The parking lot for the Old Slater Mill museum complex (next entry) is the place to consider the center of Pawtucket. Across the river stands the most conspicuous modern structure at the center of Pawtucket. Apex, as it is known, is a popular discount department store. Its designer celebrated its name by burying the center third of the store beneath a stepped, white-stucco-surfaced pyramid with flanking entrances. This conceals the visual clutter of mechanical equipment as though it were the booty of a pharaoh's tomb. The shrouding of the mechanical aspects of the building within a shaped container also epitomizes the approach of the industrial designer, which marks the beginnings of this design firm. Then it was known simply by the name of its founder, Raymond Loewy, one of the key participants in the revolution in American industrial design that occurred in the late 1920s and 1930s. Whatever its considerable merit as a mall building (without the mall), however, Apex is, in scale, shape, isolation, and stridency, at variance with everything around it. For all of these reasons this pyramid in its desert of macadam virtually is downtown Pawtucket. The heart of the city is ceded to the reigning pharaoh as his domain. So at least it appears to the visitor, who must poke around the perimeter of this monument to discover what remains of the rest of “downtown”—if, in fact, in its withered state, it really exists at all anymore. It is too easy in hindsight to be critical—and a bit unfair too, because here one senses a genuine effort to renew the city through thoughtful redevelopment rather than merely to exploit opportunity in the crassest way possible. The caring effort shines through and accounts for the value of examining the result. It also adds to the regret at the loss of a number of Pawtucket's oldest buildings and some of its nineteenth-century mills, most then dilapidated and despised, to be sure, but waiting to shine again.
It could be argued that since it is here, even the pyramid deserves consideration as perhaps the most conspicuous example in the state of what the French theorists of the eighteenth century referred to as l'architecture parlante, or architecture which speaks directly to the spectator by illustrating what it is, something like a picture in a dictionary. “Apex” may not be the subtlest theme for architectural illustration, even when rendered as decisively as here by a stepped pyramid and bold graphics. Yet the problem of design for roadside communication was very much a concern in conjunction with the spread of the automobile for several decades after World War II, until, by the 1980s, cute fairy-tale villages, clumsily assembled of crude classical design, began to appear beside every cloverleaf. Better to have spared what is partly credible than to have demolished with the thought that a porticoed replacement or faked village nostalgia might be the key to downtown urbanity for Pawtucket.