Providence River, Providence, RI

Looking upstream on the Providence River, with downtown Providence in the background, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The river in 2016:

This view is just downstream of the one in the previous post, and shows some of the same features, including the 1896 Banigan Building and the Crawford Street Bridge. At the time, the bridge was the head of navigation for the Providence River, so the first photo shows several steamboats docked here. These boats were a common sight at the turn of the 20th century, providing excursion trips to vacation destinations such as Newport, Block Island, and other destinations in Narragansett Bay, Long Island, and beyond.

Two of the three steamers in the first photo are identifiable. The one on the right is the Warwick, which had been built in 1873 and was in service for nearly 50 years until 1920. En route to Newport in January, the old boat sprung a leak, and later sank at its dock in Newport. Likewise, the What Cheer on the far left of the first photo also fell victim to old age around the same time. Built in New Jersey in 1867, the What Cheer operated in Narragansett Bay for many years before being sold to a New York company. Two years later, the old sidewheel steamer sank at the pier at Glen Island, and was deemed to be beyond repair.

Today, very little is left from the first photo. The only readily identifiable building in both photos is the Banigan Building, although the Customshouse, seen just to the left of it in the 2016 scene, would have also been standing in the first photo. Otherwise, not much remains. The industrial buildings to the left are gone, including the one with the lettering that reads “Phenix and US Club Ginger Ale.” There are no longer any coastal steamers on the river, although, as mentioned in the previous post, the river itself has seen great improvement. In the first photo, most of it in the distance was hidden under the Crawford Street Bridge, which was probably just as well at the time, considering how polluted it was with sewage and industrial waste. Today, the nearly quarter-mile wide bridge is gone, the river is cleaner, and it is now an integral part of downtown Providence’s cityscape.

Crawford Street Bridge, Providence, RI

Looking across the Providence River toward downtown Providence, with the Crawford Street Bridge in the foreground, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The scene in 2016:

This is probably one of the rare instances when the “now” photo of a city actually looks better than the “then” photo. The first shows a growing city with a mix of new and old buildings, with a skyline that is marred by overhead wires in the foreground. The Providence River was little more than an open sewer, carrying human waste as well as industrial pollution from factories further upstream. By the early 20th century, the river was largely covered by the Crawford Street Bridge, whose southern end is visible in this photo. It eventually earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s widest bridge, extending upstream for about 1,150 feet, or nearly a quarter mile. This bridge largely hid the river from view in downtown Providence, which was probably all well and good considering that the smell of sewage in the river reportedly caused some people – perhaps Victorian women in tightly-laced corsets – to faint from it.

Most of the buildings in the first photo date to the mid-19th century, but perhaps the newest at the time was the Banigan Building, the tall building on the right side of the photo. It was built in 1896 as the city’s first skyscraper, and was owned by and named for businessman Joseph Banigan. Born to a poor family in Ireland in 1839, Banigan and his family came to the United States in the 1840s during the Potato Famine. Here, he became the archetypical rags-to-riches 19th century industrialist, eventually owning a successful rubber company along with other business interests, including this building.

The Banigan Building is still standing in the present-day scene, and it is joined by several other historic buildings. Just to the left of it is the old Customshouse, which was completed in 1857. It was obviously there when the first photo was taken, but was hidden by other buildings at the time. Two taller historic skyscrapers stand just beyond the Customshouse. Immediately behind it is the Turk’s Head Building, which was the tallest skyscraper in the city when completed in 1913, and to the left is the Bank of America Building. This Art Deco skyscraper was completed in 1928, and at 428 feet high it has been the tallest building in Rhode Island ever since.

Aside from the skyline, the most significant change to this scene has been the Providence River itself. The massive Crawford Street Bridge, its world record notwithstanding, was demolished in the late 1980s, reintroducing the city to the long-hidden river as part of an urban revitalization project. Today, the river is spanned by a series of smaller, more ornate bridges. The river itself is much cleaner than it was a century ago, and now offers gondola rides along with being the focal point of Providence’s regular WaterFire events.

Westminster Street, Providence, RI

Looking southwest on Westminster Street from the bridge over the Providence River, in 1865. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.


The scene in 2016:

One of the main commercial streets in downtown Providence is Westminster Street, which begins here at the College Street Bridge and continues southwest through downtown Providence and toward the Federal Hill neighborhood. When the first photo was taken, this area consisted primarily of low-rise brick commercial buildings, some of which dated as far back as the early 19th century. The oldest was probably the Union Bank Building on the left, which dated back to 1816. Just to the right of it is Merchants Bank Building, completed in 1857, and on the other side of Westminster Street is part of the large Washington Building, which was built in 1843. Also partially visible in this scene is the 1857 Customhouse, whose dome can be seen in the distance on the far left.

