Providence Public Library, Providence, RI

The Providence Public Library on Washington Street, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The library in 2016:

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The Providence Public Library was established in 1875 and first opened in 1878, in the second floor of the Butler Exchange building at Exchange Plaza. Not until 1900 did the library have its own permanent home, when this building opened at the corner of Washington and Greene Streets. It was designed by the Providence firm of Stone, Carpenter & Willson, and its architecture reflects the Renaissance Revival design that was popular for turn-of-the-century libraries. The style had been pioneered in Boston less than a decade earlier, and would be imitated in other New England cities, including here in Providence and in Springfield. Most of the construction costs were funded by John Nicholas Brown I, who died the same year that the building was completed.

The most significant change to the building’s exterior appearance came in 1954, with the completion of a large wing on the Empire Street side of the library. This addition is only partially visible on the far right side of the photo, but its modern architecture is a sharp contrast t the classical design of the original structure. Otherwise, though, the historic library looks essentially the same as it did 110 years earlier, and it is still used as the main branch of the city’s public library system.

Westminster Street from Eddy Street, Providence, RI

Looking west on Westminster Street from Eddy Street in 1865. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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Westminster Street in 2016:

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Taken over 150 years apart, these two views both show Westminster Street as a busy commercial center in downtown Providence. The camera’s exposure time for the first photo was too long to capture the pedestrians and vehicles passing by, but their blurred streaks give the impression of a bustling, fast-paced scene. Today, the scene is crowded with vehicles of a different kind, and almost nothing is left from the first photo. Most of the buildings here today date back to the 19th century, but they were built a decade or two after the first photo was taken. Because of this, the 1865 photo gives a glimpse of the street as it appeared before it was completely altered by developments of the 1870s and 1880s.

The first photo was taken the same year that the Civil War ended, and in the postwar years Providence experienced a dramatic population increase. For most of the 19th century, the city’s population had been doubling roughly every 20 years. This trend continued after the war, with the city growing from just over 50,000 in 1860 to over 100,000 in 1880, and then to over 200,000 by the first decade of the 20th century. In the process, street scenes like the one here on Westminster Street were changed, with the plain early 19th century buildings giving way to larger, more elegant ones of the Victorian era.

The most prominent building in the first photo is the First Universalist Church, on the right side at the corner of Union Street. It was built in 1825, designed by Providence architect John Holden Greene to replace the previous church on the same site, which had burned down earlier in the year. The congregation was still meeting here 40 years later when the first photo was taken, but in 1872 they moved to their current building on Washington Street. Soon after, the old church was demolished and replaced with one of the commercial blocks on the right side of the 2016 photo.

Today, none of the commercial buildings from the first photo survive. The oldest one is the red brick building at 239 Westminster Street, visible in the upper right center of the photo. Although it was altered later in the 19th century, the oldest part of the building dates to 1866. On the other side of the street, visible directly behind the lamppost, is the Burgess Building. Completed in 1870, this is the oldest one in the present-day scene that remains relatively unaltered. None of these are old enough to have appeared in the first photo, though. The only building of any kind that is still standing from the 1865 scene is Grace Church, visible a few blocks away on the right side of the street. This Gothic Revival church was designed prominent architect Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846, and although it is mostly blocked from view in the present-day scene, the top of its spire can still be seen in the distance.

City Hall, Providence, RI

Providence City Hall as seen from Fulton Street, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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City Hall in 2016:

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Providence’s City Hall, located at the western end of Exchange Place, was the city’s first permanent municipal building. For many years, the city government had used the colonial-era Market House on the opposite side of the Providence River, but after decades of disputes over the location of a new building, this site was finally chosen in the 1870s. It was completed in 1878, and was designed in the Second Empire style by Samuel J.F. Thayer, a Boston architect who probably took some inspiration from Boston’s own City Hall.

Many years later, the building remains in use as City Hall, and has seen some notable visitors in the process. In 1902, several years before the first photo was taken, President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech from the steps of the building. More than a half century later, in 1960, John F. Kennedy also gave a speech here, the day before he was elected president. Today, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is the only feature in the first photo that has not changed. Even the statue on the right side has undergone changes. It was dedicated in 1871 as the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, but was moved in 1913, and did not return to its original location until 1997.

Union Station, Providence, RI

The view looking across City Hall Park toward Union Station in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The view in 2016:

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Both the park and the railroad station were relatively new features in downtown Providence when the first photo was taken. They were a part of the larger redevelopment plan of the late 19th century, which included the filling of the Cove basin and the construction of the new State House on Smith Hill. City Hall Park, located on the north side of Exchange Place, was dedicated in 1892 and landscaped in 1898, the same year that Union Station opened on the far side.

The station complex, as seen in the first photo, consisted of five buildings, and replaced an earlier station that had been damaged in an 1896 fire. Together with the new park and the nearby State House, the station provided a grand entrance for visitors to Providence. At a time when most inter-city travel was by rail, the railroad station was the first part of the city that most travelers saw. A good first impression was important, and with this new development, Providence had a station that was worthy of its status as an prominent, growing city.

As with other grand urban passenger stations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though, the Union Station saw a period of decline by the 1950s. The easternmost building, seen on the far right of the first photo, burned down in 1941, and in the postwar era there was a sharp drop in rail travel with the advent of commercial airlines and interstate highways.

The building was badly neglected, and in 1986 it was rendered entirely obsolete. That year, the elevated tracks adjacent to the station were removed, and the railroad was rerouted a little further to the north. A new, smaller station opened just south of the State House, and the old station was left isolated, several blocks away from the tracks. The following year, it was badly damaged in a fire, but it was ultimately repaired. Even the destroyed easternmost building has since been rebuilt, and today the buildings have been restored and repurposed. From this view, the buildings are no longer visible because of the tall trees on the park, which is now known as Burnside Park. However, they are still there on the other side of the park, and they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Prospect Street, Providence, RI

Looking north on Prospect Street near Olive Street in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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Providence’s College Hill neighborhood is the city’s premier residential area, featuring Brown University as well as numerous historic 19th century homes. This section of Prospect Street is just a few blocks north of Brown, and includes one of the city’s largest homes, the Woods-Gerry House on the left side of the photo. It was designed by prominent architect Richard Upjohn and completed in 1863, and was built as the home of Dr. Marshall Woods, a Brown graduate of 1845 who remained involved in his alma mater for the rest of his life, including serving as the school’s treasurer from 1866 to 1882.

After Dr Woods’s death in 1899, the house remained in his family’s ownership until 1931, when it was sold to Peter Goelet Gerry. It was subsequently sold to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1959, who planned to demolish it. The irony of a design school wanting to demolish the work of a pre-eminent 19th century architect was apparently lost on the school administration, but after many years of calls for its preservation, the school finally decided to restore it. Today, it remains in use as offices for their admissions department, and overall very little has changed in this scene during the past 110 years.

John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, RI

The John Hay Library at the corner of Prospect and College Streets in Providence, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The library in 2016:

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The John Hay Library is one of several libraries at Brown University. The building was designed by the prominent Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, and opened in 1910 as the school’s primary library. It was built in part with funds from Andrew Carnegie, and is named for John Hay, an 1858 graduate of Brown who had served as US Secretary of State from 1898 until his death in 1905.

It remained in use as main library until 1964, when the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library opened just to the left of here, on the other side of College Street. Today, the John Hay Library is used to house the special collections, rare books, and the University Archives. Among its more unusual holdings are several anthropodermic books, which are books bound in human skin. The library also has an extensive collection of letters and other manuscripts from horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, a Providence native who  lived nearby and often visited the library.