Why Providence?

Because, as correspondent Jeff Book discovered, its history, eccentricity, and astounding revival make Rhode Island’s capital an irresistible getaway

Providence,
?Providence skyscrapers include (left to right) the brilliantly lighted Industrial Trust/Bank of America Building (1927), the Providence Biltmore (1922), and a relative newcomer, the triangle-topped Westin Providence (1993). A grafitti artist decorated the walls of Temple (opposite) on Francis Street.

Credit: ?Matt Teuten

Temple Downtown, a restaurant in Providence, R.I., has chiaroscuro lighting and walls splashed with colorful graffiti. To an out-of-towner, the atmosphere seems geared mainly for urban hipsters. But in this centuries-old New England city there's a story behind every ­surface.

 It turns out that the restaurant occupies part of a building designed in 1928 as a Neoclassical Masonic temple. After construction ceased on the eve of the Depression, the structure stood vacant for decades, its roof a sieve, its interior a blank canvas that proved irresistible to graffiti artists. Finally, in 2007, a $100 million renovation transformed the stately ruin into the posh Renaissance Providence Hotel, and one of the erstwhile guerrilla artists agreed to decorate the walls of its  brand-new restaurant—where an entrée will run you $20.

Surprising? Certainly. But the remarkable tale of the temple's survival mirrors this capital city's rebound from a checkered past. Clark Schoettle, who has worked for more than 20 years to preserve Providence's architectural heritage, calls the transformation "nothing short of a miracle."

The History

One of the country's oldest settlements, Providence prospered as a trading port, then as a cradle of the Industrial Revolution. The Depression hit it hard, and the postwar migration to the suburbs hollowed it out. By the time George Born, former executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, went to college here in the 1980s, downtown was pockmarked by boarded-up windows and covered facades. "It was grim," he admits, "but that neglect helped preserve one of the nation's best concentrations of commercial buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries."

Born's group and other entities—government agencies, private interests, nonprofits—worked together to engineer the comeback that transformed Providence into a popular place to live or visit, a compact and relaxed alternative to Boston, 50 miles to the north. "It required a unified vision," says Schoettle, who directs the Providence Revolving Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to community revitalization. "There was a decision to capitalize on our strengths—the academic institutions and historic architecture here—and reconfigure Providence from a dirty industrial city to a modern cultural center."

Today it's hard to imagine the city in its decaying, Balkanized form, when railroad tracks and concrete paved over the Providence River and its tributaries, the Woonasquatucket and the Moshassuck. The process of peeling back that pavement, moving tracks, and redirecting rivers began in the late 1980s and unified the city, creating a large area for redevelopment. Best of all, it made the river a central attraction again, its banks lined by Riverwalk's cobblestone paths and a new outdoor amphitheater at Waterplace Park. With an eye on the future, Providence finally embraced its past.

Local Art Scene

Thanks to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD, pronounced riz-dee), Providence claims the largest number of working artists per capita in the nation—and quite a number of galleries. Don't miss RISD's museum, which has recently expanded to show more of its collection. The museum's holdings encompass textiles, prints, period furnishings, French Impressionist paintings, an ancient Egyptian mummy, and a nine-foot Buddha. A 20th-century gallery reveals fresh affinities between art and design. And special exhibitions take place in the striking new Chace Center, designed by Pritzker Prize-winner José Rafael Moneo (and also home of RISD Works, a shop selling the creations of alumni). Across Thomas Street from the First Baptist Church, the Providence Art Club presents public exhibitions in two historic buildings, one a half-timbered 1886 charmer channeling English Arts & Crafts.

Local Hero

Roger Williams founded the settlement he called Providence on the banks of the Moshassuck in 1636, after his belief in the separation of church and state got him into hot water with the Puritans in Massachusetts. You'll find his likeness  at the Roger Williams  National Memorial off North Main Street, and in Prospect Terrace Park (shown below), where a Williams statue enjoys a sweeping view of town. You won't find him above the State House: The gilded figure crowning the spectacular dome there is known as the Independent Man.

The Architecture

"In Providence there are remarkable buildings representing every period from the 18th century to the present," says architectural historian Mack Woodward, author of the indispensable Guide to Providence Architecture. If this makes the place sound like a kind of architectural petting zoo, well … that's not a bad analogy.

An ideal place to launch an independent tour of Providence is the Old State House. There, in May 1776, Rhode Island became the first American colony to renounce allegiance to England. The building is surrounded by other extraordinary survivors from before and after the Revolution, including the house of Stephen Hopkins, a wealthy merchant, governor of Rhode Island, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Local historians say that his house, begun in 1707 and completed in 1743, is one of the oldest in the city.

If you take one of the Rhode Island Historical Society's guided walking tours, you will likely begin at the John Brown House (1788). Described by John Quincy Adams as "the most magnificent and elegant private house I have seen on this continent," the three-story brick mansion holds superb examples of early American decorative arts as well as fine English pieces, and Chinese export ware. (This colonial time machine has an opulent Victorian counterpart, the Governor Henry Lippitt House, another site that merits a visit.) The impressive Nightingale-Brown House (one of the country's largest surviving 18th-century wood-frame houses) has gardens designed by the Olmsted brothers.

Then there's the city's crown jewel, the Rhode Island State House, completed in 1904. Designed by McKim, Mead & White, it embodies the dazzling Neoclassicism the firm helped fashion for the "White City" of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

With a good pair of walking shoes you can explore the urban living room known as Kennedy Plaza and take in the well- restored 1878 city hall, an exemplar of Second Empire style; the 1927 Industrial Trust tower, now the Bank of America Building, a fine early Art Deco skyscraper (still the town's highest building); and the 1908 Federal Courthouse, an elegant Beaux-Arts bastion. Near the plaza, the renovated Providence Biltmore (1922, designed by Warren & Wetmore), a Historic Hotel of America, took Neo-Federal style to new heights. (Speaking of heights, amble through the lobby and look up eight feet for the plaque that marks the 1938 hurricane's flood crest).

If you're hungry for more, follow the advice of Lucie Searle, development manager of AS220, a nonprofit community arts space downtown. "I tell people to walk the three Ws—Westminster, Washington, and Weybosset streets—and look at all the wonderful architectural details on the buildings," she says. On the O'Gorman Building (232 Westminster), for example, a vivid peacock preens across the white terra-cotta facade. Or go into the Peerless Building (229 Westminster) and admire the seven-story atrium that now sheds light on new loft residences.

The Neighborhoods

On the East Side of the Providence River, where the town began, 18th- and 19th-century architecture and two vaunted campuses—Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design—resonate with American history and cultured tradition. On the West Side, the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University has helped fuel a vibrant dining scene (with, it's said, more restaurants per capita than any other city). Scattered across the cityscape are ethnic eateries and markets that reflect Italian, Portuguese, Latino, and other immigrant communities, as well as long-vacant mills and mercantile buildings now reborn as lofts and shops. 

Food pilgrims should wander west of downtown to Federal Hill, where Providence's Little Italy clings to its traditions—and to the Italian markets, gelaterias, and restaurants that cluster on Atwells Avenue. Order an espresso or aperitivo at one of the outdoor cafés on DePasquale Square, gaze at the central fountain, and you could be in an Old World piazza. (To get an insider's view, take a Saturday walking tour with chef and cookbook author Cindy Salvato.)

Then go south of Atwells Avenue to Broadway. An unusually intact example of early suburbia, it boasts many original Victorian houses built by the affluent in the second half of the 19th century on the expansive West Side. (If gingerbread conferred status, then these citizens must have been prominent indeed.) The wide boulevard and spacious lots counterpoint the busy detailing of Queen Anne and other styles. A good spot to refuel is the popular Nick's on Broadway, a coffee shop setting for food with a culinary flair.

Any visitor should take time for a stroll along the city's waterfront. But try to be in Providence during one of the Saturdays from May to October on which full lightings of WaterFire occur. The motto of this event, first staged in 1994 by artist Barnaby Evans, could be "If you burn it, they will come." Starting at dusk, black-clad volunteers keep ablaze some 100 wood-fueled braziers spaced down the middle of the waterway.

There are more homegrown pleasures to sample, more old buildings to see (and save). The pace of renovation may have slowed recently, due to the sagging economy. But the revival of Rhode Island's capital has progressed too far to fizzle. As more people discover its easy urbanity, Providence will continue to rise. 

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