Today, this streetscape has completely changed. Only the Merchants Bank Building remains, now seeming oddly out of place. It has actually gained an additional floor in the intervening years, but despite this it is still completely dwarfed by modern skyscrapers, being literally overshadowed by its neighbor to the left. The Union Bank Building is long gone, as is the Washington Building, which died a slow death in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was partially demolished around 1889 to build a Romanesque building for the Rhode Island Hospital Trust Company. Both this new structure and the remainders of the old one were demolished by 1919, when a new, much larger building was completed for the company on the same site. This building is still standing, dominating the right side of the 2016 photo, but it is now owned by the Rhode Island School of Design as part of their campus. The only other survivor from the first photo is the Customhouse building. It is hidden behind modern buildings, but is still standing on Weybosset Street and is in use as a courthouse.

Rhode Island Normal School, Providence, RI

The Rhode Island Normal School, seen from Francis Street in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The scene in 2016:

The building in the first photo was once the home of the Rhode Island Normal School, a teacher preparatory college that has since become Rhode Island College. The school was established in 1854, and was housed in several different buildings in the city until 1898, when the building in the first photo opened. Here, it enjoyed a prominent location just south of the Rhode Island State House, with a large lawn on the Francis Street side of the building.

During its time here, the school steadily grew. In 1920, it became the Rhode Island College of Education, offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees for the first time. By the 1950s, though, there were talks of merging the school into the University of Rhode Island. However, the school remained independent, and in 1958 they moved to a new campus in the outskirts of the city. A year later, with the school expanding beyond just education degrees, the name was changed to simply Rhode Island College.

After the college moved to its current campus, the old 1898 building remained here in downtown Providence for many more years. It was finally demolished in the late 1990s to build Providence Place, the large shopping mall that stands on the site today. I don’t known whether it was deliberate or not, but the Nordstrom section of the building appears to pay homage to the design of the old Normal School, with its yellow brick exterior and the similar-looking cornice with dentils at the top of the building.

Rhode Island State House, Providence, RI

The south side of the Rhode Island State House in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The scene in 2016:

Rhode Island is known for having the smallest land area of any US state, but despite its diminutive size, it had an unusual state capital arrangement for many years, with the legislature alternating sessions between the five county courthouses, effectively giving the state five capital cities. While much larger states managed to make do with just one capital city, this practice continued until 1854, when the rotation was reduced to just two, Providence and Newport. Having joint capitals was not unique to Rhode Island – neighboring Connecticut did the same for many years – but Rhode Island continued the practice until 1900.

At this point, when the legislature was in Providence, they were still meeting in the small colonial-era courthouse on Benefit Street. It hardly compared to the far grander capitol buildings other New England states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, so in 1895 construction began on the present-day Rhode Island State House. It was built on Smith Hill, a hill that overlooks downtown Providence on the other side of the Woonasquatucket River. Its architecture resembles the US Capitol Building, with wings on either side for the two legislative houses and a large rotunda in the center, and it was designed by the prominent firm of McKim, Mead and White in their distinctive Classical Revival style.

The Rhode Island legislature began meeting in the new building in 1901, although it was not completed until 1904, after nearly a decade of construction. Today, the area around the State House has seen some dramatic changes. Interstate 95 now passes just west of here, and just to the east is the Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger rail line in the country. To the southwest is Providence Place, a large shopping mall with adjacent parking garages. However, here on the State House grounds, very little has changed. The grounds retain a park-like atmosphere, and the historic building itself is still the seat of Rhode Island’s state government.

City Hall, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax City Hall, seen from the Grand Parade around 1899. Image from Souvenir, One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary, City of Halifax (1899).


The building in 2016:

As mentioned in the previous post, Halifax is the largest city in Canada’s Maritime provinces, and has had close ties to New England over the years. The heart of downtown Halifax has long centered around the Grand Parade here, a city square located between Barrington and Argyle Streets. On the south side of the square is St. Paul’s Church, the oldest building in the city, and on the north side is City Hall, seen here. It was completed in 1890, with an architectural design that is based on the Second Empire style, which had been particularly popular a couple of decades earlier.

The building sustained some damage in the 1917 Halifax Explosion, but unlike the northern part of the city, the downtown area was largely spared serious damage. Today, the building remains essentially the same as it did in the 1890s view, and is listed as a National Historic Site of Canada. Its jurisdiction has significantly expanded over the years, though, In 1996, all of the existing cities and towns in Halifax County were consolidated into the Halifax Regional Municipality. This essentially extended the Halifax city limits to include over 2,100 square miles of land, more than double the land area of Rhode Island, but the old City Hall remains in use as the seat of the municipal government, over 125 years after its completion.