Butler Exchange, Providence, RI

The Butler Exchange, on the south side of Exchange Plaza in Providence, around the 1870s or 1880s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The scene in 2016:

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The late 19th century was a time of growing prosperity for the city of Providence, and few buildings indicated this as well as the Butler Exchange. This massive commercial block was built in 1873, and was designed by prominent architect Arthur Gilman. Like many other public buildings of the day, it was designed in the Second Empire style, complete with towers on the corners and a large, two-story mansard roof at the top. On the inside, it consisted of shops on the first floor, with offices on the five upper floors. Starting in 1878, the second floor was also the first home of the Providence Public Library, until they opened their current building in 1900.

Today, nothing remains from the first photo. The smaller buildings on either side of the photo are long gone, and the Butler Exchange itself was demolished in 1925. By the turn of the 20th century, Providence’s skyline had begun growing upward, culminating in 1928 with the completion of the 428-foot, 26-story Industrial Trust Tower, built here on the site of the Butler Exchange. Later known as the Bank of America Tower and now as 111 Westminster Street, the Art Deco-style skyscraper remains the tallest building in Rhode Island. However, the historic building has been vacant since 2013, and despite several redevelopment proposals its future is still uncertain.

Customshouse, Providence, RI

Looking down Weybosset Street from Westminster Street in Providence in 1868, with the U.S. Customshouse in the background. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The scene in 2016:

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In the first photo, this scene is dominated by the U.S. Customshouse, a domed, three-story granite building that had been completed just 11 years earlier, in 1857. It was designed by Ammi B. Young, during his time as Supervising Architect of the Treasury. His works included many prominent buildings, such as the old Vermont State House, part of the Treasury Building in Washington, DC, and the Custom House in Boston.

Young designed the custom houses in Boston and Providence about 20 years apart, and the two buildings reflect a shift in architectural tastes during the time. Although both were constructed of granite, Boston’s earlier building was Greek Revival, but by the time Providence’s Customshouse was built, Italianate architecture was far more common. Gone were the massive columns and triangular pediments, replaced instead with design elements such as arches, window cornices, and quoins on the corners.

When the first photo was taken, the Customshouse was surrounded by an assortment of low-rise commercial buildings, many of which were wood and probably dated back to the early 19th century. However, over time these buildings disappeared, and were replaced by much taller skyscrapers, dwarfing the old Customshouse. The first of these skyscrapers was the Banigan Building, built in 1896 on the left side of the present-day scene. It was followed in 1913 by the even taller Turk’s Head Building on the right side of the photo, which was constructed on a triangular lot and bears some resemblance to New York’s Flatiron Building.

Because Providence was a major port in New England, the Customshouse served an important function housing the offices of the city’s Collector of Customs. However, despite its name, the building also included the city’s main post office, a federal courtroom, and the offices of the federal District Attorney. Consequently, while Providence’s skyline was growing, so was the need for space in the old building.

The problem was solved in 1908, with the completion of a new Federal Building at Exchange Plaza. Even this new building was not enough, though. After sitting vacant for more than a decade, the old Customshouse was reopened in 1921 to provide additional space for federal offices. It remained in use until 1989, and was later sold to the State of Rhode Island. Today, it is used as offices for the State Courts System. Along with the turn-of-the-century skyscrapers around it, the 160 year old building is now part of the Customshouse Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Exchange Plaza, Providence, RI

Looking east toward Exchange Plaza from City Hall in Providence, around 1913-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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Exchange Plaza has been at the center of downtown Providence since the 19th century, although both it and its surroundings have undergone many changes during this time. In 1847, the city’s first railroad station was built here on the north side of the plaza. A new station was built a little further to the north in 1898, and City Hall Park opened on the site of the old station, on the left side of both photos. City Hall, where these photos were taken, was built on the west side of the plaza in 1878, across from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. This statue was dedicated in 1871 and moved to the center of the plaza shortly before the first photo was taken, but was moved back to its original location in 1997.

