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.
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.
Following the design of the United States Capitol (1793), the Rhode Island State Capitol, designed in 1895, is actually the seventh state house in the tiny state of Rhode Island, and the second in Providence. The massive building is located on the northern edge of Downtown Providence, was designed by the world renowned firm of McKim, Mead & White, and is constructed of brick with iron beams, clad in white marble. The part of the building many do not see up close is the bronze statue perched atop the dome. The statue is called “Independent Man”, designed by George T. Brewster, and selected by principal architect Charles Follen McKim. The statue is said to symbolize freedom and independence, which initially led Roger Williams to settle in and establish the Providence Plantations, which later became the Colony of Rhode Island.
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.
One of the few remaining brownstone commercial buildings in Downtown Providence is the gorgeous Merchant’s Bank Building on Westminster Street. The flatiron building is of the Italianate style and a lasting vestige of what once covered downtowns in New England. Designed by Alpheus Morse and Clifton Hall, architects who formed the firm of, you guessed it, Morse & Hall; the building was home to the Merchants Bank. In 1920, the bank merged with the Providence National Bank and the building was occupied by other financial institutions until the 1970s. It now (2020) is home to a bookstore and appears to have residential units above.
Originally opening in 1928 as the Loew’s State Theater, this theater located at the heart of Downtown Providence exemplifies the high-style architecture at the height of motion-picture building activities. Designed by the firm of C. W. Rapp and George L. Rapp, of Chicago, who were among the most successful and prominent of American movie theatre designers, the complex building includes an elaborate 3200-seat theatre as well as offices and stores filling an entire city block. The Weybosset Street (main) facade
is entirely faced in terra cotta tile; elsewhere the brick walls are exposed and rather plain, except for terra cotta detailing.
Upon its opening, the theater was overwhelmed by an estimated 14,000 people, who jammed into the space to see the interior detailing, which included: marble columns, intricate carvings, and massive chandeliers suspended from the ceilings. As with many grand theaters in downtown settings, viewership declined as populations shifted towards the suburbs and Loew’s built new movie theaters in developing areas to capture that growing market. In 1971 under new ownership it was renamed Palace Theatre presenting movies, live performances and rock concerts. It was closed in late-1975 for refurbishment, reopening in 1976 as the Ocean State Theatre presenting first run movies. In that time, the theater’s owner applied for a permit to demolish the building, until Providence Mayor “Buddy” Cianci pledged over $1,000,000 in city funds to keep the building open.
Beginning in 1999, the theater was extensively remodeled and largely restored to its original 1928 opulence, utilizing Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits. It was also expanded to be able to accommodate traveling Broadway productions and orchestra performances. In 1996, the renamed Providence Performing Arts Center became the anchor of Cianci’s Arts and Entertainment District of Downtown Providence, which offered tax breaks to attract artists to the struggling downtown area.
Located at the northern edge of Downtown Providence, Rhode Island, the Union Station complex transports us back to a time where the railroad ruled. The original Union Station was Providence’s first, opening in 1847 and was considered “a brilliant example of Romanesque architecture” in its time, and titled the longest building in America. The station was outgrown by the end of the 19th century. Stakeholders were analyzing what to do with the building, until a fire gutted the building in 1896, making way for a more advanced and larger station.
The new Union Station was designed by the architectural firm of Stone, Carpenter & Willson, who were based out of Providence. Built in 1898, the new station in the Renaissance Revival style, was constructed with a unique yellow brick. Since the conclusion of WWII, the station, as with many nationwide, suffered a massive decline which correlated with personal automobile ownership and use. The station eventually closed and a new station was built just north, across from the State House. The old Union Station was adaptively reused and now is home to Rhode Island Public Radio, Union Station Brewery, and various non-profits.
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.