This 430-acre public park evolved from a smaller, 100-acre parcel bequeathed to the city in 1871 by Betsy Williams, a descendant of Roger Williams. H. W. S. Cleveland began his design in 1878. Cleveland was the chief competitor of the principal nineteenth-century park designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, and his work deserves to be better known than it is. As perhaps one of Cleveland's best park designs (the other being a plan for Minneapolis), Roger Williams Park has national, as well as local, import. Cleveland envisioned this park, in Olmsted's concept, as a bead in an “emerald necklace” of green spaces linked by landscaped parkways comparable to his own Blackstone Boulevard. As a start toward such a circuit of
His original plan for Roger Williams, which provided for creating lakes from a swampy site, remains in the area around the main entrance from Elmwood Avenue, although later additions to the park largely follow his scheme or its precepts. Its most notable feature is the meander of connected artificial ponds which so extensively snakes through the park that one perceives much of it as islands, shoreline, and ridges between water.
Following a period of decline and dilapidation, especially after World War II, the park was systematically refurbished and restored during the 1980s and early 1990s as the result of energetic and enlightened park management in combination with public and governmental support. Its condition today is worthy of its status among the notable nineteenth-century park designs.
Navigation of the park's winding and branching circuits can follow many well-marked routes. From the Elmwood gate, Betsy Williams's own tiny homestead (c. 1773) is conveniently at hand, as the beginning in a double sense. A one-and-one-half-story gambrel-roofed cottage with some minor additions, it has a simple transom door extending from ground to eaves, flanked by only two nine-by-six sash windows. None of the openings is quite symmetrically placed; nor is the “center” chimney quite centered. Incongruously, but perhaps appropriately in this context, it is enshrined in a diminutive picketed and gardened precinct.
Close at hand is the Casino (1896–1897, Edwin T. Banning), for receptions and banquets. An imposingly long and high Neo-Colonial brick box, hip-roofed and cross-gabled, it would be very plain except for the broad wraparound porch of its first floor, with an open and parapeted deck at the second, which becomes at the center, front and rear, two-story porches swelling as semicircular volumes ringed with giant columns. In sheer size, this is probably the city's most spectacular paean to the American porch. Its restored interiors contain a mix of varnished and painted woodwork with brick fireplaces appropriate for a park casino of its period. Upstairs, however, is a creamy-white banqueting room, embellished in a dainty porcelain manner in gilt and painted flowers. This is extended all around by its splendid open deck, except for the roofed semicircles front and back. Adjacent is a wooden bridge (on metal construction) over a ravine, with a tall, cross-gabled gazebo at the center, decked out in scroll-sawn stenciled ornament. The pond below contains the bandstand (1915, John Hutchins Cady), a classical revival structure with an open, colonnaded Ionic rotunda as the climax of a metal-fenced, masonry platform for folding chairs projecting out into the water, but with plenty of grassy slope for audience overflow.
Farther south, in its own natural dell, and also backed by water, is the classical Temple of Music (
PR198.1; 1924, William T. Aldrich), for larger performances. Formally, it ranks first among the park's monuments, done by Aldrich while he was also at work on his contribution to the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design. All in marble, it is a tall, narrow, hip-roofed block. It also frames the rectangular opening cut through its core to provide a landscape backdrop. Across both faces of the block, ranges of four handsome Ionic columns screen the void, with more columns paired in inset panels on each of the narrow ends. Stairs from the bases of the columns spill downward and spread onto the marble performance platform below, from the ends of which a low, semicircular, marble-faced retaining wall defines a
The Dalrymple Boathouse (1895–1896, Martin and Hall) is a thin version of English half timbering in Queen Anne style, but a pleasant control center for the paddle boats' wanderings. Nearby are a nice metal footbridge, probably from the 1890s, and a modern merry-go-round with plastic horses. Looping north from this is the Museum of Natural History (1894–1895, Martin and Hall), in the Chateauesque, or François Premier, manner in buff brick with a mixture of tan stone and delicate terra-cotta detailing. Among its exhibitions of local flora, fauna, and geography, one section is devoted to the history of Roger Williams Park.
Near the sizable zoo's menagerie (1891–1892 and later) is the statue of the canine hero of the Hoppin House fire ( PR97). The zoo's accretions over time have been too ad hoc to make much of an impression as an overall plan. But many of its habitat displays are handsome, most notable perhaps that for polar bears. The most recent (opened 1991) evokes an African savanna for elephants, giraffes, and zebras with wooden and rush architecture as an accompaniment. A Victorian brick barn converted to administrative use for the zoo is close to the Elmwood gate.