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Westminster Street Shopping District

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c. 1870–1940. Westminster St. from Dorrance St. to Mathewson St. 139 Mathewson St.

It takes some peering and imagination to sense the role these few blocks, now faded and mostly vacant, once played in Providence. Above the renovated street level, the early Art Deco O'Gorman Building ( PR31.1; 1925), 220–226 Westminster Street, in brick and terra-cotta, makes an effort at sophistication with a terracotta peacock perched on the ledge that demarcates the two-story base of shop windows from the upper stories. Too small for the message it means to convey, it is easily missed. Its “tail” extends as a thin blue line, like the mercury column of the thermometer, up the center support for the four upper stories to the tail feathers' “eyes,” ranged along a curve of a halfovoid terra-cotta frieze, which the parallel curve of the cornice echoes immediately above. The fantastic ornamentation, ritualized eroticism and (to human eyes) dandyish decadence of the male peacock made him a favorite in Art Deco ornithology. Next door, at 228–232 Westminster Street, the Burgess Building ( PR31.2; 1870, George Waterman Cady) displays a suavely Parisian cluster of bonnet dormers against its steep mansard. Triplet windows have Neo-Renaissance frames, their details variously stretched and pinched in the Victorian manner. Exceptional is the tubular, coppersheathed bay window with latticelike panes which pops from the center of the elevation, possibly a later Queen Anne addition to a Second Empire facade.

Next is the hulk of the former Shepard Department Store ( PR31.3; 1870s; expansions and additions, 1880, 1885, 1896, 1903), at 259 Westminster, marked by two-story arched porches with entrance doors on an oblique angle inset into the corners of Union Street, at both Westminster and Washington streets, one block north. Like many other department stores of its period, Shepard's expanded higgledy-piggledy into additions and adjacent buildings until it virtually filled the whole of two city blocks by bridging over an alley. It was refurbished in 1994 for the University of Rhode Island College of Continuing Education, which lost its site to the Providence Mall at Capital Center.

In the early 1960s several blocks of Westminster Street were closed to vehicles to make a pedestrian mall with Shepard's as its focal point in a last-ditch effort to lure shoppers from suburban malls and return them downtown. But Shepard's was sold to a conglomerate, and soon slaughtered as a “cash cow” which was drying up. Westminster Mall, in two iterations, eventually gave way to a reopened street, gussied up with patterned brick sidewalks and stone pedestrian crossings. This crusty hulk stands as a reminder of its “anchor,” the suavest of Providence's early twentieth-century department stores, with a street floor that featured fine commercial cabinetry to the very end.

The outstanding commercial building of this group, immaculately preserved by the most eminent jewelry retailer in what is sometimes called Jewelry City (see under Jewelry District, below), is the Tilden-Thurber Building ( PR31.4; 1895, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge), 292 Westminster Street (corner of Mathewson Street), which remained the final elitist holdout in the collapse of the street's former reputation. After more than a century in business, its original occupant surrendered to bankruptcy in 1990, and the successive owner sympathetically adapted it to another luxury business. The ornament of these terra-cotta surfaces is larger in scale and more deeply modeled than most of the examples described so far, with Venetian palaces as the source of inspiration. Its Neo-Renaissance sumptuousness appropriately invokes a jewel box. Appropriate too is its allusion to similar Fifth Avenue palazzi in New York, designed by McKim, Mead and White for Tiffany's and for Providence's own Gorham, where, as here, very open two-story showrooms contrast with the treatment for the floors devoted to offices and workshops upstairs. Across the street, at 291 Westminster (corner of Mathewson Street), the Burrill Building ( PR31.5; 1891, Stone, Carpenter and Willson), also in the Neo-Renaissance style, borrows from the same McKim, Mead and White palazzo prototype, but with more modest means. The incrustation of Tilden-Thurber becomes a carefully proportioned interplay of brick and stone, culminating under the cornice in a simple but handsome inset checkerboard of brick as a decorative rectangular field. Here Edmund Willson shows his strong grounding in Charles McKim's more austere approach to design in his sure sense for the decisive, well-proportioned organization of the elevation. Intrinsic versus incrusted embellishment—or Florence and Venice on opposite sides of Westminster Street.

Half a block west into Mathewson Street, at number 139, is the Lederer Building ( PR31.6; 1897, M. J. Houlihan, builder), an earlier and cruder interpretation of the Renaissance palace extended to mini-skyscraper height. The copper-clad bay windows of this Victorian holdover puff from the sheer, yellow brick walls, with more sheet metal work in the copper cornice and the tall, spindly cast iron front extravagantly infilled with plate glass at the ground. Commercial skyscrapers of this early vintage rarely exist so little changed, even to the terra-cotta corner cartouche which labels the building.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Westminster Street Shopping District", [Providence, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-PR31.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 51-53.

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