses of building such a home in New England.

Ruotolo converts raised ranches into colonial style houses by changing the front to, “give a contemporary and colonial look all at once,”

The colonial style of architecture remains popular, and has been for years. Colonial architecture is traditionally American, a look featured in federal style buildings, like those in Washington, D.C.

In fact, on Monday, Dec. 21, President Donald Trump  signed the, “Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” which states in part:

“For approximately a century and a half following America’s founding, America’s Federal architecture continued to be characterized by beautiful and beloved buildings of largely, though not exclusively, classical design. Examples include the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, Ore., and the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York City, New York. In Washington, D.C., classical buildings such as the White House, the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, the Department of the Treasury, and the Lincoln Memorial have become iconic symbols of our system of government.”

The order notes that in the 1950s, the federal government largely replaced traditional designs for new construction with modernist ones, discouraging classic in favor of contemporary designs.

“The Federal architecture that ensued, overseen by the General Services Administration, was often unpopular with Americans,” it continues, noting that even GSA itself now admits the public found many of the buildings unappealing.

Opinions on the executive order among builders, architects and experts on historic buildings are across the spectrum.

For North Smithfield’s Ruotolo, “unless something is quite amazing,” a contemporary or ultra-modern glass and steel building probably shouldn’t be constructed in areas like Washington, DC, where there are buildings of architectural styles that are timeless, lasting, and, as he puts it, “always impressive.”

“But,” Ruotolo notes, “I also do believe in change.”

He mentions New York City, with its dazzling skyscrapers, many modern. Then, he adds, there’s always, “the weird one,” that makes the onlooker pause, wondering about an odd or unattractive structure.

Northern Rhode Island has no shortage of historic and classic styles of architecture.

In fact, among the districts, sites, and structures of North Smithfield listed on the National Register National Register of Historic Places are: Peleg Arnold Tavern, Union Village Historic District, Tyler Mowry House, William Mowry House, Forestdale Mill Village, Slatersville Historic District, Old Smithfield Road Historic District, and the Smith-Andrews-Taft-Todd Farm.

A nationwide poll in October 2020 conducted for the National Civic Art Society Survey found that Americans greatly favor historic and traditional architectural styles for U.S. courthouse or federal buildings.

The poll showed, “traditional is the clear winner across the board with more than 7 in 10 Americans – 72 percent – preferring a traditional look.” Support for traditional design was bipartisan. It was favored by 73 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Democrats, and 73 percent of independents, according to the poll .

Aaron Betsky, columnist at Architect Magazine wrote, “There is nothing magical about the preference for Classicism, which has been giving shape to buildings for millennia. That default collection of columns, pediments, architraves, moldings, and compositional principles add a touch of class to any building, be it a bank or a courthouse, a suburban McMansion or a utility plant.”

A year ago when talk swirled of the possibility of the president’s order, the American Institute of Architects met with the Trump administration’s James Sherk to discuss the AIA’s, “serious concerns,” about the rationale.

“As currently written, this order would officially designate ‘classical’ architecture as the preferred style for all U.S. federal courthouses,” the group noted.

In February 2020, AIA’s president Jane Frederick, and EVP/Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy, issued a letter to president Trump in, “strong and unequivocal opposition to the draft executive order circulating within your administration to mandate a federal style of architecture.”

Further, they stated, “The AIA does not, and never will, prioritize any type of architectural design over another. ”

The AIA also sent a memo urging its 95,000 members to contact Trump to oppose the order. It read in part, “The draft executive order defines ‘classical architectural style’ to mean architectural features derived from classical Greek and Roman architecture. There are some allowances for ‘traditional architectural style’ which is defined to mean classical architecture along with Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish colonial. The draft executive order specifically prohibits the use of Brutalist architecture, or its derivatives, in any circumstance.”

An example of Brutalism is the ship-like building of the main Knight campus of Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick.

“The high bar required to satisfy the process described within the executive order would all but restrict the ability to design the federal buildings under this order in anything but the preferred style,” noted the AIA memo.

Locally, architecture expert and author David Brussat wrote that the order will have, “a profound influence on architecture at every level of society.”

That’s because, according to Brussat, “More schools of architecture will institute additional curricula to teach classical in addition to modernist principles and techniques. More classicists will graduate, and they will get jobs at firms that had previously refused to hire any but modernist architects.”

This could affect what is constructed even in small towns in northern Rhode Island.

“Cities and towns will be more likely to consider classically designed proposals for local government buildings,” writes Brussat at

What the near-future holds for federal buildings, whether constructed in D.C., or in the state of Rhode Island, or what architectural trends might spring up as northern RI arises from its lingering shutdown, is yet to be seen. More new construction or a change in architecture might be on the docket, depending on what happens next with the executive order about architecture signed by Trump.

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