Among America's oldest cities, Providence has a special sense of place. Like its contemporaries, it has been built and rebuilt many times. Development, however, has not resulted in wholesale destruction and replacement, but in complex layering, which reveals the built legacies created by generations of earlier residents. Together, Providence, as Rhode Island's capital city, and Newport have since the American Revolution been the state's economic, political, social, and architectural pacesetters.
Providence is situated in a topographical bowl ringed by hills at the head of Narragansett Bay and at the confluence of the Seekonk, Moshassuck, and Woonasquatucket rivers. These bodies of water played important roles in the city's development, first as a shipping center, later as an industrial center. Initially, the encircling hills also limited development to the low-lying waterside areas; later they provided prominent sites for residential and institutional building. Today, the crowded area around the waterfront has been reclaimed. Its overlook from densely built neighborhoods on the surrounding hills reinforces the urban quality of the city.
Roger Williams and his followers settled Providence in 1636. Baptists (as most of them came to be called, although Williams eventually denied he was such), they were expelled from Plymouth Plantation because of religious beliefs heretical to the reigning Puritanism. Eventually, this band of dissenters settled on the east side of the Moshassuck River, along today's North and South Main Street (originally known as Town Street). They celebrated their gratitude for their haven by naming it Providence. In contrast to hierarchical New England towns, like Boston, Salem, and Plymouth, in which Roger Williams had successively resided, Providence did not center its new town on the typical common dominated by an authorized church. Nor, indeed, was there any church building until 1700. Because Roger Williams and his group favored religious toleration, initially they met in small groups to worship in private houses. They established a linear settlement along Main Street, from which very long, narrow house lots, in the Puritan manner of land division, stretched uphill east to Hope Street. None of the earliest buildings survives; all but one or two were burned by Indians in King Philip's War of 1675–1676. The original street and land development patterns, however, did guide future growth. Benefit Street, roughly parallel to North and South Main Street and perhaps the city's bestknown street, was cut uphill of Main through the early house lots in 1756.
Until the eve of the American Revolution, Newport eclipsed Providence economically, politically, and culturally. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, local merchants had developed a strong maritime economy, and during the Revolution a protected position at the head of the bay gave Providence an advantage over exposed, British-occupied Newport. Newport never recovered its colonial political and economic power within Rhode Island vis-à-vis its rival town. Although shipping continued to flourish in Providence after the Revolution through the early 1800s, the town asserted its hegemony within the state as local merchants turned their attention to industry on the rivers that flowed into the city—an advantage that Newport did not possess. In 1790, Providence capital financed the country's first mechanized cotton factory, Slater Mill in nearby Pawtucket (see under Pawtucket). The costume jewelry industry was born here, too, in the early nineteenth century, when Nehemiah Dodge of Providence perfected the plating of precious metals to base metals. This and other manufacturing, in turn, encouraged the local development of the machine-tool industry. Initially focused on the production and improvement of machinery for textile and jewelry manufacturing, expertise in these areas quickly expanded to include a vast range of tools and machinery. For a century and a half, industry, led by textiles, costume jewelry, and tool making, propelled the city's prosperity.
Strong banking and insurance interests, which had developed in response to eighteenth-century shipping, were already in place to meet the new needs. To Providence's growing concentration of economic prowess within the state, add also politics. Paradoxically, especially for the smallest state in the union, its legislature long rotated through no less than five “state houses,” one for each of the state's five counties. Ultimately Providence prevailed as the state's single capital, but only definitively at the beginning of the twentieth century with the completion of McKim, Mead and White's building.
The presence of industry attracted an increasingly diverse community of European immigrants from the 1840s through the 1920s, making Providence one of the country's most polyglot cities. The city grew and prospered almost unceasingly between 1780 and 1940, and many of the industrial, commercial, ecclesiastical, institutional, and residential buildings that document that growth remain. Then, economic decline, beginning in the textile industry after World War I, intensified after World War II. For the city's architecture, however, stagnation of growth proved to be a blessing in disguise. It preserved by default many buildings that might have fallen to “progress” in brisker economic circumstances. They remained long enough for the development of a strong movement for preservation by the late 1950s, which reassessed the value of a neglected heritage.
The Providence tour begins at the heart of the modern city on the west side of the Providence River. This neighborhood offers an extraordinary survival of business and commercial buildings from the early nineteenth century onward. Here, too, is the site of Capital Center, the sizable public-private venture which is counted on to revitalize the city center into the twenty-first century. Immediately adjacent is a factory district where the city's important jewelry industry once concentrated.
From the center of the city our route crosses to the east bank of the Providence River, where the original colonial city once lined Main Street. From this we ascend College Hill, site of one of the outstanding residential enclaves in the country, most of its houses ranging from the colonial period through the Colonial Revival of the first decades of the twentieth century. College Hill is also home to both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, nationally important schools with significant campuses. East of College Hill, the East Side demonstrates the later nineteenth- and twentieth-century expansion of this neighborhood of choice and, in addition to houses, offers the distinguished conjunction of a landscaped parkway, asylum, and cemetery, thereby providing an outstanding example of ways in which the Victorians and their early twentieth-century successors brought the country to the city.
Then, crossing to the west side of the city again, but north and west of the center, the tour continues with McKim, Mead and White's State House, in many ways a monument to the prosperity and the political and economic power of the city and state at the turn of the century. Architecturally it is among the more significant and influential state capitols in the country. Downhill from the State House is another major factory enclave, the Woonasquatucket Industrial District, dominated by the former plant of Brown and Sharpe, the largest American machine tool manufacturer until after World War II. Farther west and north are other residential neighborhoods, including what remains of Elmhurst, once a nineteenth-century sylvan retreat, in which the largest residences tended to be more spaciously conceived as mini–country villas with gardens and orchards, in contrast to the close-packed domiciles on College Hill. Two notable survivors remain on the campus of Providence College. Farther in the same direction at the very northwest corner of the city is the former textile mill village of Wanskuck.
The tour concludes southwest and then south of the city's center. Lined with Victorian mansions, Broadway was the address of choice from the 1870s onto the early twentieth century for many upper-income mercantile families. Next is a restored suburban enclave of late Victorian and Queen Anne Style houses around the Parade of Providence's formidable Cranston Street Armory. The tour concludes at the southern edge of the city with Roger Williams Park, an intact 230-acre landscape park, largely designed by the important nineteenth-century park and land planner H. W. S. Cleveland.
Existing architecture in Providence presents a microcosm of national developments, yet exhibits its own flavor with a number of distinctive characteristics. Here, in rare concentration, one can find colonial architecture and an especially lively, abundant, and autochthonous Federal style; much Greek Revival; a robust, long-lived development in the Italianate mode; and some fine High Victorian examples. Providence was an early and important center in the Colonial Revival, which left a number of distinctive buildings exhibiting a mix of Queen Anne and Colonial Revival modes. It boasts many handsome, if not radically innovative, industrial buildings, especially of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; one of the country's most intact and evolved downtowns from the same period; and important institutional structures. Providence ranks with such medium-sized eastern cities as Charleston, Savannah, and Salem (to cite a few competitors at random) for the number and quality of extant historic buildings and for their urbanistic impact, but at the same time offers more variety of type and period than these other cities. Put more bluntly, no American cities of their size have more to offer the architectural pilgrim than Providence and Newport, each with its own distinctive ambience.
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