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.


The scene in 2016:

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.


Westminster Street in 2016:

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.

Union Trust Company Building, Providence, RI

The Union Trust Company Building, at the corner of Westminster and Dorrance Streets in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The scene in 2016:

The Union Trust Company was a Providence-based bank that dated back to 1851, when it was founded as the Bank of America. Unrelated to the present-day bank of the same name, it was renamed the Union Trust Company in 1894, and a new corporate headquarters was soon in the works. Reflecting both the prominence of the bank, as well as the aspirations of the rapidly-growing city of Providence, the elegant 12-story skyscraper was completed in 1902.

The most significant change to the building came in 1920, when it was expanded along the Westminster Street side, nearly doubling its depth. Otherwise, its exterior has seen few changes. As for the Union Trust Company, it remained here until it was merged into the Industrial National Bank in 1957. In the years that followed, the ground floor continued to be used as a branch office for the bank, but today this elegant bank area is now a restaurant, The Dorrance. The rest of the building was used as offices for many years, but the upper floors of the historic building are now in the process of being converted into apartments.

Providence River from Crawford Street Bridge, Providence, RI

Looking downstream on the Providence River from the Crawford Street Bridge, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The river from the same spot in 2016:

These photos show the same scene as the ones in an earlier post, just from a different angle. The “then” photos in these two photos were probably taken on the same day, too, because the same ships are docked here, in the same spots. As mentioned in another previous post, the Crawford Street Bridge was a very wide bridge that virtually buried the Providence River, hiding it from much of downtown. South of the bridge, though, the river was open, and as the 1906 photo here shows, it was filled with steamboats.

From left to right, the steamers in the photo are the Warwick, the Squantum, and the What Cheer. They were among the many that plied the waters of Narragansett Bay and beyond, providing excursion trips to Newport, Block Island, Long Island, and other destinations. By the time the first photo was taken, the steamers were already fairly old. The What Cheer was built in 1873, and the similar-looking Squantum probably dates to around the same time. The Warwick is even older; this side-wheel steamer was built in 1867. Information is scarce on the Squantum, but the other two boats operated until the early 1920s, when they were in such poor condition that the Warwick sank at the dock in 1920, and the What Cheer did the same two years later.

Today, steamboats are long gone from the waters of the Providence River, and today the only watercraft visible is a Venetian-style gondola, in the lower left center of the photo. The bridge is also gone, having been replaced by much smaller bridges that have opened up the river through downtown Providence. There are also no longer any signs warning pedestrians of the $20 fine for spitting on the sidewalk, which would have been a substantial sum of money at the time, equal to over $500 today. The only building left from the first photo is the warehouse for the Oakdale Manufacturing Company, the six-story red brick building on the left side of both photos. Built in 1854 and significantly expanded in 1894, it was home to a butter and margarine company until 1916, and later had several other industrial tenants. Today, it is part of the College Hill Historic District, and is owned by the Rhode Island School of Design.

Carrie Tower, Brown University, Providence, RI

The Carrie Tower at Brown University, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The tower in 2016:

Located at the northwest corner of the Front Green at Brown University, the 95-foot tall Carrie Tower was built in 1904 and designed by architect Guy Lowell. It was donated by Paul Bajnotti in memory of his wife, Caroline Mathilde Brown. Her grandfather, Nicholas Brown, Jr., was the school’s namesake, and her father, Nicholas Brown III, was a politician and diplomat. Because of her father’s career, she spent much of her childhood in Europe, and through her travels she met Paul Bajnotti, an Italian diplomat. The two were married for 16 years, until her death in 1892, and the tower was dedicated to her memory, complete with an inscription at the base that reads, “Love is Strong as Death.”

Today, very little has changed in this scene. The Carrie Tower is still standing, as is Robinson Hall in the distance to the right. However, the clock no longer functions, and the chimes have not been used in decades. The base of the tower was restored in 2011, but it is still in need of restoration, including the interior staircase. Because of this, it is closed to the public, as are the underground tunnels that once connected the tower to the John Hay Library on the left, and Manning Hall to the right.

Sayles Hall, Brown University, Providence, RI

Sayles Hall on the campus of Brown University, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The building in 2016:

Sayles Hall was built on the College Green at Brown University in 1881, and was donated by Pawtucket textile manufacturer William F. Sayles. He named it in honor of his son, William Clark Sayles, who died in 1876 during his sophomore year at Brown. The building’s Romanesque architecture was typical for institutional buildings of the era, and was designed by Providence architect Alpheus C. Morse. The front of the building features classrooms, while the much larger back portion is an assembly hall.

It is partially obscured by trees in the present-day view, but the exterior of Sayles Hall looks the same today as it did when it was completed over 130 years ago. Its assembly hall has been used over the years for everything from alumni dinners to winter baseball practices, and it remains in use today for lectures, concerts, and other events.