Providence has no Penn Station, no lost building whose absence wounds deeply to this day. Union Passenger Depot, designed by Thomas Tefft and completed in 1848, was replaced by Union Station in 1898, arguably its equal in beauty. The Depot’s absence is sad but not irksome.
Nevertheless, the city’s 10 best lost buildings (or 10 worst building losses) can be identified. The pictorial record tends to focus any such effort on downtown, for, while fine architecture has vanished elsewhere in town, fewer illustrations remain to measure its loss.
For example, between 1984 and 1990 I lived next to the Hope Club’s parking lot at Benefit and Benevolent, on College Hill. But what was there before? It vexed me until I saw a corner of it on a postcard of the Hope Club. The Edward Pearce House (1853), also by Tefft, lost in 1960, is one of a very few lost houses whose memory has not vanished in the fog of time.
Many of the long gone fall into the sad but not irksome category because they were replaced by better buildings, something that was once normal. Until the middle of the last century, even a rare replacement by something worse was often only marginally so. Today, some lost buildings rank higher because their replacements poke our memory in the eye.
Such considerations make it difficult to rank the worst losses. Indeed, I’m still quarreling with this selection. But, happily, the chief difficulty of identifying the city’s 10 best lost buildings is that so very many are not lost at all but survive to grace the streets of our fine downtown.
Still, here is an attempt, in reverse order:
10. The Butler Exchange (1873), a Second Empire pile of mansards, was demolished in 1925 and replaced in 1928 by the Industrial Trust (or “Superman”) Building. The Union Depot might have just as much claim to this spot, but I have already mentioned it above.
9. The Outlet Co., built in stages between 1891 and 1914, was a rambling series of lightly colored brick and terra cotta structures that fell victim to fire in 1986 while awaiting renovation as an apartment complex. With one exception (see No. 4 below), its replacement by the pleasing quadrangle of Johnson & Wales University substantially diminishes our regret.
8. The Second Universalist Church (1849), by Tefft yet again, was torn down unnecessarily after a fire in 2006, and is today a parking lot. The popular Downcity Diner (as it was called) soon relocated down Weybosset to the only remaining Tefft building in downtown.
7. Westminster Congregational Church (1829) was designed by Russell Warren in the Greek temple style with eight massive Ionic columns. In 1902, it was transformed into the Rialto Theater. Its portico was demolished and its nave retained to seat its audience. The crest of the old church’s gable survives and is visible from the parking lot across Mathewson.
6. The Providence Police & Fire Headquarters (1940), an austere but lovely stripped-classical building, was demolished unnecessarily in 2007. It is now a parking lot.
5. The third Howard Building (1859), designed by James Bucklin, replaced the first two Howard Buildings, built in 1847 and 1856, both designed by Tefft and destroyed by fire. Damaged by Hurricane Carol in 1954, Howard III was replaced by Howard IV, whose ugliness has only been exacerbated by efforts to tart it up.
4. The Narragansett Hotel (1879) hosted many famous guests, including the Providence Grays baseball team that won the first World Series in 1884. Demolished in 1960, it was a parking lot until Broadcast House (WJAR Channel 10) was built in 1979. Nicknamed the East German Embassy for its sinister mirrored blank walls, it mars the east end of the J&W quadrangle.
3. The Providence National Bank (1929) was demolished unnecessarily along with an equally fine 1950 addition in 2005 to make way for an unbuilt skyscraper. The Weybosset façade survives, partly masking a new parking lot.
2. The Hoppin Homestead Building (1875), at Westminster and Snow, designed by Bucklin, was an early site of both Bryant and RISD. In 1979 it was razed, the last major downtown building demolished for a quarter of a century, until a decade ago. It remains a parking lot.
1. The Benjamin Hoppin House (1816) was a beautiful twin bow-fronted residence. It dated from the era before the Whitman Block (1825) — where the Turk’s Head was built in 1913 — and the Arcade (1828) signaled a shift of commerce across the river from Market Square and Cheapside. The Hoppin House was razed in 1875 for the Hoppin Homestead Building.
Photos of Westminster before 1900 reveal how many buildings have gone missing, and how their successors’ beauty helps us bear the loss.