Philemon Sturges: Rhode Island’s Modernist Architect

By Catherine W. Zipf - Executive Director, Bristol Historical and Preservation Society

The Citizen’s Bank Building, in Bristol, Rhode Island, is like no other. Located at the end of a row of mid-nineteenth century structures, its dynamic concrete facade and curious decorative symbols mark an abrupt change from the past. Most viewers remember it vividly.

Unfortunately, its architect has been forgotten. The Citizen’s Bank Building, formerly the Old Stone Bank Building, was designed by Philemon Sturges, one of Rhode Island’s premier Modern architects. Well known during the 1960s, today only his buildings are left document his ideas, and the prominent role he played in Rhode Island’s architectural community.

The Citizen’s Bank Building, Philemon Sturges, Bristol, RI, 1965. Credit: Catherine W. Zipf

Philemon Sturges was born in 1929 in Bend, Oregon. His father, Reverand Philemon F. Sturges, was a deeply devout itinerant minister. His mother, Rosalind Howe Sturges, was the daughter of Wallis Howe, an architect based in Bristol, Rhode Island. The young family moved around for several years before settling in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1933. Sturges and his three sisters grew up there. Inspired by his grandfather, Sturges made his way to Princeton, where he earned a BA in 1952 and a MArch in 1954. As an undergraduate, Sturges was among a group of students who painted Shelley’s words “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” in white paint on the expansive brick wall of Stephen Voorhees recently completed Corwin Hall. This event must have been significant in campus memory: Princeton included it in their notice of Sturges’ death.

After graduating, Sturges married his first wife, Julie, and enlisted in the US Navy. He was sent to Japan to work as a photographer in 1957. At this time, a significant number of US military men were stationed in Japan to manage the aftermath of the Korean War. The Sturges’ lived off base in a traditional house in a small Japanese village. Their first child, Sarah, was born there. It was an interesting time to be in Japan. While Japan had been open to the West for decades, the periods after World War II and the Korean War offered future architects like Sturges the opportunity to better understand Japanese architectural principles. Sturges adventured around the area, photographing and studying the local architecture. He absorbed traditional Japanese ideas of free flowing space cordoned off by screens and wooden beams. He took note of heated floors and how the buildings fostered compact, natural living. All of these ideas were to resurface in his later work.

 Philemon E. Sturges (architect), 1963 Bonanza Bus Terminal, Providence, Rhode Island. Credit: Midcentury Modern RI Facebook page

In 1959, the Sturges family returned to the United States and settled in Bristol, Rhode Island. Sturges intended to work for his grandfather, but for reasons that remain unclear, it did not work out. Wallis Howe practiced a more traditional form of architecture, so it is tempting to speculate that he and his grandson did not see eye-to-eye on how architecture should be designed. Whatever the case, Sturges instead partnered with Lester Millman to form his first architecture firm, Millman & Sturges.

Based in Providence, Millman & Sturges executed a number of prominent Modern designs. Among them were phase 1 of the Fine Arts Center at the University of Rhode Island (1965) and the Short Line (Bonanza) Bus Terminal in Providence (1963, now demolished). The Fine Arts Center was constructed with the barest minimum of funds in a Brutalist style. Needing to accommodate considerable future growth, the design incorporated an easily-expandable pylon-like pod system as its base idea. The Short Line Bus Terminal consisted of a brick and glass cylinder and covered parking stations that offered shelter for those boarding the buses. Both were radically Modern in style, and set the standard for what the firm would do best.

The Fine Arts Center, Millman & Sturges, Kingston, RI, 1965. Credit: Catherine W. Zipf

The firm’s most visible and prominent work was the Old Stone Bank Building, now the Citizen’s Bank Building, in Bristol (1965). Sturges took the lead on this commission, creating a playful and sculptural design. The building embraced modern materials, using concrete with large expanses of glass in the design. The flat roof and overhanging eaves are Modern, with a bit of Japanese thrown in. The building contrasts with the surrounding urban fabric and for that, Bristol residents both love and hate it.

For the decoration, Sturges collaborated with noted sculptor and Brown professor Hugh Townley. Townley designed the applied symbols and cut-outs on the facade, supposedly using symbols of currency from around the world as inspiration. The symbols enliven the building, activating its facade. At the same time, the building conforms to the setbacks and heights of its neighbors. It may stand out, but it is still a good neighbor.

