By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – While William D. “Bill” Warner, the visionary architect whose designs included reviving Providence’s riverfront – and earned him 50 national and regional awards – is mourned throughout the state and beyond, Exeter residents remember him as a man committed to his community.
Warner died Aug. 27 at age 83 after a six-month illness.
His legacy will almost certainly be Providence’s River Relocation and Waterplace Park Project for which he received the 1997 Presidential Design Achievement Award from Bill Clinton. Other significant urban designs included the I-Way Bridge across the Providence River and the Rt. 195 Relocation Project.
Locally, Warner was praised for his concept for the Exeter-West Greenwich Junior-Senior High School and he also designed the North Kingstown Police and Fire headquarters.
“He was the grandfather of the Rhode Island architects,” says Michael Abbott, himself a nationally-known architect specializing in historic preservation and adaptation, and longtime head of Exeter’s planning board.
“With Exeter-West Greenwich High School, he created a village concept, a collection. It wasn’t some huge superstructure; it fit into a rural landscape. He was a big-time concept guy.”
Abbott is also among those who admire the personal challenge Warner set himself when he bought Locust Valley Farm on Ted Rod Road.
“Eight or nine buildings made up the farm and he lived way in the back All the buildings are very unusual. A couple years ago, he built a new house immediately to the west. All the other buildings are currently for sale; the lots were divvied up. The old mill was his office. There’s a greenhouse and the big shingle house at the very back.
“He was the master of scale and context, able to make his new things fit into all the historic subsets that we have in Rhode Island and make it look like it all blended perfectly together.”
Abbott agrees with other design experts that Warner “will be remembered for his civic work: moving the rivers, the river walks, all the bridges. The river went under the post office [before the reconfiguration.] It was a mess. We have a beautiful downtown [in Providence] and in 20 years people have forgotten” how it once looked.
He notes that Warner gave Rhode Island many beautiful gifts. “He built something we’ll all be living with and looking at for a long, long time.”
Frank DiGregorio, another architect and member of the planning board, traces his friendship with Warner to his early days at the Rhode Island School of Design.
“I’ve known Bill since I went to RISD for architecture. In my sophomore year he was the new instructor although he wasn’t my instructor. I’ve worked with him on and off over the years. He was on the planning board and the citizens’ committee” when the Vision for Exeter study was just getting off the ground. DiGregorio also worked with Warner on the EWG Junior-Senior High School project.
In 2000, when Warner received the highest award from the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), DiGregorio recalls that he “put together a little anecdote” for the presentation, a humorous riff on “how Bill tried to implement the moving of the rivers.”
DiGregorio says, “He always loved it. He’s the man responsible for the revitalization of downtown Providence. His mark is all over the City of Providence. He was an amazing guy, a good guy to work with.”
In recent years, he adds, “We became a little closer socially. This past year or so his health had failed rapidly. I got together with him several times; we went down to Gregg’s, shared a beer and talked over just about everything.”
The story of how Warner and fellow RISD professor Friedrich St. Florian used a restaurant table napkin to sketch what became a re-imagined downtown Providence waterfront is epic. But you use what’s available when inspiration strikes, DiGregorio explains.
“It makes perfect sense. Ideas come to you at the darnedest times. You just pull out a felt-tip pen and write on a napkin.”
Besides the river relocation, his grandest project, Warner was also known for redesigning the Manchester Street Station power plant, the redesign of India Point Park and his first big job in the city, in 1959, heading the Providence Preservation Society’s study that resulted in the restoration of College Hill.
Among Warner’s favorite accomplishments was creating the master plan for the 3,600-acre Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, N.Y.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.