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College Building, Rhode Island School of Design

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1822. 1936, Jackson, Robertson and Adams. 2 College St. (corner of South Main St.)

A valuable lesson in urban design from the Colonial Revival, these two large complexes are deftly handled as a sequence of seemingly small buildings stepping up the slope to blend with the early nineteenth-century buildings on College Hill above. Whereas other competitors for the courthouse commission had suggested mini-skyscrapers, the winners, in effect, laid the stepped- back skyscraper on the slope. The evocation of smaller buildings emerging from the overall mass and the stretching of Adamesque-Federal ornament to cover new contingencies is handled with a finesse which a later generation of postmodernists, who have attempted similar effects, might envy, but rarely match. At the same time, the courthouse also reveals itself as a monumental entity rising from a courtyard in a grand axial composition which reflects the Beaux-Arts training of its principal designer, F. Ellis Jackson.

Shortly after the courthouse was completed, the same firm had the opportunity to orchestrate an appropriately plainer variation on the same fragmented, yet monumental, stepped theme in RISD's College Building, which even more closely approximates the old buildings it replaced. It actually incorporates a wall of the Franklin House, a hotel from the Federal era, at the South Main Street corner of the complex, and recreates a vehicular archway, using the original oak spanning beam, halfway up the hill, to preserve a right of way to the rear of the adjacent bank building on North Main Street. Above the Benefit Street entrance is Jackson's lovely paneled and alcoved reading room for the RISD library in a modernized mix of colonial and Federal styles, typical for 1930s Neo-Colonial.

The World War I Monument, fronting the courthouse (1927–1929, Paul P. Cret, architect; C. P. Jennewein and Janet de Coux, sculptors of the pinnacle figure and bas-relief, respectively) had to be moved to this location from a position near the present confluence of the three rivers. It resulted from a 1926 competition won by the leading Beaux-Arts designer and teacher. This 75-foot fluted granite shaft, derived partly from the Roman triumphal column, partly from the Roman cylindrical bundle of fasces, symbolic of authority, is topped by a too-small female figure described alternately as personifying Victory and Peace. In the relief at its base a soldier with lowered sword and furled flag confronts a woman and child. Embedded in the pavement are bronze reliefs of World War I weapons, each associated with one of the four branches of the armed services. These are realistic, whereas the neoclassicism of the shaft also shows influences from the contemporary Moderne. The monument anticipates Cret's attempt during the 1930s to modulate his Beaux-Arts-inspired design toward an emergent modernism. Adjacent is a monument, displaced to accommodate the column, to Giovanni da Verrazzano, who sailed into Narragansett Bay during his exploration of the North American coast in 1524. Completing this curious community of monuments is one of special interest to the architectural pilgrim—a rare memorial to a local leader in the profession during the first half of the twentieth century, Frederick Ellis Jackson, the architect of the courthouse.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


What's Nearby


William H. Jordy et al., "College Building, Rhode Island School of Design", [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, 64-65.

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