Captain George Benson House // 1797

One of the finest Federal period mansions in Providence is this well-sited home on College Hill known as the Captain George Benson House. George Benson was a partner of the mercantile firm of Brown, Benson & Ives, who made immense sums of money at the end of the 18th century. The firm did well as the movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade grew at the time in Rhode Island, many abolitionists placed their faith in so-called “legitimate commerce,” an African trade centered on commodities other than enslaved people. In 1794, the firm run by Nicholas Brown, Jr., and his partners George Benson and Thomas Ives, tried the legitimate trade, and dispatched the ship Charlotte to Freetown Africa, under the command of Benson’s half brother, Martin. George’s half-brother Martin was a slave trader, a job that may have accounted for the unusually explicit tone in a 1794 letter of instructions: “by no means take any Slaves on board the Ship on any terms whatever as we desire to have nothing to do with business.” Three years later, George had this Federal style mansion constructed on the peak of College Hill which remains one of the best in the area over 200 years later.

Pardon Miller House // 1822

Pardon Miller, a watchmaker and silversmith in Providence had this Federal style home built in 1822 in Providence’s high-value College Hill neighborhood when he was in his 20s. The home and its neighbor were built at the same time, seemingly by the same builder as they share a lot of similarities in design and detailing. The house remained in the Miller Family until 1882, and it is now owned by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The homes on the northern side of Angell Street, like this house, are largely built on a raised foundation with high retaining walls, which showcases the “hill” in College Hill.

Jonathan Congdon House // 1818

Jonathan Congdon (1763-1862) worked in the hardware and iron business, following his father’s footsteps, eventually taking over the family business. Jonathan married Elizabeth Arnold and had at least nine children together. Two of their sons, Arnold and Welcome, too followed in the family business, as ironworkers and salesmen, with the new firm name, Jonathan Congdon & Sons. The company did well, and Jonathan replaced his c.1787 home on the lot (built at the time of his marriage) with the present structure. He also laid out a street on the side of the property, which was named Congdon Street. The home remained in the Congdon Family until 1937, when it was acquired by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

William Holroyd House // 1798

When visiting Downtown Providence, I couldn’t help myself but to cross the river into College Hill, a neighborhood of such architectural diversity I could run this entire page just featuring that area. This beautiful Federal style home was built onto the downward slope of the hill in 1798 for William Holroyd, a merchant and active Baptist in town. The home sits atop a raised basement with brick end walls and clapboard siding on the front and rear. The property exhibits a symmetrical facade, splayed lintels above the windows, and a perfect center entry with fluted pilasters and pediment containing a fanlight. The building today appears to be a part of the Brown-RISD Hillel.

Providence Custom House // 1855

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.

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.

Providence Plantation Clubhouse // 1926

This Georgian Revival brick building sits behind the Beneficent Church in Downtown Providence and is relatively well hidden off the busier streets. The structure was designed by the firm of Andrews, Jones, Briscoe & Whitmore, for the Providence Plantation Club, a women’s club. The women who gathered under this society were businesswomen, as well as women interested in the social and economic life and political life, at a moment just before they were granted the official right to vote by the US Constitution in 1920. The club was a success, starting with about 150 members and it reached more than 1300 members, just one year after its inception. As the only female architect of the society, Frances E. Henley got involved in promoting the Club in terms of its visuals and interior design. Ms. Henley was the first woman to study architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design and the first woman to independently practice architecture in Rhode Island. Henley was responsible for the interior design for multiple spaces in the building. When the club no longer needed such a building, Johnson & Wales University took it on in 1962. It is now called Wales Hall and houses a variety of offices and services.

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.

New England Telephone Building, Providence // 1917

This towering Georgian Revival building in Providence is definitely one of my favorites downtown. The 8-story building was constructed in 1917 for the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company, who outgrew their other facility just blocks away. The design is credited to the firm of Clarke & Howe, local architects. The two-story arcaded marble base is surmounted by a six-story brick tower, which is an architectural landmark in Downtown Providence. The building appears to retain its original windows and looks much as it did when built over 100 years ago. At the rear, a larger 1970s wing was added and shares little in terms of architectural detailing with the original structure.

Shepard Building // 1880+

Not many buildings show the rapid prosperity seen in American cities in the late 19th century and the shifting of retail as well as the Shepard Company Building in Downtown Providence. The core of this building was constructed in the 1880 as a modest three-story Italianate style commercial structure for the Shepard Company, a dry goods store. Founder John Shepard insisted that his store was not simply one large business, but instead a collection of quaint shops, “each more complete in itself than the small separate stores,” with each division offering a premier shopping experience, an early example of a department store. Beginning in 1896, the company embarked on a rapid building expansion, designed by local architects Martin & Hall, which was largely completed by 1903, encompassing the entire city block. The two ends front the main streets of Washington and Westminster, each with stunning corner entrances. A 1923 fire caused damage to the building which was quickly restored. Though once successful, the Shepard Company went bankrupt in 1974, after decades of shifting retail and population density toward the outer suburbs. The building is now occupied by the University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus, and the institution does a phenomenal job maintaining and preserving this gem!