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Architecture and Memory
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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology

 

 

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
Joukowsky_Institute@brown.edu

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It’s early December, and I’m standing in the pit at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Downcity Providence, trying to hold on to my spot near the stage as the pre-show crowd jockeys restlessly for position. But while my friend Sara is frozen with anticipation for the show (her favorite local ska band is getting back together for the first time in years), I’m staring at the ceiling, lost in the grand, sweeping architecture attacking my vision from every angle.

“This is absolutely unbelievable!” I’m shouting to make my voice heard above the roar of a thousand excited twenty-somethings. “In Seattle we have old warehouses and cafés! This is like a museum!”

Sara laughs and grins at me, a little puzzled. “I guess it’s pretty cool. It’s all we really have here.”

“This is incredible! I wonder what the heck was in here before Lupo’s? I mean—this place has to have been here for years and years and years.”

Now it’s February, and I’m making the trek back down Washington Street to Lupo’s to take another look. After all, I had hardly caught so much as a glimpse of the building’s façade in the darkness and excitement of the December show. With a little research, I now know that Lupo’s is located in the old Strand Theater building, an unassuming gray three-story that looks from the outside more like a youth hostel than a concert hall.

A 2003 feature story in the Providence Phoenix points out (1) that Lupo’s was in fact until just recently located in the nearby Peerless Building on Westminster Street but that it got essentially pushed out to make way for 97 new apartments. Ironically, the Providence Journal tells us (2) that twenty condos moved in with Lupo’s in the Strand building in 2005. And all of this comes only after Lupo’s “was forced out of the Conrad Building” in 1988 “because the unsuccessful office building was converted to condos.” Sadly, it may be only a matter of time until Lupo’s vanishes entirely under the wave of development that seems to be sweeping the Downcity area. Time will tell.

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A photo of the Strand Theater building from 1919 shows a corner dedicated to a shop selling “hats” and “furnishings.” Not much has changed in eighty years—the same corner now houses a Dunkin Donuts. And the theaters themselves are similar—the Strand of 1919 seems a fitting precursor to the Lupo’s of 2009 in form and spirit. Both versions sport charmingly tacky light-up signs above cute little box offices unassumingly advertising the coming shows. Moreover, the building reveals no visible signs of remodeling from one picture to the other.

The Strand opened originally in 1915 (3) as a vaudeville theater. With the impending rise of cinema, the building soon played host to a movie theater. In the 1970s, it apparently morphed into an adult theater (4)—not surprising considering the state of Downcity at that point in time: “During the 1970s…Downtown was known mainly for its collection of porn shops, strip clubs, and dive bars" (5). As the city’s image improved in the 1990s, the Strand reopened as a home for live music—establishing it as a potential candidate to house the soon to be homeless Lupo’s.

The Lupo’s I know and now love—the Lupo’s of the Strand—is apparently a significant departure from its original incarnation. A story in the Brown Alumni Magazine notes, “Joey Ramone called it the most disgusting band room he'd ever seen" (5). As a whole this story paints a picture of the original Lupo’s as dirty and gritty—first and foremost a bar and nighttime hangout spot and only secondarily a concert venue. Then, suddenly, Lupo’s got pushed out of the Conrad Building by developers in 1988 and went MIA for five years before reopening in the Peerless Building. Apparently, Lupo’s Mark II was “bigger and cleaner.” And Lupo’s further increased in size with its move to the Strand. Overtime, Lupo’s has effectively transformed itself from a bar that happened to invite bands to a theater that happens to serve drinks.

The Lupo’s that I experienced at the December show felt architecturally very confused—however, it felt so in an exhilarating sort of way. The clash between the surrounding antique vaudeville aesthetic and the engulfing modernist post-punk aura of the crowd was palpable. There we were, moshing with wild abandon and screaming our lungs out at a loud, rude ska show in a beautiful old building that, eighty years ago, would have played host to a variety of now very quaint vaudeville acts. The whole experience was exciting and a bit frightening—as if we had stolen something from our grandparents and were vandalizing it for our own generational pleasure.

In Seattle, my home, the clubs are new, rough, and designed for rock music. Take the Showbox SoDo—it’s a converted warehouse in the city’s Industrial District. The ceilings are low. The architecture is crude, monochromatic, and angular. All you really have to look at is the band in front of you and the door behind you. There is no room left for contemplation of the past. Time is irrelevant.

When I walk into Lupo’s, the past is everywhere. Though I never sat in the balcony of the Strand to watch a vaudeville act, I sense the presence of a history distinctly incompatible with the present. Perhaps Lupo’s will one day find its way into a new building—one designed intentionally for modern purposes. And perhaps the Strand Theater will be preserved as a museum—a monument to a past era. For now it exists as a kind of living museum, hosting a nightly tug-of-war between past and present as the younger generation comes to reclaim what the older has abandoned. And no matter what building Lupo’s calls home, the venue will always exist as a kind of mobile monument—a living, breathing entity not confined to a single, unmovable structure.

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(1) “Phase Three: Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel to relocate to the Strand” in the Providence Phoenix from http://www.providencephoenix.com/features/tji/documents/03365743.asp

(2) “Condos on top and music below is the right mix” in the Providence Journal from http://www.projo.com/news/content/projo_20050721_newloft.35755e1.html

(3) http://www.cinematour.com/tour/us/12670.html

(4) http://cinematreasures.org/theater/280/

(5) “Music Man” in the Brown Alumni Magazine from http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/march/april-2002/music-man.html