On footings of a temple, a hip hotel

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Mandel
Globe Correspondent / July 15, 2007

PROVIDENCE -- The pleasures of Rhode Island's capital are as thick as local accents. Brazier fires light up the river at night. Street art meets high art in gallery shows. The smell of pizza drift s around corners downtown and curl s like clouds up brick-and-clapboard College Hill.

That Providence boasts scrubbed-up, historic charm isn't new. What is new is that -- after years of anticipation -- the "renaissance city's" long-abandoned Masonic temple has been restored and relaunched as a 272-room luxury hotel, the Renaissance Providence.

The temple's neoclassical facade has been carefully refurbished and Masonic-looking images like plumbs and compasses were used in the interior design. In an annoying artistic twist, one of the graffiti artists who had tagged the building in a big way when it was just a shell was invited to juice up the hotel restaurant's decor by spray-painting its walls and doors. Hotel room key cards feature a paint-scrawl motif and photos of past temple graffiti hang on the walls. Is this place edgy or what?

Despite the state's biggest-ever restoration project and years of demolition and dust, there are Rhode Islanders who just refused to believe. "Pigeons, aerosol paint," said a friend. "That temple is an empty shell." "Hotel?" said another. "Must be a mirage."

The Masons quit work on their mighty colonnaded block (it looks a Washington monument) when money ran out in 1928, two years after groundbreaking. When hotel developer Sage Hospitality of Denver started work on the property in 2004, it had been idle, staring across at the State House, for more than 75 years.

Like my friends, I was skeptical about the old and ugly temple's new life. I needed to see the Renaissance Providence as any tourist would -- sleep there, eat in the restaurant, order some extra towels, and the like. If pigeons and rats were still hiding inside, I would find them. But if it turned out to be spanking clean, intriguing, comfy, I would report that, too.

First stop was to stare up at the exterior from all sides. Or, at least, the sides I could get to. The hotel backs up to Veterans Memorial Auditorium, home to the Rhode Island Philharmonic. Squeezed in between is an entrance to the hotel ballroom, three levels underground. Come here for charity speeches, chicken dinners, or in case of war, since it's armored with collars of soundproofing concrete.

A stroll around the area made it clear that the temple renovation had spruced up more than just the building. In front of the hotel and the auditorium, the Avenue of the Arts suddenly looked like it belonged. One critic called it "maybe the closest thing Rhode Island has to a European-style piazza." If piazzas are your thing, I'd recommend Federal Hill's De Pasquale Square, but this is a nice, clean space and, according to Joe Vasta, a limo driver I got talking to, "it's Providence's second shortest street."

Checking in, we found Masonic symbols in the throne like chairs, in blueprints of the temple, and mysterious artwork full of circles. The headboards have temple columns on them and the meeting rooms are named for Handel, Hayden, and Mozart, who were Masons. In one of the lobby paintings I counted the spheres -- 13 -- and wondered if that was an unlucky sign. "It's significant for the Freemasons," said a bellman.

Besides the Masonic touches, the Renaissance has an arts thing going, too. Desk clerks are referred to as "choreographers," the phone staff are "maestros," and -- my personal favorite -- managers are "supporting cast."

We did our best to fit in. My wife, Kathy, dabbed brushstrokes onto a Buddha Board set up in the elevator foyer and I drew a blob on an Etch-a-Sketch that was left for guests.

The Renaissance is a block from the Cheesecake Factory corner of Providence Place Mall. We lucked out with a room overlooking the State House and its lawn. Other rooms look out on the mall garage, Interstate 95, or the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church.

Our standard double room was long and stripy. It had stripes on wallpaper, on sconces, on the carpet (pinstripes, really), and in the bathroom. "You'd think it would make the room seem thinner," Kathy said. "But, well, it works." She was right. It had a holiday feel and there were some fun surprises.

Look at this, I said, turning the handle on a door in the back of the closet. Was it a secret passageway? Sweeping clothes aside, I stepped through and found myself in front of our sink. How many hotel closets have bathroom access? Not many, I'll bet.

We had a mini-fridge instead of a minibar, and two complimentary cans of Airforce Nutrisoda . Kathy picked Energize with mandarin and mint, and I tried a swallow of the berry and citron flavor called Calm.

When it was time for dinner we headed for the in-house restaurant, Temple Downtown , with its "American bistro" food and very hip decor. You slide into orange half-moon banquettes and peer at your menu under iron chandeliers with little skylines of frosted, light-emitting tubes. The restrooms have a terra- cotta fountain for washing hands, and panels in the bar and lounge were sprayed by the guy who had tagged the temple back in its abandoned days.

We ate here before the menu was set, but what we ordered did the trick. The New England clam chowder for $7 was fresh and slightly smoky. Kathy's baseball-cut ahi tuna at $26 came in chunks and was nicely done. My $27 Angus steak was as ordered, cool-center rare.

After coffee, I asked the waiter if I could add my own graffiti tag to those that decorate the restaurant. He laughed. He looked me over, and turned me down.

Still, we were happy to have had a taste of the new temple. I would tell my friends there are no pigeons, no critters. Just a cool hotel that, most importantly, is not a mirage.

Peter Mandel, a writer in Providence and author of children's books "Planes at the Airport" and "My Ocean Liner," can be reached at

If You Go

Renaissance Providence Hotel
5 Avenue of the Arts
401-276-0010, 800-468-3571
Rates typically range from $199 for a standard double to $319 for a Club Level double. Temple Downtown, a mid-priced "American bistro" with an emphasis on regional dishes, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Valet parking $25 a day.

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