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”.

Image Courtesy of Providence Public Library collections.

Providence Arcade // 1828

One of the most unique buildings in Downtown Providence is the Providence Arcade (sometimes referred to as the Westminster Arcade), built in 1828. Thought to be the first enclosed shopping mall in the United States, the Greek Revival structure runs the full length between Westminster and Weybosset Streets. Designed by Russell Warren, who was one of the premier architects at the time, the two street-facing sides of the building consist of Greek temple fronts, with six massive Ionic columns. The columns on the Westminster Street side are topped by a triangular pediment; the Weybosset Street side has a block-and-panel railing above a simple entablature.

Westminster facade, 01-2020

The interior consists of a main avenue on the ground floor, above which the second and third floor lanes are protected by richly decorated cast iron railings capped in mahogany. Emphasis in all of the building’s construction was on the use of fireproof materials; granite, brick, and cast iron are all used, and the roof was made of tin. A gabled skylight extends the length of the space to provide ample natural light for the multi-level interior spaces.

Weybosset Street facade, Detroit Publishing Co., circa 1900.
Interior arcade, 01-2020.

As with many traditional shopping centers (no matter how well designed), the complex saw financial difficulties and diminishing patrons. The Arcade closed a number of times in the 20th century, most recently in 2008 to reconfigure the third floor spaces as micro-apartments, an innovative way to bring mixed-use principals to a historic mall.