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Imaging The Endangered: Jesse Burke for the Providence Preservation Society

The Providence Preservation Society recently released their annual list of the Most Endangered Properties in Rhode Island’s capital. The list is a tradition around which preservation efforts in the city coalesce, focusing the efforts of advocates for historic properties. Numerous structures featured in lists past have been saved, at least in part due to their inclusion. This year, the Society commissioned Rhode Island School of Design professor Jesse Burke to create a collection of photographs depicting the properties featured in the list. The results are poignant snapshots of once vital locations across the city.

Several of the sites on this year’s Most Endangered list are vacant houses of worship, including three Protestant sites, one Catholic church, and a historic synagogue. The images Burke creates of the Broad Street Synagogue and St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church are particularly striking. Respectively, they depict states of disuse and decay internally and externally.

Jesse Burke, Broad Street Synagogue.

The image of the Broad Street Synagogue, closed since 2006, shows the buckling floors and dust covered pews of a place abandoned. At the center of the photo is the ark, now bereft of the Torah scrolls central to Jewish synagogue life. The image, though honest, is more than a list of grievances about the site. It is a testament to the potential of the place to be rescued. Small signs of progress can be seen if one chooses to look, making this a photo of possibility as much as one of decay.

The image of St. Teresa of Avila, closed in 2009, forms an unusual perspective of a common subject. The structure has a dramatic set of steps on its façade leading to three grand doors with classical detailing. In his interpretation of the site, Burke focuses instead on the rear end of the building. Here, we see the way in which an abandoned place begins to give way to nature. The former church parking area has gone to seed and the plain brick wall of the church’s back reads as a monolith in the forest. Above the barely visible bell tower, two birds take flight. There is potential in this image, too, and the viewer is left question what it would take to reclaim the site.

Both structures have been the subject of various preservation and reuse efforts. Several student groups have volunteered cleaning up debris at the former synagogue. Their work is easily felt in the photo, where trashcans within the space contain some of the debris that once littered the floor. Similarly, St. Teresa of Avila has been discussed as a site for a new community library. Burke’s images testify to the latent potential in both sites, while documenting the dangers of leaving these once vital buildings to decay further.

Jesse Burke, Former Rhode Island Department of Transportation.

The central inclusion of religious spaces is indicative of the interest the Providence Preservation Society has in saving the many vacant houses of worship that once served numerous congregations across the city. The Society hosted a series of programs on religious spaces this summer, including the Broad Street Synagogue, and is working in partnership with Partners for Sacred Places, an advocacy organization, to brainstorm ways to salvage these important architectural assets. Jesse Burke’s photos are an integral aspect of the preservation effort. They serve to illustrate the state that local abandoned religious sites are in, while motivating the viewer to care about the future of these places. Fittingly, they are part meditation on death and part hope for resurrection. They form a unique study within the broader collection of photos and the larger conversation about historic sites. The photos of religious sites are necessary to the story Burke tells. In its entirety, the Endangered Places series richly illustrates the beauty of places that once were and the potential of what they could be again.

About Author

Michael Rose holds a B.A. in Art History from Providence College. He is a freelance writer and contributor to the Daily Red blog, where he writes on architecture. You can find him on Twitter at @mikerosetalks.

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