Providence now and then

Dedication of statue of Providence Mayor Doyle at original Cathedral Square, 1889. (PPL)

Among the most fascinating places I’ve recently discovered on the web is the Instagram site of Mike Ferguson, which takes new photographs of Providence and places them next to one or more old photographs of what used to be there. For a state whose denizens constantly refer to where this or that place used to be, pvdnowandthen.com must be manna from heaven. It certainly has my attention. Moreover, since before-and-after shots can be terribly confusing, the photos are frequently augmented by Ferguson’s description and often by comments from visitors to his site reacting to the juxtapositions.

Recently, I clicked on a shot of the statue of former mayor Thomas Doyle, now sitting between the Beneficent Church (“Round Top”) and Beneficent House (designed by modernist architect Paul Rudolph) at Weybosset and Chestnut. I then clicked to a photo of the dedication of the statue in 1889, at its original location near the front of the Cathedral of St. Peter & Paul, where Westminster and Weybosset streets used to intersect before most of the area was demolished in the era of urban renewal, executed under the Downtown Providence 1970 Plan, which created a new and diminished Cathedral Square, the Westminster Mall, and then thankfully was killed by the belated neglect of civic leaders.

It was a fascinating juxtaposition, especially the old photo of the dedication, in which a huge crowd had gathered to honor the most longstanding of Providence mayors until the reign of Buddy (“Vincent A.”) Cianci Jr. – as Philippe & Jorge used to call him in the old Phoenix. Celebrants watched from rooftops and hung from lampposts and telegraph wires. The shot is 60 ranks down on Instagram, counting as the photos march down the page three by three.

What caught my attention most of all, however, were the three towers that I could not identify. See, in the picture atop this post, a tall bell tower and, to its right, two flat-topped towers on one building, much like the cathedral’s pair of towers. (You can see where they moved Doyle’s statue, just to the right of the portico of Round Top near the center of the photograph.)

I wrote to Mike, who works for a coffee distributor located in the Tilden-Thurber Building (1895) and lives in the West End, and asked if he knew what the towers were. He wrote back:

The curve of the street makes it tricky. The single tower was Central Baptist, which sat on Broad Street just a block west of Beneficent, approximately the corner of Weybosset and Empire today. The twin towers belong to the Richmond Street Church which sat at the corner of Richmond and Pine.

Tricky indeed. Weybosset Street winds differently today compared with its curvature in 1889, when it curved to the south away from Westminster near the cathedral then, after several relatively straight blocks, curved to the north back to Westminster just before reaching the Providence River. I cannot quite figure out the location of the twin towers, but they seem to be near where the Providence Performing Art Center arose in 1928. But that’s just a guess. I don’t doubt that Mike, who walks around Providence a great deal gathering info and images for his Instagram site, and filling out the map in his brain, will fill me in.

I have another architectural mystery to place before one of the city’s most diligent architectural detectives. When my Journal editor Edward Achorn was writing his book about the Providence Grays and their victory in the first World Series (1884) – Fifty-nine in ’84, about Old Hoss Radburn, the Grays pitcher who had 59 victories in that season – we consulted together about pictures of Washington Street, where one of his protagonists had an apartment. One pair of pictures, when juxtaposed, appeared to show that either City Hall or the Slade Building (on the corner of Eddy Street and Washington Street) had moved several feet to the right or left. So it seemed to me, and I have wondered about it ever since. I do not have or remember the particular photos we were inspecting.

Without those photos it might be impossible for Mike Ferguson to shed light on this mystery, or wish to be put on the spot in the quest for a resolution. But that is what they said about Sherlock Holmes, eh wot? Or at least that’s what you’d think Scotland Yard might imagine. In any event, I invite those intrigued by the winding history of the streets of Providence to visit his (Mike Ferguson’s) Instagram account. For a good time, as they say.

***

(As a mere afterthought, I remind dear readers of my book Lost Providence (2017), which may appeal to those who find Providence’s architectural history mysterious.)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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