The Providence Custom House was designed by the first Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department Ammi B. Young in an academic Italianate style. Built between 1855-1857, the structure was constructed of the iconic granite from quarries in Quincy, Massachusetts. It is a three-story building, topped by a hip roof and metal dome (hard to photograph), with strong quoined corners and cornices between the levels. After completion it housed the city’s main post office, Federal District Court, District Attorney, Internal Revenue Service, Collector of Customs, and Steamboat Inspector. The space was outgrown, and a modern Federal building was constructed a few streets away, though they retained offices in this building. According to Wikipedia, after the Federal Government vacated the structure in 1989, it was considered by a variety of businesses for occupation, including a restaurant, a facility for homeless persons, and offices. The building was bought by the State of Rhode Island and converted to office space for the State Courts System. After extensive renovation at a cost of $550,000, the building was opened by the state in 1992 as the John E. Fogarty Judicial Complex.
Richmond Building // 1876
The Victorian Gothic style Richmond Building in Downtown Providence always catches my eye for its polychrome brickwork. The building was constructed in 1876, seemingly as an investment property for Dr. F. H. Peckham, a surgeon. The Richmond Building was used for many years for offices and retail use. Also, look at that amazing curved sash window!
Sisters of Mercy Convent // 1894
Mary Francis Xavier Warde was the American foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. Born in Ireland in 1810 to fairly prosperous parents, she was orphaned in her teens. At age sixteen she moved to Dublin, where she met Catherine McAuley, a social service worker who established the Sisters of Mercy in 1831 to provide for the education and social needs of poor children, orphans, the sick, and homeless young women. Mary moved to the United States after establishing several convents in Ireland. Her educational work on behalf of the Irish immigrants in that city prompted Irish-born Bishop Bernard O’Reilly to invite the Sisters of Mercy to Providence in 1851. The convent acquired a Federal style house in present-day Downtown and provided services to poor residents for decades until a more substantial convent was deemed necessary. The one-block site was cleared and a cornerstone was laid for the new building in 1894. The brick and terra cotta building is Victorian Gothic in style with amazing proportions and really great detail. The chapel in one of the wings was completed soon after. After WWII, the building saw dwindling funds and the building was sold to Johnson & Wales University in the 1980s, who renamed the building Xavier Hall, and it now houses over 300 students in Downtown Providence.
Providence Gas Company Building // 1924
I love a good Colonial Revival commercial building, and this example in Downtown Providence is a great example! This structure was built in 1924 for the Providence Gas Company as their new headquarters. The architectural firm of Clarke & Howe were clearly inspired by the Joseph Brown House with the eccentric curved ogee gable that caps the façade with stone trimmings. The building remains in a great state of preservation and showcases the academic influence of Colonial styles in New England, and how centuries later, architects would employ earlier design detailing to meet present needs.
Exchange Bank Building // 1845
Founded in 1801, the National Exchange Bank built this structure in 1845 in what would become Downtown Providence, an area with more residential quality than the much-developed East Side. The bank likely knew what was to come in terms of development here, so invested in a new masonry building to serve as the new headquarters of the bank. The northern half of the building is more typical Greek Revival in style with granite base and clean proportions. In 1887-8, the southern portion of the building was redesigned in the academic Queen Anne style to designs by Stone, Carpenter & Willson. This section of the building has amazing oriel windows, brownstone trim, slate mansard roof, and a clock.
Butler Exchange // 1871-1925
This magnificent structure formerly in Downtown Providence would likely still exist today had a devastating fire not destroyed it in 1925. When construction on the Butler Exchange began 1871, the area we know today as Downtown was only a cluster of small wooden and brick residences with commercial operations on the ground floors; the key retail shopping districts were across the river around where Brown University is today. The first major commercial development in modern-day Downtown was the Providence Arcade (featured previously), built in 1828, by Cyrus Butler. The Arcade languished in tenants and shoppers earning it the name, “Butler’s Folly”. A half-century later, a new Butler project was about to take off. Cyrus’ heirs built the Butler Exchange, which upon completion in 1873, was the largest building in Providence and its splendid French-inspired two-story mansard roof was a nice pairing with the City Hall being built nearby. The Butler Exchange saw commercial use, offices, and a school before a fire destroyed much of the building, leading to its demolition. The building was later replaced by the Industrial National Bank Building aka the “Superman Building”.