Details on the Citizen’s Bank Building. Credit: Hugh Townley and Catherine W. Zipf

On the home front, Sturges practiced a different kind of Modernism. After returning from Japan, the Sturges’ had been given a plot of land as a wedding present by family friend Charles Rockwell, who owned much of Poppasquash Point in Bristol. In 1960, Sturges built a house for his growing family; his second daughter, Julia, had arrived and a third daughter, Elizabeth, would come along a few years later. Well grounded in Japanese architecture, the Sturges house presented a homey view of Modernism well in keeping with its function as domestic space.

Throughout Sturges’ design, space is cordoned off by sliding screens in ways reminiscent of Japanese architecture. Moving shades located in front of the south-facing windows played a key role in the passive solar heating system Sturges used to warm the house. The parquet-style floor and bracket systems were left in their natural state, as they would have been in Japanese tradition. At the same time, the forms are keenly modern and the aesthetic is hybrid. The windows framed views of the landscape, bringing nature into the house. Living here, according to Sturges’ youngest daughter, Elizabeth, was like living outside.

The Philemon Sturges House, Philemon Sturges, Bristol, RI, 1960. Credit: Dory Skemp

The Philemon Sturges House, Philemon Sturges, Bristol, RI, 1960. Credit: Catherine W. Zipf

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Sturges continued to practice architecture with Millman & Sturges. In 1970, he joined the Providence Partnership and then in 1975, he formed Sturges, Daughn & Salisbury. His hope was to procure work on some of the large, urban projects then being proposed in Providence. However, he was unable to get along with Buddy Cianci, Providence’s rising mayor, and as a result, no commissions materialized. Sturges regretted this, but given Cianci’s subsequent conviction for corruption, he was probably better off.

By 1980, Sturges, now divorced from Julie, had met and married his second wife, Judy Sue Goodwin, a professor of illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. Due to the Cianci administration, work was becoming more difficult to find and a change was needed. Following Judy’s career, the couple went to Rome for a few years and returned to Boston around 1982. Sturges worked briefly for The Architect’s Collaborative, but was not particularly happy there. In 1988, he completed his last work, the Gateway Visitor and Transportation Center, in Newport, Rhode Island.

The Gateway Visitor and Transportation Center, Philemon Sturges, Newport, RI, 1988. Credit: Catherine W. Zipf

Sturges devoted his last years to writing, working simultaneously on scholarly pieces exploring the intersection of religion and science and on children’s books. He was good at creating whimsical stories using rhyming words. Writing for children suited him well, and working alongside Judy, who enjoyed illustrating children’s books, must have been rewarding, even though they did not collaborate. But, he was more passionate about his religious and scientific writing, two subjects that he, as the son of a minister, had struggled with his entire life. Sturges died in 2005 at age 75 after a lung infection.

The man behind the dynamic facade of the Citizen’s Bank Building deserves to be better remembered. Sturges’ buildings are important to Rhode Island’s Modern-era architectural fabric. Fortunately, despite the significant preservation threats faced by Modern architecture, many still stand as testimony to his work, his ideas, and his legacy.

Selected books by Philemon Sturges. Credit: Catherine W. Zipf

About

Catherine W. Zipf, PhD, is an award winning architectural historian and author with expertise in historic preservation. She holds an AB from Harvard University and a MaH and PhD from the University of Virginia. Her book, Professional Pursuits: Women and the American Arts and Crafts Movement, was named Outstanding Academic Book by Choice Magazine.

Zipf writes frequently for a wide range of print and online publications, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Leadership Forum Blog and Architexx.org. She is a contributing author to the anthologies Monuments to the Lost Cause and A Gendered Profession, and has written scholarly articles for Buildings and Landscapes, Radical Teacher, and The Journal of City, Culture and Architecture. She also writes a monthly column on architecture for The Providence Journal.

Zipf is currently writing her second book, Making a Home of Her Own: Newport’s Architectural Patronesses, 1850-1940, while serving as the interim Executive Director of the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society.


Notes

The information for this essay was compiled from primary sources. Sturges' Princeton obituary can be found at http://www.princeton52.org/dynamic.asp?id=memorials2005. His AIA listing for 1970 is at http://public.aia.org/sites/hdoaa/wiki/American%20Architects%20Directories/1970%20American%20Architects%20Directory/Bowker_1970_M.pdf. The selected summary of his work included here was created from RI state architectural surveys, the AIA Guides to Providence and Newport, and the Society of Architectural Historians' Buildings of the United States series, Rhode Island volume. I am grateful to Dory Skemp for guiding me through several Sturges buildings and to Helen Nadler and Elizabeth Sturges Llerena for taking the time to speak with me about Sturges' life. 

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