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.
One of the strangest and intriguing buildings in New England is the Turk’s Head Building at the intersection of Westminster and Weybosset Streets in Downtown Providence. The flatiron building was designed by architectural firm of Howells & Stokes , and was constructed on the site of a ca. 1750 home owned by the early 19-century by Jacob Whitman. The skyscraper’s peculiar name dates back to that time when shopkeeper Jacob Whitman mounted a ship’s figurehead above his store. The figurehead, which came from the ship Sultan, depicted the head of an Ottoman warrior. Whitman’s store was called “At the sign of the Turk’s Head”. The figurehead was lost in a storm, and today a stone replica is found on the building’s 3rd floor façade.
The granite-clad building was built by the Brown Land Company as an investment property for members of the Brown family. It has continuously housed stock brokerages, insurance firms, advertising agencies, professional offices, and a bank since its construction. It was home to the investment firm Brown, Lisle/Cummings Inc. since the building opened in 1913, a continuation of the Brown Family.
Located in Downtown Providence at the southwestern end of Kennedy Plaza, stands a monumental Second Empire civic building, Providence City Hall. It’s story begins in 1831 when Providence residents ratified a city charter that year, as the population passed 17,000. The seat of city government was located in the Market House which still stands to this day. The city offices outgrew this building, and the City Council resolved to create a permanent municipal building in 1845.
Providence City Hall was constructed in 1875-1878 from the designs of Samuel F. J. Thayer, a Boston architect who won a competition, besting over 20 other submissions, which included designs by McKim & Mead, Ware & Van Brunt, and Charles B. Atwood to name a few. In designing the building, Thayer, being from Boston, was likely inspired by the iconic Boston City Hall, which was built in 1866 and set off a trend of Second Empire public buildings nationwide. Providence City Hall remains as a highly ornate and stately building, synonymous with the city’s rich history.
Known locally as the “Superman Building”, the Industrial National Bank Building in Downtown Providence stands as the tallest building in Rhode Island, but has been vacant for nearly 10 years! The building was constructed in 1928 and can be classified as Art Deco in style, but has more Classical detailing, echoing the end of the Beaux-Arts movement. The building was given the nickname “The Superman Building” as residents claimed it looks like the Daily Planet Building in Superman comics (I don’t see it).
Designed by the firm of Stone, Carpenter & Willson, the building was constructed to serve as the headquarters of the Industrial Trust Company, which was founded in 1886. The building was occupied most of its history by the firm who went through a series of mergers and name changes, until Bank of America (the owner as of 1998) moved the offices of the occupant bank to Boston. Just before the economic recession of 2008, the building was purchased by High Rock Development for over $33 million. Tenants began moving out of the building, with the last (a Bank of America office) leaving in 2013.
Stories say that various projects have been envisioned by the developer, ranging from demolition to luxury apartments, with no movement in sight. It appears that the State Historic Preservation Office is not willing to allow Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits for a project in some articles. As of February 2020, the University of Rhode Island Providence Campus appears to be interested in occupying at least part of the building. Fingers crossed!
The Tilden-Thurber Building at 292 Westminster Street in Downtown Providence is a high-style commercial block in the city. Designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, architectural firm from Boston, the four-story structure features classically inspired detailing with interesting quoins and columns rusticated with leaves.
The building was built for the Tilden-Thurber Company in 1895, who outgrew their former space and moved to the new showroom and office building seen here. The firm specialized in selling silverware and jewelry. I am unclear as to what happened to the firm (some insight would be helpful). It was most recently occupied by a local furniture dealer Stanley Weiss, and purchased by former Providence Mayor and developer, Joseph Paolino, for a mere $712,000.