Providence is full of amazing residential architecture from all periods, but one house that stands out to me for being such a high style and unique mansion is the Hamilton House on Angell Street. The mansion was constructed in 1896 for local businessman, Francis W. Carpenter. From 1892 until his death, he was the president of Congdon & Carpenter Company, an iron and steel company which was founded in 1792, and operated in Providence into the 1980s. Carpenter was very influential as chairman of the committee on the construction of a new building for the Central Congregational Church (a previous post) in 1893. So pleased with how the church turned out, he hired the same architects, Carrère and Hastings of New York to design his own mansion which would sit next door to the church! Many in New England may not know how significant it was to have Carrere and Hastings design your house. To put it into perspective, while the firm was designing this house, they were designing the New York Public Library’s Main Branch building! The Carpenter Mansion was designed in the French Renaissance Revival style which was not too common in America, but always turns heads! The large hipped roof emulates the earlier French mansard roof forms, and the bold massing and use of limestone and brick makes the house look like a chateau or castle plucked from the French countryside. The house apparently was not finished until 1915, likely when the porte-cochere was added for the owner’s vehicles. The building is now occupied by The Hamilton House, a non-profit organization that serves as an adult learning exchange with programs from history classes to group fitness courses.
“Less is more” is a phrase adopted in 1947 by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to describe his minimalist, Miesian glass box buildings. While he was referring to Modern architecture, the same phrase can be used in 19th century design, where massing, form, and materials are showcased in all their glory with little frills or additions. The Robert Lippitt House in Providence was constructed by 1854 for Robert Lincoln Lippitt (1823-1858), who worked with his brother Henry Lippitt in owning and managing textile mills. Henry would later build his own mansion nextdoor to his late brother’s house (see past post). Sadly, Robert died four years after this home was built, at the young age of 34. His widow, Louisa Gorden Hallet remained in the home and remarried within a year of her late husband’s death, to Charles Lippitt, possibly a cousin to Robert. Messy. The home was designed by architect Thomas A. Tefft, a promising and respected young architect who also died young, at the age of 33.
This Greek Revival home with a one-story full-length porch was built in 1839 for Peter Wanton Snow, one of the unluckiest men in Providence. Born the son of a leading China trader and the son of a granddaughter of a former governor of Rhode Island, Peter W. Snow (1788-1843) was born into privilege and like many of such stature, could enter the family business with ease and make a lot of money. Peter first sailed for Canton (Guangzhou, China) with his father in 1803. Doubtless because of his father’s position and trading connections, young Snow became the partner of Edward Carrington who, within fewer than a dozen years, was to become one of the richest and best merchants dealing in Chinese goods in Rhode Island, if not in the entire country. Carrington wanted to retire and have Peter Snow take over his agency in China, but Peter did not seem to like it there and always wanted to go back home to the United States. He got the chance for a few years beginning in 1814, but upon returning home, he learned that his only son, Charles, had died a year earlier at the age of five years, and to compound his personal tragedy, Snow lost two baby daughters in the next three years. By 1816, he returned to China but never seemed to be able to get out of debt, while trying to provide for his last two remaining children. Tragedy struck again when his last living daughter died, while he was in China. Peter’s business partner and friend R. B. Forbes before letting Peter know the bad news wrote this.
“Mr. Snow is now in as good health as he has been since his arrival in China, still he is weak in body, and a very little trouble or disappointment breaks him down and reduces him completely unable to do anything. Poor man, his countrymen here feel much sympathy for him, and fear the result of this news on him. This daughter has appeared to be the only thing which could induce Mr. Snow to make any exertion, and he often spoke of her with all the feelings of a Father who centered all his happiness, in this world, in making her comfortable and happy, and in the expectation of returning to America and of ending his days in her arms”
While in debt, he somehow had this home built in Providence, likely from assistance from family and colleagues. The land here was purchased by Peter’s wife Jeanette, and the home was likely built soon after. Peter died in 1843, virtually penniless.
One of the best examples of Renaissance Revival architecture in Rhode Island is the Central Congregational Church of Providence. Constructed between 1891-1893, this building was the new home to a growing congregation, which outgrew its original Thomas Tefft-designed building on Benefit Street (which has since been occupied by RISD). Famed architect Thomas Hastings of the firm Carrère and Hastings of New York City, was hired to furnish plans, and worked closely with Reverend Edward C. Moore to make sure the building was fitting of the site. The church is cross-gabled in form and is constructed of yellow brick with terracotta trimmings, evocative of Spanish and Italian Renaissance styles. The facade has a detailed central pavilion which is flanked by two towers. These towers were originally surmounted by elaborate belfries, but these were damaged by a hurricane in the mid 20th century and replaced by the present brick caps. The dome and vaulting is of tiles by Rafael Guastavino, it is the first dome that he constructed in the U.S., making this building even more significant.
New England is lucky to have so many diverse house museums where architecture and history nerds like me can tour old houses and envision what it was like to live in that era. The Governor Henry Lippitt mansion in Providence stands out as one of the most significant Victorian-era homes in Rhode Island, and contains one of the best-preserved Victorian interiors in America. The mansion was likely designed by local architect Russell Warren, and modified by Henry Lippitt (1818-1891), heir to one of Rhode Island’s leading textile manufacturing families, for his wife Mary Ann Balch (1823-1889) and their six children who survived to adulthood. While Henry was a prominent businessman, his wife Mary may have been even busier. Mary owned and managed rental properties in Providence, including this mansion, giving her husband Henry life tenancy. She oversaw day-to-day running of the mansion, supervising the servants while teaching her daughter Jeanie, who became deaf at age four due to complications from scarlet fever, to read lips and continue to develop her speech. The Lippitt Mansion is an early, and high-style example of an Italianate Villa/ Renaissance Revival design, which moved away from the more prescribed forms of architecture towards the more eclectic, Victorian-era mode. The home features two main facades, with the smaller, west (main) facade featuring a central pavilion with ornate foliate frieze and Corinthian columns, and the north (side) facade – my favorite – with a more commanding presence with a bold porte-cochere. The home remained in the Lippitt family for 114 years, and was later acquired by Preserve Rhode Island, who opened it to the public as a museum in 1993.