The Garden Walls of Providence

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   I promised Providence stories after the DPZ-designed community won the NAHB’s National Community of the Year… let’s start off with something Providence does well that breaks rules. Frontage fences are typically limited to a height of 40 inches or less in traditional neighborhoods across the US, but I noticed on a trip to Charleston several years ago that houses there often have brick garden walls up to eight feet tall or sometimes more that come right up to the sidewalk.


Charleston garden wall

   When I see something that breaks rules but looks good, I have to ask myself “why is that OK?” What I realized was that if there had been wood stockade fences that tall right on the sidewalk, they would have been oppressive. But because they were well-detailed brick or stucco garden walls, they compensated for their height by being beautiful.

   There was another benefit it took me longer to figure out: because a good garden wall has piers every few feet, it modulates the view every 2-3 steps as you walk along, making the walk more interesting than a continuous smooth wall. An 8’ wall right beside the sidewalk also creates as much enclosure as a 30’ tall building standing 25’ away. So a good garden wall enhances Walk Appeal in at least these two ways, making the street a more interesting place to walk.


Providence garden wall

   When I returned from Charleston, I decided to try out the lessons I’d learned there at Providence, where I’ve served as Town Architect almost since the beginning. Town Founders David and Todd Slyman have always had a keen interest in getting the fences right from the very beginning, so I was confident they would listen. I was right. We started with Todd’s house, which was just being designed at the time. We decided to allow garden walls only on side streets to begin with, in case we didn’t get it right. A side street is one where the sides of the buildings meet the street; a front street is one where the fronts of the buildings meet the streets.

   It was a great success. We now have several garden walls on side streets at Providence, and the lessons learned there are informing the next neighborhood on the hilltop across the stream. There, because a lot of the houses are built on the brow of the hill overlooking the stream below, it is necessary to have motor court entries on those streets. And because we’ve gotten gotten good at garden walls in the valley, we’ve done a pretty good job on the hilltop from the very beginning.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Village of Providence Wins National Community of the Year Award From National Association of Homebuilders

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US flag waves in summer breeze from white-columned front porch overlooking fence-lined sidewalk in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama

   The National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) announced this afternoon that the Village of Providence in Huntsville, Alabama has been named the Community of the Year in the 2014 Best in American Living Awards (BALA). The Village of Providence has been developed since the beginning by a local family business headed by Town Founder David Slyman. Providence was planned by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company in 2002, with Andrés Duany as project principal and directed briefly by Jeff Speck until his departure for private practice, and then by Galina Tachieva and Xavier Iglesias ever since.

   Wanda and I have had the honor of being involved with Providence from the beginning, and there are so many great stories to tell, and so many great lessons that have been learned that there’s no way to fit it all in a single post, so I’ll follow up in coming weeks.

Village of Providence town center rises 3-5 stories above Providence Main Street, higher than most buildings in the nearby historic center of Huntsville, Alabama

How many new town centers do you know with

buildings that are 3-5 stories tall?

   It all began with DPZ’s design charrette, which started with a public presentation at Huntsville High School the evening of April 1, 2002. Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (the D and PZ of DPZ) had been two of my heroes ever since the plan of Seaside was first published in the spring of 1981. Upon graduation in 1983, I almost tried to get an interview in Miami, but instead opted to return home to Huntsville where our kids could grow up near their grandparents.

Village of Providence tree-shaded central plaza begins to fill with early lunch patrons, framed by 5-story brick buildings

the town center’s first plaza

   But now, with DPZ coming to Huntsville to design a New Urbanist neighborhood, there was no way I wasn’t going to be a part of it. So I just simply showed up and volunteered a week of my time. And I discovered that even heroes appreciate a helping hand. Years later, I have now heard countless stories of other people getting started in the New Urbanism in exactly the same way.

   Nathan Norris (also living in Huntsville at the time) and I were curating a collection of New Urbanist home designs, which we brought to the charrette. We worked on them, and on whatever else was needed through the week. Saturday afternoon, the pace slowed a bit, and Andrés asked me what else I was working on. I told him I had just founded a group called the New Urban Guild; it was a reconstituted version of Nathan’s original brainchild of the Architect’s Guild. In any case, it was a group of likeminded architects all working within the New Urbanism that we could mobilize to work on a project together.

town center of the Village of Providence occupy three corners of intersection on Providence Main Street, Huntsville, Alabama

Most new town centers are lucky to occupy one corner
of an intersection, but Providence’s occupies three

at this intersection.

   I can still remember… we were walking across the studio floor when I was describing the Guild to Andrés, and he just stopped, mid-stride. Slowly, he turned to face me with a really strange look on his face. I thought I was in trouble or something… until he said “do you have any idea how long I’ve been looking for this?” I didn’t, of course. But then he explained how his choices until then had been to deal with a group of local architects who didn’t necessarily understand the New Urbanism, or even care about it, or bring in a single great architect who did, and have everything look like it was designed by a single hand. Like a project, in other words, not a real town.

   That was the beginning of many years of work as a consultant with DPZ, both individually and with other Guild architects. And that relationship resulted in us moving to Miami almost twelve years ago.

townhouses line street overlooking neighborhood park as stormy skies lie dark beyond

first townhouses at Providence

   But before we left, we set a couple other things in motion. I had been branching out from the practice of architecture for a few years, having written my first book just a couple years prior. While I had great admiration for the better architectural pattern books of the day, having worked with one while designing a few dozen houses at the Ledges of Huntsville Mountain, I lamented the fact that there was not yet a pattern book based on Andrés’ emerging Transect tools, nor one calibrated to the region. For example, pattern books that included bungalows normally used the textbook version that was a national average of sorts, while the bungalows in the deep South were simpler, both in detail and color scheme because the region was still bathed in poverty when bungalows were first built.

all-white Italianate home rises three stories to richly bracketed eaves spreading out against the cloud-strewn skies in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama

“Spice style” methodology was first

developed for Providence

pattern book.

   So we proposed a Transect-based, regionally-calibrated pattern book for Providence, and David accepted. It was originally a Mouzon Design job, but Nathan and I were in the process of gathering a few other colleagues to form PlaceMakers… but PlaceMakers had no jobs yet, and therefore no cash flow. So Wanda and I volunteered to throw in the Providence pattern book as its first job, and PlaceMakers was off to the races.

   We started one more thing at Providence… I had been working since the mid-1990s as a Town Architect, first for a year at Blount Springs, then at the Ledges. Andrés recommended me to David at the charrette, and except for a brief period right after we moved to Miami, I’ve served continuously ever since.

   I’ll post more later on pattern books, Town Architect best practices, and many of the other lessons learned at Providence, including how the Providence town center turned into such a powerhouse, building a more robust town center than Huntsville’s downtown. But those are stories for another day. Tonight, it’s time to congratulate David and Marsha Slyman, David’s brother Todd, and the entire Providence design, development, and construction team for a job well done, and for a level of commitment to excellence that has never wavered for almost thirteen years now. So very well done, all of you! Congratulations!!

   ~Steve Mouzon

© Mouzon Design 2014