Owen Building // 1866
The Owen Building sits on the edge of Downtown Providence, near the Providence River which divides College Hill from Downtown. This mansard roofed commercial building is one of the finest in the city and was designed by architect Alfred Stone for George and Smith Owen (G. & S. Owen), whose sons operated a wholesale yarn business on the premises. In 1877 Stone, as Stone & Carpenter, returned to remodel the building, seemingly adding the mansard roof and much decorative trim on the new north facade. The building retains its cast-iron storefront and prominent siting as a lasting example of 19th century architectural heritage.
Beneficent House // 1967
Located on the same block as the Arnold-Palmer House (last post) in Downtown Providence, this apartment building is the work of one of the most prolific Modernist architects of the 20th century, Paul Rudolph. During Downtown Providence’s period of urban renewal, which saw the demolition of much of Cathedral Square (much of which remains surface parking lots), planners sought a high-rise apartment building to house displaced elderly residents and others who hoped to reside close to downtown shopping and amenities. Architect Paul Rudolph, who was at the time Dean of Yale’s Architecture School, designed the brick building which employs horizontal bands in concrete which marks off floor levels and provides some breaks in the materiality. The building was originally designed in 1963, but after years of delays and budget cuts from rising construction costs, the balconies and other design features were removed from the final product, leading to its present simplicity. While simple, the building retains intrigue, especially with the projecting window bays and offset openings, a departure from the block apartment buildings at the time.
Beneficent Congregational Church // 1809
The oldest religious structure on Providence’s west side, the Beneficent Congregational Church is a key Providence landmark. The church visually dominates the part of Downtown that saw widespread demolition in a period of urban renewal, where a large portion of historic buildings and homes were razed for new development and parking. The current structure (the second Meeting House on this location) was built in 1809 to plans by Barnard Eddy and John Newman, the latter of whom supervised construction. It was substantially altered in the Greek Revival style in 1836 to a design by James C. Bucklin, which oversaw the addition of the columns and Classical trim. This work was funded with a $30,000 donation from textile entrepreneur Henry J. Steere in honor of his father. Steere also gave to the church a chandelier containing 5,673 pieces of Austrian crystal! It is not the columns or chandelier that catches people’s attention, it is the massive dome. Legend has it that when designed, Reverend Wilson wanted to recall the domed Custom House in Dublin, which had been dedicated shortly before his emigration to America. The building looks similar to the Massachusetts State House, built in the 1790s, especially when the church’s dome was covered with gold leaf. Due to weather damage to the gold leaf, the congregation voted in 1987 to replace the roof with more durable copper sheeting, which now has a green patina.
Arnold-Palmer House // 1826
The Arnold-Palmer house (not related to the drink), a handsome brick single residence of the Federal period, was built about 1826 by Daniel Arnold, a wealthy Providence merchant who did well in the economic expansion of the 1820s and 30s. The home is attributed to John Holden Greene, a Providence architect who commonly incorporated a monitor roof in his designs. Daniel Arnold focused his wealth on flour trade, but he speculated in cotton as well, as did many of the merchants in Providence at the time. The connection of Providence with southern states and plantations demonstrate how tightly bound Rhode Island’s industrial economy was with Southern cotton and the enslaved people who produced it, with manufacturing and cotton mills all over Rhode Island. By the 1850s, Arnold’s house was sold to Joseph Palmer, who, through the firm of Palmer & Capron, manufactured gold rings in Providence’s growing jewelry business. The house was built in Cathedral Square a part of Downtown and was moved to its present site when that part of Providence was nearly entirely razed in urban renewal. While the siting is less than desirable, this rare surviving Federal home in downtown shows how the wealth and prosperity of Providence was not only restricted to College Hill.