In Pursuit of Place and Connection
As a member of French Heritage Society’s Board of Directors and longtime supporter of the association, Ronald Lee Fleming brings a deep interest and wealth of experience in urban planning to the organization. He is the founder and president of The Townscape Institute, a not-for-profit public interest planning organization created in 1979. Its aim is to support the meaning of place through conservation and visual enhancement of the built environments, including research publications, public art projects, urban design, and consulting. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners.
Ron was honored with the William H. Whyte Lifetime Achievement Award from Partners for Livable Communities in Washington, D.C in 2006. He also won several awards for his 1998 Radnor Gateways Enhancement Strategy in Radnor, Pennsylvania. In addition, this passion has led Ron to write several books on the urban landscape, covering preservation, corporate visual responsibility and placemaking, including “The Art of Placemaking: Interpreting Community Through Public Art and Urban Design”. Most recently he has been writing about the narrative garden, having become a gardener. He was instrumental in the early Main Street Revitalization movement of the 1970s. He serves as a secretary of US ICOMOS, the UNESCO-designated group for the World Heritage List.
An active participant on French Heritage Society trips to France, Ronald Lee Fleming also was inducted as a member of the Company of the Musketeers last year. As his daughter, Siena, lives in Paris he often visits the city. Karen Archer recently spoke with him in Paris. “I’m a curious combination of New Englander and Californian,” he intones in a deep, melodious voice, while slightly caressing the beard that frames his features, giving him the air of a country squire. “My family came originally from New England and the South but has lived in California for four generations. I grew up on the West Coast and went to Pomona College there. I always have had a split identity. I’ve been back in Cambridge for most of my life, where I attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design. I’ve been restoring the house in Newport, RI for several years now.” We’ll get back to that house in Newport, as it seems to embody the varied paths that Ron has pursued in life – all converging on that particular place – that house.
As Ron explains, “I was always interested in the character of places. As a small boy I was fascinated by ghost towns. I spent a lot of time taking my parents around to ghost towns in the western states. I tried to imitate a ghost town on land that we had next to our house in Los Angeles county. I was like Tom Sawyer having the other kids paint the white fence, and had all the kids in my neighborhood working on this town for ten years. It was eventually demolished for a house for my grandmother,” he mused before deadpanning, “so I was an early victim of urban renewal.”
The intersection of history and fate would also have a major impact on Ron’s life. As he recalls, “I had been in the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam and then an intelligence officer in Saigon. I just missed a bullet in the Tet Offensive in January 1968, and was very lucky to be alive”. This second chance in life would give rise to a new expression of old interests. And he savored it. “After I came back from Vietnam I took myself out of America and its problems and spent a year in reflection and travel.” He studied English country houses with the Addington Program. He settled in Paris for several months, trying to learn French. “I saw many of houses then which further honed my sensibilities” he says of that formative experience.
As Ron moved from California to New England, his search for place, and his own relationship to that place, continued to unfold. “I started out in life working for an urban planning firm that was analyzing federal programs” he continues, speaking in an eloquent, measured tone. “But I found myself volunteering for a group that was supporting an enhancement of the town creek in Plymouth, MA. I found that I was really enjoying that work with a team of landscape designers. Gradually I moved into that area and I was able to get some very small grants. I recruited students at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. I was interested in focusing on the ‘tout d’ensemble”, how everything looked and how it all felt together, rather than saving the best house or the best building.”
Ron’s boyhood search for connection with those ghost towns out west echoes throughout his career as he began to look at the character of places as an aesthetic. “Gradually I got more interested in the meaning of places, more engaged with the emotions of the people and the experience of the place. I used the phrase “placemakers” very early on and wrote some books about “placemaking”. So I was involved with artists and artisans and ways of evoking the memory of a place – the sort of small clues in the urban design that would give people a sense of comfort and connection.
This has in turn led to Ron’s passion to encourage a more responsible and holistic approach to corporate visual responsibility. “One of the nice things about France, even from the time of Napoleon,” he notes, “is the corridors of trees when one comes into places.” He is fascinated by what can be done to support the vitality and the character of the whole place. “There are often modest little things that will make a difference; a better identification system; a better historic marker system; a better entryway system; better corporate behavior so that you get a muted McDonald’s with a landscaped parking lot or a shopping center that looks like the one in Nantucket that Mr. Beinecke provided, more like a park with trees. All these are small things yet they make an enormous difference in terms of property values of a place. I’ve been surprised that more big-time capitalists didn’t take advantage of those ideas or stimulate a governmental policy that would be about enhancement. I combine enhancement with the idea of preservation together,” he stresses.
