Updated March 27 at 4:27pm

Five Questions With: Karen Jessup

Providence Preservation Society interim director talks about the 34th annual Festival of Historic Houses fundraiser.

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Five Questions With: Karen Jessup


Karen Jessup is interim director of the Providence Preservation Society, which will celebrate the 34th annual Festival of Historic Houses from June7-9.

The tour is meant to give visitors a special opportunity to explore the interiors of some of Providence’s most interesting homes and gardens. This year’s tour features grand era houses on Prospect Street, and converted lofts in the adaptive live/work spaces at Monohasset Mill in the Valley District.

PBN: What is new on this year’s tour?

JESSUP: Every year the festival highlights different neighborhoods in the city, so there is always something new to see. This year, on Saturday we tour parts of traditional old Providence at the top of College Hill with wonderful views over the city including a stunning private garden almost never open to the public. We are also excited that the Sunday tour gives access to the Steelyard and the iconic Box Office nearby. It is a hallmark of the festival to demonstrate different ideas of ‘home’ and stimulate thinking about how to adapt older spaces for today’s needs. Experiencing these preservation projects up close is inspiring as well as educational. And let’s face it: We all love to get inside private houses and secluded spaces not normally open to the public. Who isn’t a bit of a voyeur at heart?

PBN: How important of a fundraiser is this annual even to PPS?

JESSUP: [It] is a signature event and brings in about one-third of our budgeted fundraising revenue. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on the festival to augment funds from other sources to keep us moving forward, doing the work our mission dictates. PPS is an education and advocacy organization. We demonstrate preservation-sensitive ways of rebuilding an ever-changing and growing city and we advocate for special care as we plan for our future.

PBN: What is your favorite example or place of Providence’s unique architecture and why?

JESSUP: In addition to being preservation professional, I’m a landscape historian so I’m naturally drawn to the open spaces between and amongst buildings. Rather than select one favorite place or building, I’d rather emphasize the rhythm of our streetscapes provided by the complexity of buildings as they relate to each other and to the spaces around them. That’s what I find most intriguing about the community my husband I moved to in 1970.

PBN: How are the showcased homes chosen each year?

JESSUP: The Preservation Society’s Festival committee every year seems to come up with just the right combination of houses and residential units in dissimilar parts of Providence that exhibit successful preservation efforts of many kinds to make historic structures livable and beautiful for today. We have creative and well-traveled peopled of differing ages and interests who know the city intimately and from unique perspectives. They are well positioned to make inspired suggestions about which neighborhoods to highlight. Sometimes owner preservations approach us, urging us to consider their properties.

PBN: To what to you attribute eth popularity and continued growth of this event?

JESSUP: In a word, tradition. From a national perspective, Providence and preservation are synonymous, much like in Charleston, Savannah, and Annapolis. The festival has developed a following. People come to expect that it will be both an indoor and outdoor event in June they can program into their calendars. The festival prospers as appreciation of Providence’s amazing stock of older and historic buildings develops an ever expanding audience. It is in large measure from the work of PPS that these properties and neighborhoods around the city, adaptable as residences to suit all kinds of budgets and tastes, have become better known. The festival gives national, regional, and local press an opportunity to shine a spotlight on Rhode Island for positive reasons.


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