Historic preservation. Rhode Island's `first lady of perseverance'

ANTOINETTE FORRESTER DOWNING of Providence, R.I., has been helping to preserve buildings and neighborhoods for 55 years. Now an octogenarian, she says she has no intention of slowing down but every intention, to use her words, ``of hanging in there'' and continuing to be an effective preservation advocate and activist. ``There are still too many buildings to be saved, people to educate, and too much work to be done,'' she says, ``to rest on one's laurels.''

Laurels she has plenty of, including the important Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award, presented to her this week in Washington by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Mrs. Downing was honored for her dedication to the preservation movement and for her continuing struggle to bring the nation to a common-sense realization that preserving our heritage is an absolute necessity.

Downing has also been termed ``Rhode Island's one-woman preservation hit squad'' and the ``First Lady of Perseverance.'' At the award ceremony, J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art, cited not only her wisdom, tenacity, and gentleness in all the volunteer and appointive positions she has held, but also her ``enlightened belligerence.''

She helped preserve a mile-long row of 18th- and 19th-century homes on Benefit Street in Providence, R.I., helped foster the saving of the great mansions of Newport, R.I., and helped establish SWAP (Stop Wasting Abandoned Property), a nonprofit homesteading organization, which for seven years has helped families buy, repair, and occupy more than 400 burned-out and vacant buildings. Today she is watching as block after block of Victorian houses in Providence undergo renovation.

``Had forces of demolition and change been allowed to prevail,'' wrote editor Thomas J. Colin in the magazine Historic Preservation, ``appallingly significant portions of Rhode Island's magnificent architectural heritage would have been eradicated, including much of the now pristine Colonial-era neighborhood around Brown University and many of the commercial buildings in downtown Providence. Antoinette Downing prevailed with down-to-earth arguments backed by sensitivity to aesthetics, architectural history, and econonomic facts.''

Downing has been a pioneer of grassroots lobbying to influence Congress. When Rhode Island Sen. John H. Chafee nominated her for the Crowninshield award, he referred to her as a scholar, planner, and activist as well as a promoter and molder of the preservation ethic throughout America.

She appears to be equally at ease and persuasive with politicians, neighborhood residents, and children, and she is known for her ability to inspire and to feed in ideas that motivate people to significant accomplishment. ``I know how to cheer people on and coax them to do things,'' she admits, ``and I've always watched to see what wonderful things happen when people organize themselves and decide to fight.''

Her lifetime goal, she says, has been to make the citizens of Rhode Island appreciate their historic buildings, and largely through her efforts Rhode Island is now a very preservation-minded state, with residents who have a love for old things.

``Of course,'' she reminded in a telephone interview from her office in Providence, ``although the preservation movement has come a long way, it needs our constant vigilance and awareness in order for it to keep moving. The federal government needs to retain its specific interest in preservation as something of national value. The government has been retreating but we must keep the initiative alive at all times.''

Downing has chaired Providence's Historic District Commission since she helped create it in 1960. She is also chairman of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, a state agency whose staff, under her direction, has surveyed and published reports on 36 towns in Rhode Island, detailing what the community has in the way of historic architecture and what it has lost. This commission has also just completed an inventory of Providence architecture that includes the entire city. These reports serve as guides, she says, to preservation groups, historical societies, and town bodies.

As an architectural historian (with degrees from the University of Chicago and advanced studies in art and architectural history at Radcliffe College), Downing has researched and written three highly influential books - ``Early Homes of Rhode Island,'' published in 1937, ``The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island'' published in the late 1940s, and ``College Hill,'' published in 1959, a co-authored survey/study made of the neighborhood around Brown University, which resulted in the rescue of many deteriorating historic houses. Downing claims she has always been able to do far more good with her pen than with a paint scraper.

Right now she is thinking ahead to a time when all preservationists, whether they are seeking to preserve the environment, the water, the quality of country life, or our inherited buildings and landscapes, will join together. ``It will involve a much broader sense of preservation and protection,'' she says, ``and it will require people to live differently and with far less waste.''

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