With the restoration of Bellevue House in Newport on the historic mansion-lined Bellevue Avenue, Ron had finally found the setting to bring together his ideas about creating a sense of place with respect for the entire architectural and visual environment. “I was fortunate in discovering Bellevue House,” Ron readily admits. The house is from the early 20th century, designed by Ogden Codmen, Jr. for his cousin, who later married Maxim Karolik. They were together great collectors of American fine arts and antiques, furniture, drawings and paintings. “None of that collection is still at the house (it became the American wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), but the memory of it has been a powerful stimulant.” The large wooden house is the site of a lot of community meetings and charitable events. It has a large walled garden around it. “I have been reimagining the garden and adding to it over the years so that it now has a number of follies, pools, and pergolas. I am still involved in that” he adds as the garden has become his current focus.
As Ron tells it, “a wonderful older friend, kind of a mentor, Ainslie Gardner, introduced me to Newport, facilitated my entry into society there. She said, ‘there’s only one house that you can buy’ and so she told me about this house. It’s the only house I ever looked at. It had been on the market for a long time. It was a fairly rundown house that hadn’t been well maintained.” But, as Ron notes with admiration, “it had fabulous lines and it was done by one of American’s outstanding early 20th-century, late 19th-century architects, Ogden Codmen, Jr., who was a friend of Edith Wharton. Together they wrote the first book on interior design in America, “The Decoration of Houses”. I learned more and more about the place and more about the character of the house. Each succeeding year I think I have more appreciation for it,” he concedes. His knowledge of the house and how it was intended to be used is indeed remarkable – leading to the unmistakable impression that not only did Ron find “his” house, but the house also had the good fortune to find an owner who could recognize its architectural beauty and restore it to its intended splendor.
Ron tells the history of the house with the fluency of a proud relative talking about a member of the family. “There is a large rotunda 44 feet high in the middle of the house. It has an enfilade of rooms with very graceful proportions. Codman, like Edith Wharton, had travelled and lived in Europe a great deal as a young man. They were older American families that had lost some money and went to France in the 1870s during the American depression. Both of these children, Codman and Wharton, grew up surrounded by beautiful things. They were the older cognoscenti of America. They brought that sensibility back to their own work. Before Edith Wharton ever wrote a novel, she wrote a book about how houses should be decorated. “Coddy”, as she called him, was her compatriot, she got him his first commission for the Vanderbilt’s to do the second floor of the Breakers. They remained friends for the rest of their lives, in fact when she died, Wharton was on her way to see Codman; he didn’t want her to die at his doorstep so she went home and died”.
For the restoration of the house, Ron readily acknowledges that he had not initially understood how much needed to be done. “In the end you have to almost replace everything while maintaining the authenticity and the character of the house and the proportions. I have a great empathy for owners of properties. One of the nice things about travelling with French Heritage Society is that I have gotten to know a number of owners of distinctive properties in France and I can share some of the issues that they have” he says with the true voice of experience.
“I think my involvement with French Heritage Society was just a natural outgrowth of my interest in places and urban design and placemaking” Ron reflects. “I have been a member for a long time. I wish that I spoke impeccable French, of all my life’s regrets, that’s one of the strongest. But I think I have great appreciation for the sensibility of the French. I have been living in a house that has been very influenced by French design principles – the separation of space, public space and private family space, is very clear in this house and it’s very much a part of thinking in France.” The decorative arts have always fascinated him and their perfection and their evolution in France certainly aided and abetted the architect, Odgen Codman, Jr., who also used Achille Duchêne as his landscape designer for Bellevue House.
French Heritage Society holds other attractions for Ron as well. “One of the anticipated small pleasures of being part of French Heritage Society is that we are often entertained in the houses of people who are part of the Society of the Cincinnati” he notes, the small American organization of descendants of commissioned officers in George Washington’s army. Of course the French played an immense part in America’s success during The War of Independence and their officer corps are owners of the châteaux.
The association’s Student Exchange Program has also benefited from Ron’s generous hospitality. “It has been my pleasure to host French interns for American organizations as part of this program, in both of my houses in Cambridge and Newport. The contrasting personalities of these young students is quite interesting with their different approaches and takes on the country,” he observes. “I have tried to involve them in some of the activities that we have had, various charitable events. Sometimes they have gotten to know each other. The one in Cambridge has come down to go to a party in Newport and meet the intern down there and spend some time together and sharing experiences.”
Bellevue House, with its classically proportioned interiors and open spaces, now serves as well as “the place” that brings others together, a place of connection and of a shared aesthetic.