What should an architect’s new house look like in an historic neighborhood? This is the question that Margaret B. Kelly and J. Peter Geddes had to address when they were designing 29 Manning Street in the 1930s. The small, two-story, brick house was modern in many ways but was also cleverly disguised to fit in with its much older architectural neighbors. Many of the historic homes in Providence are noted for their elaborately carved architectural details, but Geddes & Kelly did not include moldings around the windows and doors to create a simplified, more modern facade. The windows on the Manning Street facade are arranged in a traditional, symmetrical way, but the windows themselves are casement windows (they swing out), unlike the windows of most of the neighborhood’s earlier homes. The interior had innovative features to make use of the limited space like a custom-designed kitchen table that could unfold to add workspace and built-in benches with storage. Service areas like the kitchen were in the front of the house and the main living areas were in the rear, where a wall of large windows and a door connected the living room to a patio and walled back yard.
Not only was this house an early example of domestic modernism in Providence, but it was also designed by Margaret B. Kelly (1907-1995), one of the few women architects working in Rhode Island in the first half of the twentieth century. Kelly’s family moved to Providence when she was a teenager and she attended the Wheeler School and Vassar College before receiving her degree in architecture from MIT in 1933. This Manning Street house by Geddes & Kelly was built in 1939 and was featured in the March 1941 issue of Architectural Forum, an important architectural publication. Margaret Kelly married Peter Geddes in 1942 and lived in the house from then until her death in 1995. Margaret Geddes was very active in the community and her Manning Street home served as a meeting place for the League of Women Voters of Providence and the Rhode Island Vassar Alumnae Association.
Margaret Geddes gave the house to Brown University and it served as the headquarters of the Urban Studies Program for over 20 years. The university chose to demolish this structure to make way for a new Engineering Research Center designed by the award-winning architecture firm KieranTimberlake and completed in October 2017. Before the house was demolished, Dietrich Neumann, director of the Urban Studies Program, and Stefano Bloch, a postdoctoral fellow, organized a public art “Paint Out” of the facade with local artist Gregory Pennisten (see video). Another house designed by Geddes & Kelly, also built in 1939, survives nearby at 47 Manning Street. Though much larger, this private residence shares many features with the demolished building like a minimally-adorned brick facade, low hip roof, casement windows, and an attached garage.