The first photo shows a variety of transportation methods, including cars, trolleys, and horse-drawn carts. However, at this point cars had begun to dominate the city streets already, and Exchange Plaza had become a parking lot. On the opposite side of the plaza in both photos is the Federal Building, which was built in 1908 as a post office, courthouse, and custom house. It is still in use today, and is one of only a few buildings still standing here from the first photo.

The right side of the plaza, which was renamed Kennedy Plaza in 1964, is now dominated by skyscrapers. In the first photo, the most prominent building here was the Butler Exchange, a six-story commercial block on the far right. It stood here from 1873 to 1925, and after its demolition it was replaced by the present-day 111 Westminster Street building. Completed in 1928, this 26-story skyscraper remains the tallest building in Rhode Island nearly 90 years later.

Today, the only building still standing from the right side of the first photo is the Exchange Bank Building, barely visible in the distance at the corner of Exchange Street, diagonally across from the Federal Building. Completed in 1845, it predates even the original railroad station that stood opposite the plaza. However, it is not the oldest building in the scene. That distinction likely goes to the First Baptist Church in America, which was built in 1775 on the other side of the Providence River. The top of its spire is visible in both photos, behind the Federal Building.

Westminster Street from Mathewson Street, Providence, RI

Looking east on Westminster Street, from just east of Mathewson Street, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Westminster Street in 2016:

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This scene shows the same section of Westminster Street as an earlier post, which was taken facing the opposite direction a couple blocks east of here. The first photo shows a vibrant street scene, with trolleys, horse-drawn carts, and plenty of pedestrians making their way along the narrow commercial street. With so many people, there are plenty of interesting characters, including four identically-dressed women crossing in front of the oncoming trolley, two boys with their arms around each other on the tracks, and several cigar-smoking, straw hat-wearing men who are eyeing the photographer from the sidewalk. Both sides of the street are filled with a variety of stores, restaurants, and professional offices, including an optician whose sign is a large pair of eyeglasses on the left side of the photo.

When the first photo was taken, most of the buildings in this scene were relatively new. Providence experienced dramatic population growth in the second half of the 19th century, and as a result most of the older commercial blocks along Westminster Street were replaced with newer, larger ones by the first decade of the 20th century. One of the tallest of these, the 1902 Union Trust Company Building, can be seen in the distance. Closer to the camera, several other historic building are still standing, and today form part of the Downtown Providence Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

On the left, just beyond the giant eyeglasses, is the Shepard Company Building. Home to Shepard’s department store for many years, it was originally built in the 1870s, and then expanded several times between 1880 and 1903. Further in the distance, in the center of the photo, is the Alice Building. Built in 1898 as a commercial block, it has since been converted into apartments. On the right side of the photo is the five-story Train Building, which was built in 1893. It is mostly hidden by the trees from this angle, and exterior of the lower two floors was heavily renovated in 1954, but the building is still there.

Market Square, Providence, RI

Market Square, as seen from across the Providence River in 1865. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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Market Square in 2016:

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Located at the foot of College Hill on the east side of the Providence River, Market Square was for many years an important commercial and political center of the city. The oldest building in the first photo is Market Houston the right side. Like other colonial buildings such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall, the Market House functioned as a market on the first floor, but had upper floors that were used for public meetings. It opened in 1775, just in time to witness the start of the American Revolution, which included an anti-British protest where colonists burned tea outside the building. Later in the war, French soldiers were housed in the building in 1781, prior to their participation in the decisive Battle of Yorktown later in the year.

Providence was incorporated as a city in 1832, and that same year the newly-formed city government moved into the Market House. The building soon became too small for the needs of the growing city, but it took years before a suitable site for a new City Hall was finally chosen. In 1878, the present City Hall opened on the other side of the river at Exchange Place, and the Market House was put to new use as an office building.

Today, the Market House is the only building left from the first photo. The 19th century commercial blocks on the left were demolished by the first half of the 20th century to build the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium, and the buildings in the center were also subsequently demolished. The entire scene around Market Square is now part of the Rhode Island School of Design, including the Market House itself. The historic building was transferred to the school in 1948, and is now in use for classroom space, although very little has changed in its exterior appearance over the past 150 years.

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.