How the wedding cake house, a feminist architectural project, is bigger on the inside
The Wedding Cake House, an ornate Italian building on 514 Broadway in Providence, also known as the Kendrick-Tirocchi-Prentice House, was built in 1867 and attributed to Broadway architect Perez Mason. It is part of the Broadway Armory Historic District (Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel via Wikimedia Commons)
As with some of the most magical experiences – be it books or buildings – the beautiful Providence Victorian wedding cake house is “bigger inside”. The Wedding Cake House (formerly known as the Tirocchi House) is located on the property at 514 Broadway in Providence, Rhode Island. The exterior fits in perfectly with the other elegant Victorian mansions on this street. It is one of several architectural landmarks in the Broadway Armory Historic District (founded 1974).
Originally built in 1867 by architect Perez Mason, the house took the names of its first residents – maker John Kendrick and railroad magnate George. W. Prentice – before it became primarily the home of Anna and Laura Tirocchi, two Italian-American immigrant sisters who ran a tailor’s shop in the building for several decades. After the sisters died, the house stood empty and deteriorated in the harsh New England weather as the remains of their life’s work were carefully documented and preserved by the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Rhode Island. Having played a prominent role on the Providence Preservation Society’s list of Most Vulnerable People for several years, the Wedding Cake House is now in a multi-year process of transformation – restoration, repair and reinvention – that has it as a unique work of art on the cultural Map sets and economic joint project.
The interior of the wedding cake house is hidden behind its neatly historic, elegantly white-painted and salted exterior. I was at the Wedding Cake House almost a year ago before COVID-19 reduced public access to such creative and curious artistic encounters to something that could fit on a laptop screen. Even in unfinished form – painting supplies on the floor, rooms without furniture, plaster of paris in the air – the interior of the wedding cake house was kaleidoscopic and lively, and its litany of colors and patterns met with sparks rather than disorientation. Every room and hallway is decorated with bespoke wallpaper. Each bathroom has its own dazzling tile arrangement. Almost every wall is decorated with a unique painting or print.
A shower cubicle in the wedding cake house
The Wedding Cake House project is a major undertaking by the decade-old feminist art collective The Dirt Palace in Providence, led by artists Pippi Zornoza and Xander Marro. While the history of the Tirocchi Sisters has been explored in the form of exhibitions, websites and books, the house itself has the potential to give visitors the opportunity to read more than just beautiful clothes: borrowing from the most effective and transportable historical house museums, the it allows her to imagine herself in the world occupied by the sisters, if only for a moment.
A bathroom in the wedding cake house
With this renovation project, Zornoza and Marro are excitingly and freshly reinventing both the physical and affective capabilities of the wedding cake house, strengthening Providence’s status as a creative travel destination, and advancing aspects of undervalued women’s history. Another subtle impact of the Wedding Cake House project is that it continues the more specific artistic tradition of transforming Victorian homes in a major city in the United States (by two creative, community-minded activists) into an expressive space that caters to and from women artists giving workers the opportunity to shape the world around them and fulfill what they see as an urgent community need. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded the Hull House in Chicago (1889–2012) as a home for the support of the intellectual and professional passions of women. For over a century, Hull House has been a place where the city’s immigrant communities advocate feminine creativity and work. Similarly, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, along with the artists of the Feminist Art Program of the California Institute of the Arts, founded Womanhouse, founded in 1972, as a place to explore the artistic contradictions and possibilities of domestic space and to redevelop the skills the generation needed in be successful in a male-dominated art world.
Hull House in Chicago, now a US National Historic Landmark and forming the Jane Addams Hull House Museum (Image by Elisa Rolle via Wikimedia Commons)
The similarities continue in the details: Hull House, the Wedding Cake House will include artist studios and living spaces. Like Womanhouse, it is physically renovated by Zornoza and Marro to accommodate installations of works by artists. It is easy to imagine that the kind of mid-career artists touted by the Dirt Palace would benefit from Womanhouse’s work in creating a space for the political and social education of women artists who are focused on entering prepare an art world that they feared diminishing or overlooking their talents.
