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Old State House (Providence Colony House, later Rhode Island State House)

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Providence Colony House, later Rhode Island State House
1762. Alterations, 1850–1851, Thomas A. Tefft. 1867, James C. Bucklin. 1906, Banning and Thornton. 150 Benefit St.

Rhode Island's five early state houses, one for each of the state's five counties, were not successors to one another, but all designed as equivalents, with the governor and legislature meant to rotate among them. They were built, in the order of their construction, in Newport, Providence, South Kingstown, East Greenwich, and Bristol. All are preserved. Providence became the first among equals as it assumed economic and political dominance in the state. It was not always so. During the colonial period, when there were only two colony houses, the one at Newport took precedence and is decidedly the grandest of the lot. Over time, during the nineteenth century, rotation ceased to include the minor state houses and oscillated between Providence and Newport, with the initial preeminence reversed. Eventually, Newport became more the locus of ceremonial events than legislation. But the policy of rotation did not officially end until the legislature finally moved into McKim, Mead and White's State House ( PR176) after its opening in 1901.

The main block of the old Providence State House went up at two times. The western half of it, toward the long, narrow green terminating at North Main Street, was completed in 1762 as a replacement for an earlier building of 1732 which burned in 1758. It is a much simplified version of Richard Munday's 1739 Colony House in Newport. To this in 1850–1851 Thomas Tefft added an entrance tower facing the narrow green down to Main Street, which necessitated the removal of a central gable. In this addition, he conscientiously followed the style of the original building—an especially early example of respect for then mostly despised colonial buildings on the part of an architect who, as early as 1853, read a pioneering paper in Providence in praise of colonial architecture. In this talk, “Architecture Ancient and Modern” (where “ancient” meant “colonial”), Tefft opposed the meretriciousness that he found in most “modern” building while praising the straightforwardness of colonial design and the integrity of its workmanship. His architectural emphasis differed significantly from that of occasional contemporary pleas from antiquarians to respect the “houses of our forebears” merely for genealogical, historical, or sentimental reasons. A century after the erection of the original building, James Bucklin roughly doubled its size, also in the original style, eastward to Benefit Street.

After completion of McKim, Mead and White's building and following a thorough interior revamping in the Colonial Revival style by Banning and Thornton, what was now the Old State House served as a courthouse until 1975. (The downstairs courtroom best reveals Banning and Thornton's Neo-Colonial design.) Thereafter it became state offices, among them quarters for the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, which is the repository for much of the information in this volume. In the commission's present meeting room, once the secretary of state's room, in the southwest corner of the upper floor, is the only substantial remnant of the original interiors: bolection paneling, the most important surviving example of this mid-eighteenth century type of paneling remaining in the city. It was in this building that Rhode Island declared its independence from Great Britain, the first colony to do so, two months before the Declaration of Independence. Here, too, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Lafayette were received as notable guests of the state.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Old State House (Providence Colony House, later Rhode Island State House)", [Providence, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-PR77.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 76-77.

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