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Whitehall Building

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1911, Frank P. Sheldon. 158–178 Waterman Ave.

A commanding three-story block (with four floors on the downhill side toward the plant behind it), the Whitehall Building effectively marks the heart of the village. The buff-tan brick is mere veneer for underlying reinforced concrete construction; walls and floors are extravagantly seven inches thick. Whitehall was built as an apartment and store block for company workers, with quarters on the second and third floors for factory overseers. The apartments are reached by an exterior balcony running around the building at the second story, providing access to a series of entryways, each serving two apartments—a door directly inside to the second floor apartment, with a stair to the apartment above. The cantilevered concrete slab which makes the balcony also permits an unsupported canopy for stores below (the shop windows now bricked up to provide additional housing). An external stair at the north end (complemented today by a handicapped access ramp) leads to a second-story auditorium. Although Rhode Island mill towns offer some tentative examples of multifunctional community buildings, none is more comprehensive than this, nor does any other as boldly and uniquely proclaim its combined uses.

It is the building's unusual program and its overexpression that impress, more than architectural acumen. The principal visible elements—balcony, outside stairs, and third-story apartments popping out at the top—are more juxtaposed than integrated. Details are gauche: curlicues stretched across the metal balcony railing, and against these the utterly disparate classical allusion of the balcony supports and the entablature facing of the roof, both overly attenuated and crudely realized. Above, equally crude pilasters (grossly overscaled compared to the skinny columns) make inset panels for alternate groupings of double and triple windows to signify the difference in apartment size. Sixteen bays long and three wide, the narrow box is modestly “centered” by three bays which are not inset—one bay actually off center, its window rhythm 3-2-3 instead of the expected 2-3-2, which would have more emphatically centered this feature. Finally, the factory-inspired corbeling of the cornice is decidedly at odds with the classical effort below.

The Sheldon firm allegedly designed this in conjunction with the mill behind (see NP11). But how could the design of one be so conscientiously uncertain, whereas the other is so incisively right? Could this sophisticated firm of functional designers have been so thoroughly cowed by the demand for an expression of civic monumentality? Or did the firm pass on this responsibility to a local builder, perhaps with a rough sketch of what was wanted, so that it could concentrate on the magnificent mill? Given the proportions of the box, moreover, its elevated aspect, and the folkish pretensions of curlicues and classical allusion, could “Whitehall” have been intended to invoke Inigo Jones's great banqueting room for his contemplated royal palace in London? Was it meant to conjure up a bit of nostalgic majesty for this remote English place, even as George Berkeley, another displaced Englishman, had earlier called on Whitehall when christening his conversion of an eighteenth-century Rhode Island farmhouse into an intellectual retreat (see MI3)? More important, what accounted for the exceptional program for mill worker housing in the first place: an English precedent, company philosophy, or another motivation?

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


What's Nearby


William H. Jordy et al., "Whitehall Building", [North Providence, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 166-167.

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