PROVIDENCE – Mike Abbott, 59, grew up near Cincinnati in a little ranch house where he was born.
“I still go back to my own house and sleep in my bed,” he says. “My parents have done it all over and made it into a cute little Victorian house with gingerbread.”
A rural place where “they build about one house every 25 years” seems an unlikely beginning for a man who, as a partner in the Newport Collaborative – now the Northeast Collaborative – has become one of the country’s foremost restoration architects.
“We lived in the country,” he explains. “The only [exposure to architecture] was the House of the Week feature in the back of the Sunday paper. I would cut them out and work on the floor plans, how to make them better. That was my architectural inauguration.”
When he isn’t setting the bar higher for other professionals in his field, Abbott serves as chair of the Exeter Planning Board in a town where he and his wife, Jeanne, have owned Abbottswood farm for 25 years. It reminds him of his Ohio home. Jeanne grows herbs that she sells at her Wickford tea room, among other places, and Mike enjoys watching the wildlife.
After earning undergraduate and master’s degrees from Miami University, an hour north of Cincinnati, he set up shop in Chicago for five years with business partner John Grosvenor of the noted Newport family.
Eventually Grosvenor brought him east for a visit.
“I’d never seen Newport,” says Mike. “I fell in love with it. It has more architecture per square inch than anywhere else. That’s really when I got into architectural preservation.”
As the Newport Collaborative, they opened a little office in Grosvenor’s home in 1981. Each building they repurposed for modern use – all done while protecting the historic character – was “like living in a museum. Every one [we worked on] had started as an old building.”
He has spearheaded and won prizes for, among other things, the rebirth of the Providence Performing Arts Center, Veterans Memorial Auditorium (newly-named The Vets), and Slater Mill.
Potentially the biggest feather in his cap – the reimagining of The Providence Arcade, the nation’s oldest shopping mall – was recently announced.
Located in the heart of the capital city’s financial district, the multi-columned structure which resembles a mini version of the Parthenon, will become a collection of ground-floor restaurants with mini-lofts and even smaller, micro-lofts above.
They will be, Abbott explains, like very nice hotel rooms with small kitchens, baths and combination living-bedrooms with a tiny dining area. They are being touted as affordable housing for the arts and professional crowd who normally roost on the East Side or commute to downtown jobs.
“We’ve been quietly working on it for three years,” he reveals. “Now it’s out to bid.” In fact, on the day of this interview, four contractors had toured the place. Abbott says, “We’re hoping to complete it by December 2012.
“I’m honored to work on a facility like that. I love working on this building; it’s a national landmark. Each column is one piece. Twelve of them were brought from Cumberland by horse and cart. Can you imagine?”
Among his award-winning projects, he declares, “PPAC is one of my big favorites. It was rewarding to work on that. We took off the whole back of the theater so ‘Phantom of the Opera’ could come in. To bring big shows in, they had to have 40 feet by 80 feet [more space] – a major size to get real shows.”
The architects took out one lane of traffic from Pine Street, put in a totally new sound system and transformed what had been an old movie house with the theater in the back and retail and rental space in the front into a glorious palace.
“It was our first big project.”
The restoration of Slater Mill was completed five years ago and now the Collaborative is working, in stages, on The Vets, built in 1946 as a tribute to veterans of all wars.
“It was never renovated,” Mike notes. “We’ve put in all new dressing rooms and private bathrooms. First-rank stars like [opera diva] Renee Fleming don’t want to go down the hall and share a single bathroom.”
The architects are also replacing the loading dock whose location on the sloped side of the building puts it at a different level from the stage.
“Now they have to hoist the grand piano up the outside of the building in all weather.” They’re also adding a lot of new public restrooms as well as a balcony-level glass connector from the back to the front of the house.”
“Some day we can extend the connector to the [Providence Place] mall for inside parking.”
Plans are under way to refurbish the marquee.
Abbott explains, “We’re lighting the whole front” so it can be seen by the masses of cars traveling on Rt. 95.
Among his other completed projects are the interlink of the intermodel train station, airport and parking garage at T.F. Green and the Hampton Inn at the Old Colony Bank site. In the works are designs for a private aviation building near the National Guard hangar at the airport, contributions to the design of PPAC Square and the redesign of the old St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church on Tower Hill Road in North Kingstown, which will become senior housing.
With so much demand on his time, it is amazing that Mike still makes room for an active role in helping guide Exeter’s future.
“I believe in community service,” he says simply. “The town works on volunteers. I was on the zoning board and switched to the planning board.”
He’s excited about the village concept that Exeter has adopted with one center planned for the area near the post office on Rt. 2 and another as a government center on the site of the new library. The planning board is in the midst of creating a master plan for the entire property to determine what Mike calls “the best use for all this.”
“It hasn’t been done in the state,” he says. He also has a notion of how the town can afford to build a new town hall around meeting and museum space that would be created by moving and restoring the historic Old Town Hall.
“I’d love to design it as a swap; sell the existing town hall and use the proceeds to finance construction of a new one.” Selling, he notes, would have the added benefit of putting the existing town hall on the tax rolls, in addition to the sales price that could be realized.
Not surprisingly, Mike Abbott’s role model was Thomas Jefferson.
“He raised all his own food, livestock, gardens, arbors. He was an architect, president, founder and designer of the University of Virginia, wrote the Declaration of Independence and was an inventor. He was an amazing man.
“He had long, red hair, too, and was just a little shorter than I am.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .