A Brief History of Providence City Hall
By Paul Campbell, Former City Archivist
During the first two hundred years after the founding of Providence by Roger Williams in 1636, local government functioned informally. One of the shortcomings was the lack of a central facility where town business could be transacted in an efficient, orderly manner.
It was said that early town meetings were held under a sycamore tree near the present corner of College and South Main streets. Sometime later, the Quaker Meeting House or private homes were used for meetings. In 1731 a two-story town meeting house was built on Meeting Street, just off Benefit Street, but in December 1758 it burned to the ground.
This building, formerly on the corner of College and benefit streets, served as the town meeting house from 1794 until 1851.
The first “city” hall dates from 1773 when the town constructed a two-story brick market house. The street level contained market stalls for merchants and the second floor town offices. In 1797 a 3rd floor was added to accommodate the first Masonic Lodge in Rhode Island.
In 1832, when Providence became a city most municipal offices including the City Council, Mayor’s Office, and Board of Aldermen were located on the second floor. The city’s rapid growth in the decades spanning the 1840s and 50s resulted in a corresponding growth in city government. Cramped for space, the city in 1853 purchased the 3rd floor from the Masons and this became the new home for the City Council, and just after the conclusion of the Civil War, the city removed the first floor tenants and remodeled the entire building for the exclusive use of city offices. On June 12, 1866 an ordinance was passed designating certain rooms within the building for use by city departments. The first floor allocated space for city departments, a vault for records storage, and speaking tubes for communication to offices on the upper floors. The mayor occupied two southeast rooms on the 2nd floor. This floor also contained the Clerk’s Office as well as the Municipal Court. The top floor was shared by the City Council and Board of Aldermen. Following the remodeling, the building was re-christened the “City Building.”
But a number of government officials realized that this building would be inadequate to handle the rapidly growing needs of its citizenry. The initial action to construct a new city hall was taken on November 10, 1845 when the Providence City Council resolved that “the safety of city records and the convenience of the city government, and the citizens generally, require more safe and ample accommodations.” A committee of one councilman from each of the six wards, one Alderman and the Mayor was selected to prepare plans for a city hall, estimate the cost, and recommend a suitable location. In those days, there were six wards in the city, three on the east side of the Providence River and three on the west side. Because of the even division of votes on the committee, neither side could garner enough votes to secure the location for the new City Hall for their side of the city. This stalemate continued for three decades and became known as “Providence’s Thirty Years War.”
Despite the bickering over location, the city purchased several lots between 1854 and 1857 near the corner of Dorrance and Washington streets. The purchase of the assembled lots–now called the “City Hall Lot”–did little to end the controversy. With plans for a City Hall stalled, in 1864 the site was leased to C.N. Harrington who constructed a two-story wood frame theater there. During the ensuing decade the “City Hall” playhouse hosted concerts, historical productions featuring the likes of Buffalo Bill, light opera, and lectures by such celebrities as Charles Dickens and Charles Sumner.
By 1874, Mayor Thomas Doyle, still unhappy with the location, vetoed the plan, but that October, the City Council over-rode his veto 30 to 8. A few short days after the vote–and more than two decades after securing the property–ground was finally broken, and on April 24th the following year the cornerstone was set in place.
The building, designed by Samuel J. F. Thayer, was one of twenty-one sets of drawings submitted to the city in a design competition. Drawings of the four finalists were placed on display and to avoid any appearance of favoritism in selecting the winning design, all identification was removed and names such as “Fait,” “Maltese Cross,” and “Blue Wafer” were assigned to the drawings. Thayer’s “Blue Wafer” plan was chosen, and he was awarded the $1,000 first prize. The Boston native described his design as “renaissance, of the character widely adopted for civic buildings in the most advanced cities of the world.” Thayer’s plan included a massive tower atop the dome, but the effects of an economic recession nixed the plans. The council had originally budgeted approximately $635,000 for the building, however, cost overruns brought the eventual total to $1.1 million.
The impressive five-story, block long fireproof building was dedicated with great fanfare on November 14, 1878. The old city hall was leased to the Board of Trade (later the Chamber of Commerce) who occupied it until 1938 when it was condemned as unsafe, partly due to a devastating hurricane that flooded most of the city. Rebuilt by the WPA, the building was gifted to the Rhode Island School of Design in May 1948 and is currently used for offices.
The Thayer designed City Hall stretches 133 feet along the Dorrance and Eddy Street sides and 160 feet on the Washington and Fulton Street sides. It is located over what was once part of the Cove Tidal Water basin requiring an artificial foundation resting on 3,128 piles driven into hardpan at various depths. Resting on the piles are large blocks of granite which provide a secure anchor for the building. The construction is of iron and brick, faced with Westerly granite on the Dorrance and Washington Street sides and New Hampshire granite on the other two sides. The sidewalks are also of granite blocks, 5 to 6 feet wide and 18 to 20 feet long.
There is a subbasement, which originally contained four coal-fired boilers, each with a capacity of fifty horsepower, that heated the building and provided energy to operate the water-powered elevator machinery. The elevator was capable of carrying as many as fifty passengers at one time, and it was estimated that each trip to the top of the building would cost eleven cents if the city were to charge for the water used. The elevator was connected with electric bells at each landing so that it could be summoned to the desired floor.
The ground level, which was considered the basement, is five feet above street level to provide protection from high tidal waters. It could be entered through doors on the north, south, and west sides of the building. Extending from this floor level to the roof is a large stair court, which rises to a skylight that provided natural light for the internal well of the building. Surrounding the staircase are corridors twelve feet wide, laid with colored marble. Much of the original interior decoration remains, including the light-colored wood wainscoating, etched glass windows in the office doors, polished granite columns, cast iron stair railings and brass handrails.
When City Hall opened, the first level, or basement, was assigned to the superintendents of Police, Fire, Health, Schools, Hacks and Lamps. Also occupying the first floor were the City Registrar, Board of Public Works, and the Sealer of Weights and Measures. The main floor, or what was considered the first floor of the building, can be reached by way of a wide internal staircase from the lower level and also from the arched main entrance through a double set of doors on the east side (now facing Kennedy Plaza) of the building. Access to this entrance is via a flight of granite stairs with a railing that curves toward the sidewalk. Under these stairs were two dark cells where the police detained people who were being held for questioning. Inside the double doors a barrel-vaulted hall leads to a great marble staircase which rises to a landing and then divides into two shorter flights of stairs that terminate on both sides of the second floor level.
Business offices on the main floor level were assigned to the Executive Department and consisted of the public and private offices of the Mayor and a separate office for his clerk. Located in the Mayor’s public office is a black marble fireplace along the west wall. The ceiling is skillfully decorated with designs of plaster and at one time a beautiful gas-lighted chandelier added to the charm of this elegant suite (electric lighting was in its infancy). There is an internal flight of stairs, which rises from ground level on Washington Street to the Mayor’s Office and to the Board of Aldermen Chambers on the floor above.
The City Treasurer, Auditor, Tax Assessor and Recorder of Deeds occupied the remainder of the main floor. Also on the same level were a reception room and the office for the City Messenger. His office contained an interesting array of communication devices–fifty speaking tubes, fifty electric bells and fifty enunciators, which provided connections to all departments (Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone just two years before the dedication of City Hall). Next to the Messenger’s Office was an ornate reception room, twenty-three feet by thirty-three feet, with large mirrors hung at each end of the room. The walls were finished in mahogany and stamped leather.
The level above the main floor contained the Common Council Chambers, the Board of Aldermen Chambers, the Municipal Court, City Clerk, and City Solicitor. The Council Chamber is a beautifully decorated, spacious and lofty room, fifty-eight feet long, forty feet wide and thirty-six feet high. At this time, a chandelier of fifty gas-burning lights lighted it and each burner was shaped in the form of a candle. About two-thirds of this chamber was railed off for the exclusive use of the council and their aides. Forty desks were arranged in three semi-circular rows for the council members (four from each of the city’s ten wards). On the outside of the railing were benches that could seat one hundred and fifty spectators.
The Council Chamber is decorated with the same light-colored wood wainscoating as elsewhere, and paired pilasters with gold stenciling at top and bottom are spaced along the walls. Above the main entrance, a spectators’ balcony is supported on two pairs of Ionic columns. The ceiling is decorated with concentric rings of gold stenciling. Trim is simpler in the numerous meeting rooms and offices which occupy the remainder of the building.
The Board of Aldermen Chamber is thirty-five feet square with a height of twenty-eight and one-half feet. It was too small for the required number of desks, so a large table was used for the meetings of the Board of Aldermen. Also located on this floor were council committee rooms. Housed on the third level were the Chief Engineer’s Department, the Superintendents of Public Buildings and Lights, and the Chief Engineer of the Fire Department. Stairwells leading to the upper floors are located on the Fulton Street side, just off the corridors. Located on the fourth floor were living quarters for the janitor and his family. Their suite consisted of a kitchen, parlor, two bedrooms and a bath. The rest of the space on this floor was used by the City Engineer and for storage. A meteorological station also shared space on this floor.
The upper levels of the building are housed within a high, convex, angular, mansard slate roof that rises above the parallel-eaved parapet. Fashioned into the mansard dome are ornamental bulls-eye dormers. The mansard roof area is reached by an iron stairway from the fourth floor where, originally, large batteries were stored that generated the electricity for the citywide fire alarm system and for the operation of the clocks and bells in the building. Another flight of stairs lead to a higher area in the mansard dome, which was also used for storage. When City Hall was built, the rooms were lit by gas and many of the original gas fixtures remain in their places. Electricity for lighting was introduced in 1888.
During the intervening years, City Hall experienced many changes and alterations. In some instances, desired changes were impossible because the exterior walls were of granite, backed with vaulted brick four feet thick. Some departments were enlarged, others relocated and some were moved to outside locations. In 1914, major alterations were made in the roof area, additional floor space provided, and the entire refitting of all offices was carried out. Some of the visible changes are a triple set of windows on the fourth floor where only one window appeared before. Also some ornamentation was removed and the cornice work just below the center of the mansard dome was changed. In the 1960s, the demolition of this French Second Empire building was given serious consideration. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed. In 1975, Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, Jr. and a group of local preservationists were successful in their effort to add City Hall to the National Register of Historic Places. Shortly thereafter, a decade long renovation effort highlighted by the spectacular restoration of the Mayor’s Office and the Council and Aldermen’s Chambers, helped return the building to its original splendor.
In 2011, the 375th anniversary of the city’s founding, Providence City Hall retains it prominence as the seat of municipal government and as one of the most outstanding examples of our city’s rich architectural heritage.