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Waterman Building, Rhode Island School of Design

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1892–1893, Hoppin, Read and Hoppin. 11 Waterman St.
  • (Photograph by Andrew Hope)

Providence was caught up in the enthusiasm for art that was widespread during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whether under the banner of art education, of the Aesthetic Movement, or of Arts and Crafts. The architectural enclave resulting from this pursuit of the muse clusters around the First Baptist Church. Its most important legacy is the first building erected for the Rhode Island School of Design. Another gift from Jesse and Helen Metcalf, it has always been known as the Waterman Building.

The idea for the school developed from a local coterie interested in the visual arts who founded the Rhode Island Art Association around the middle of the nineteenth century. Initially, its long-term goal was the establishment of an art museum for the city, with special emphasis on the “ornamental and useful arts.” Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf, wife of the textile industrialist Jesse Metcalf, was an active member. For the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 she also headed the state Women's Centennial Commission, charged with producing the women's exhibition for the Rhode Island pavilion. At the exposition she was particularly stimulated by an extensive British exhibit on progressive approaches to art and design education which had developed in various ways in several European countries since the mid-nineteenth century. Among the movement's crowning achievements in Britain was the establishment of the technical schools for art education in South Kensington with the nearby Victoria and Albert Museum as a repository for the decorative arts. In addition to usual museum functions, the V&A was specifically charged with responsibility for improving current standards of British industrial design, the better to compete with foreign products. Concluding her leadership of the Rhode Island Centennial Commission with a surplus of $1,675, Helen Rowe Metcalf convinced her cocommissioners that this sum, augmented by a generous family donation, should go toward the establishment of a school for the training of designers for the “art industries” of the area, art teachers for the area's schools, and—because the Metcalfs were ardent collectors with a larger than merely pragmatic view as to what art education should be—for artists as well. From the moment the school got underway in 1877 on an upper floor of a downtown office building, Mrs. Metcalf, as the head of its Trustees' Executive Board, played a much more active role in the day-to-day management and educational policy of the school than is customary for board members. In this she established a pattern for two more generations of Metcalf women; next, her daughter Eliza Greene Metcalf Radeke; then her son's daughter Helen Metcalf Danforth—terminating with the death of the latter over a century later in 1984. Even then Metcalf dedication and generosity to the school did not cease, but anything like the earlier queenly reigns and the sense of the school as very nearly an exclusive preserve for family benefaction was over.

The Waterman Building, built in 1892–1893, inaugurated the school's physical presence on College Hill. It was the product of Hoppin, Read and Hoppin, the short-lived partnership of Providence-born brothers Howard and Francis L. V. Hoppin and Spencer P. Read. In its initial layout, studios were located on the upper two stories (as they still are), lit by arched windows on the second floor (for the design arts, mechanical drawing, and architecture) and by roof skylights on the top floor (for drawing, painting, life, and “composition” classes. “Carving and modeling” were taught in the downhill, windowed portion of the basement. A museum and classrooms occupied the first floor. This handsomely crafted, Renaissance-inspired building is unique in Providence. Its hard-surfaced brick facade is tensely defined by shallow layering. Each stage of fenestration is progressively smaller: big arches, little arches, then, finally, mini-rectangle windows (peepholes for the uppermost floor of studios), set into progressively recessed planes. (Inspired by Renaissance palaces, the composition of openings is also a belated and loosened version of the elevational formula which H. H. Richardson made memorable in his Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago [1885–1887], although he himself also had plenty of precedents for the formula in American commercial and institutional building from around 1880.) Relieving the big stretch of wall between the second- and third-floor openings are a row of shield-shaped terra-cotta reliefs, closed at either end by rectangular panels. Altered versions of plaques devoted to the guilds on the facade of Or San Michele in Florence, they show, left to right, keys (for the locksmiths' guild), an adze (stone-cutters and carpenters), tongs (ironsmiths), and sword with breastplate (armorers). Most remarkable, however, is the inset band, with its Moorish lattice, at the level of the first-floor arches. The architects derived their inspiration from sketches and photographs supplied by Jesse Metcalf of buildings which he and his wife had admired in Seville (hence the Moorish lattice) and in Piacenza. It was intended that the lattice intervals be filled annually by student-designed terra-cotta plaques, and, in fact, prizes were awarded for at least two years of such competitions. Fortunately, it seems that none was ever wedged into the hexagonal grid. Interest in brick design was widespread at the time, and the careful and varied brick craftsmanship of this building, with its reference to Renaissance guilds, must have seemed especially appropriate for an art school.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


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William H. Jordy et al., "Waterman 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, 68-69.

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