Reflecting changes in the waves of feminist thought, the Dirt Palace also practices an inclusive ethos accountable to a constituency that isn’t just well-educated middle-class activists or avant-garde art students. The opening exhibition at the Wedding Cake House, Ruffles, Repair & Ritual: The Fine Art of Fixing, included the print by queer artist Macon Reed “Expand the Feminine Spectrum” (2018-2019) depicting a woman who is not based on the biologically female body. Commenting on this work in the exhibition, Reed said: “It involves broadening the idea of what people with a feminine spectrum might be or what they might look like […];; The other part makes room for trans women to be part of the sorority. “The inclusion of artists like Macon shows that the Dirt Palace recognizes a feminism that includes trans and non-binary people. We are far from Schapiro’s “menstrual bath” (nd) in the Womanhouse. Marro and Zornoza also plan to add accessible facilities to the historic home as it builds and renovates it, due to their refusal to give in to the ableist tendencies that have plagued waves of feminist thought and activism. In contrast to Hull House, the Wedding Cake House is not on a paternalistic civilization mission for underserved population groups.
Hallways in the wedding cake house (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
As a location in a world of the 21st century, the wedding cake house can not only reflect the positive changes in social movements as well as the power of artistic kinship. it also reflects the continuing tendency to value cultural and artistic achievements as consumer goods in a market economy. While the wedding cake house continues the practice of Hull-House and Womanhouse, at this early stage it also reflects the decidedly transactional nature of contemporary artistic practice – namely, that in order to justify its existence it must add something economic value.
A room in the wedding cake house
Is it a requirement that all artistic ideas now pay for themselves – that there must be a business mindset associated with those efforts in order to make them valid? In the context of the neoliberal market economy, the wedding cake house cannot simply be a space for studio practices by women and non-binary artists, as well as an important, creative restoration of an undervalued part of providential history. It must also generate income to prove its usefulness; It must demonstrate a return on investment for the city, state, and hardworking taxpayer-consumer. And the Wedding Cake House is certainly planning to meet this social requirement: In addition to the studio and residential facilities already mentioned, as well as its capacity for impressive exhibitions, the Wedding Cake House also offers plans for a boutique bed and breakfast. Here, “art patrons have the opportunity to stay with local artists in unique short-term rentals so that the public exploring the area can learn more about the regional culture and history while at the same time directly supporting the creation of new works.”
A bathroom in the wedding cake house
That idea honestly sounds adorable and charming – exactly the kind of tourist attraction that (in the post-COVID era) could buffer Providence’s artistic reputation. I could envision this boutique hotel in the Wedding Cake House having a waiting list for this curated experience at some point. Tourism benefits the city, the economy and the taxpayer. Everyone wins. Still, Providence is already an expensive city to rent, and gentrification – particularly in Federal Hill, the neighborhood where the wedding cake house is located – is on the rise. What does a successful Wedding Cake House hotel mean for the adjacent buildings and communities that are not connected to the Dirt Palace?
In this country, art and culture – in arguments to increase public support – are too often tied into the paradigms of job creation and economic benefit than into the notion that access to a thriving art culture encompasses the emotional, intellectual and emotional aspects the human being expanded The social horizon is by nature a worthy goal. The challenge with the wedding cake house, which is evolving, is not to eliminate current and historical inequalities, or to exacerbate them by contributing to gentrification and displacement. The potential of the wedding cake house as an artistic core must challenge us to move the model further – or rather encourage us to return to the Hull-House and Womanhouse mindset, which did not have to generate a profit in order to be considered valuable cultural and historical sites. In addition to dollars and cents, it must be important that the wedding cake house strengthen the local artist community and possibly even promote similar creative restoration projects of historic architecture.
As art communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
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