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.
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.
This Victorian Gothic commercial block in Downtown Providence was built by George Slade, a merchant who was involved in real estate along with his role as part-owner of Westcott, Slade and Balcom a paint company. Slade likely saw the development of the new Providence City Hall next door as a catalyst for development in this section of Providence and built an attractive block with units inside for rent.
The building was designed by Clifton A. Hall (1826-1913) a relatively unknown architect based out of Providence. The cost of the building was estimated at $45,000 according to a posting in American Architect & Building News. In 1895, the corner tower was added as a way to modernize and increase appeal, also designed by Hall. The building features lancet windows, intricate brickwork and stone detailing.