The Beige-ing of Worcester

Like some of you, I have been concerned about the future of the Palladium and rumors that the owners might tear it down and put up a parking lot.

Like some of you, I am concerned that Worcester is trying to move away from its traditional reputation as a hub for late-60s-era Brutalist architecture towards a new reputation for “most beige city west of the former Soviet bloc.”

(picture via archboston.org; the following comment says it all: “When you zoom in to street level, it barely looks like a coherent city”, which itself was a response to “Good god Worcester is desolate.”)

I did not go to school for urban planning, but even I can tell that not only is this ugly as sin, it makes no sense, and it will not last.

Most of the beige you see here is fifty years old or less, and what it replaced was a much more coherent and pedestrian-friendly downtown.

Part of what’s left of the old downtown (that is, the Palladium) is under threat of imminent destruction, to be replaced by either another parking lot or more beige concrete.

For example, the Portland Street Lofts — which previously had beautiful vintage plate-glass windows and the names of car manufacturers of yore in bright painted brick — have windows that now make no aesthetic sense from the outside and has had its walls plastered in a bland off-white that has already been tagged by untalented graffitos.  We took a building that had character (and about which a resident could have boasted “my room’s right above Valiant“) and doused its light out with the official color of downtown: beige.

Worcester’s greatest hits of beige, off-white, and grey include:

  • City Hall, the beige that started it all.
  • The police station, the post office, and the library, the Brutalist Sisters of Worcester. Note that the library has successfully made the transition to beige in the front and Brutalist in the rear.  Think of the fun the beige-ites could have with the post office and the police station!
  • 100 Front Street/Mechanics Tower, the mother of the current crop of downtown beige.
  • The AT&T Building, which has the dubious distinction of being the most beige (due to lack of windows) and most inappropriately sited building in all of Worcester.  Rumor has it that this is a CIA substation, which means that we can’t blow it up.
  • The Sky Mark Tower, which introduced a much-needed grey element to Worcester’s shades of beige.  Its only redeeming quality is that it served as inspiration for a location in a Jack O’Connell novel.  Also, it glows.
  • The remnants of the Galleria garage and the Garage Mahal behind Union Station.
  • Obviously, in order to fully integrate into downtown, the Paris Cinema needed to assimilate into the off-white Borg cube.
  • The Unum Building and the WRTA hub will join the beige pantheon shortly.

The only major non-beige building of the past fifty years is the Worcester Plaza (or, as I will always call it, the Shawmut Bank Tower), which, being a glass structure, can do little but reflect the beige that surrounds it.

The opening of Front Street is an effort to undo mistakes of the past.

The city is now in the position to prevent a mistake (the Palladium) before it ever happens rather than have to fix this in forty years’ time.

If we tear down the Palladium, we will not get something better in return.

We will either get a featureless beige facade, or yet another parking lot (though hopefully slightly more attractive than the tumbleweed lot across the street).

We have already lost too many buildings in our downtown, buildings that fit the vision for CitySquare: mixed-use, with street-level storefronts.  We have replaced them with parking lots or garages, or with buildings unsuited to a downtown area.

Many of those buildings had character and fit well into their immediate surroundings.

We will not be able to (re)build with that quality or character again.

Think of the downtowns in New England that you enjoy.  They likely have a successful mix of different colors and textures (red brick, yellow brick, concrete) and an equally successful mix of old and new architecture that works well together.

I hope the city administration takes the threat of losing the Palladium seriously.  If we lose that building, we lose an essential part of what ties North Main to the area closer to City Hall.

And forty years from now our successors will be trying to re-integrate North Main with the rest of downtown with a building that has storefronts on street level and a main business that attracts people from all over.

Kind of like the one that’s there right now.

Will the Worcesterites of 2050 be cursing the O’Brien era in the same way that current Worcesterites curse the McGrath era?

They won’t if we can successfully reverse the damage done in the McGrath era.

That means a greater devotion to preserving and repurposing older buildings, choosing a greater diversity in aesthetics for new buildings, and not looking at parking garages as a major design element.

I think we can do it, but it will require greater attention to both newer buildings proposed for CitySquare, and to buildings at a critical point in other areas of downtown.