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First Unitarian Church (First Congregational Church)

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First Congregational Church
1815–1816, John Holden Greene. 1877–1878, Parish House, Stone and Carpenter. Restoration, 1966, Irving B. Haynes and Associates. 2001–2002, Parish House addition, Centerbrook with James Barnes Architects. 1 Benevolent St. (corner of Benefit St.)
  • First Unitarian Church (First Congregational Church) (HABS)
  • Interior (HABS)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)

Caleb Ormsbee's two-towered church of 1795 on this site burned in 1814, necessitating this grand replacement. A member of the congregation, Greene considered this to be his finest work. Certainly it is his most ambitious. Sited at an angle well above the street, which shows it to advantage, this monumental, almost square, granite building is dominated by a 200-foot tower and spire above a colossal front of engaged Doric columns and broken pediment. A large, round-arched window inset with lancet tracery arches cuts into the pediment somewhat awkwardly, while similar, narrower versions continue around the other sides. In these touches, the church represents a stylistic retreat from the more marked version of early Gothic Revival that characterizes Greene's slightly earlier St. John's. It follows the Wren-Gibbs form of the First Baptist Church, although, at the congregation's request, its design looks specifically to that of Bulfinch's then recently completed New South Church (demolished 1868) in Boston. However, Greene's handling of the facade is both original and more robust than Bulfinch's (notwithstanding the small scale and fussy detail of much of its ornamentation), while its steeple is more emphatically vertical. This church and the First Baptist Church boast the finest early church interiors in Providence. First Unitarian, like St. John's, features a plaster saucer dome, here adorned with cofferlike panels. Ornamental fans fill the corners of the ceiling. English Adamesque ornament of the preceding generation provided Greene's inspiration, via Bulfinch's work in Boston and probably through plates from Asher Benjamin, who publicized such ornament in a series of pattern books published in the United States beginning in 1797. As in St. John's, too, the dome is again supported on four freestanding columns, here Corinthian. The saucer concavity relieves the majestically scaled cubic quality of the luminous space, while the curvature of the balcony also counters its boxiness. The balcony catches two of the columns and skirts the other pair, leaving them freestanding to either side of the curved mahogany pulpit, also designed by Greene.

Irving Haynes's meticulous restoration followed a disastrous fire in 1966 after lightning struck the steeple. The curved prow at the center of the balcony is his. In his belief, it was part of Greene's design but was frustrated by an inadequate cantilever construction to support it. Haynes designed to his predecessor's presumed intention and (intended or not), improved on the flat bulge that was there.

Of all his works, Greene was proudest of this church. He repeated it in an enlarged version for the First Presbyterian Church in Savannah (1819)—one of many interchanges between centers for cotton growing in the Carolinas and Georgia and cotton manufacture in Rhode Island. Its fate—destruction by fire and rebuilding in the nineteenth century—prophesied what was to happen at Providence.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


What's Nearby


William H. Jordy et al., "First Unitarian Church (First Congregational Church)", [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, 87-88.

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