The Arcade, Providence Rhode Island

Date added: July 05, 2022 Categories: Rhode Island Commercial Office Retail Greek Revival

Some of the finest examples of the Greek Revival style in America are in the state of Rhode Island. These houses, churches and commercial structures are largely the work of two men, Russell Warren and James C. Bucklin (1801-1880). The Arcade, one of the most beautiful of those early commercial structures imitating European business arcades, is still the most elegant building in the area and still functions as a series of shops. It is also an important example of early monolithic granite construction.

Praised in all the basic texts (Hamlin, Downing and Hitchcock), the Arcade was studied in particular by Robert Alexander (Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, October 1953, vol. 12, no. 3). He gives the design to Warren with James C. Bucklin as assistant in the execution of the work (newspaper accounts 1827). It was probably Bucklin who is responsible for the fine masonry and granite work.

Warren was influenced by John Haviland's designs (Haviland was designing Arcades for New York and Philadelphia in 1826) particularly the vast skylights and the general plan and section of the Providence building. Talbot Hamlin describes it as a building of "Great exterior dignity in its granite Ionic order, it has a light and open interior, skylighted, with balconies of rich and elegant cast iron. With the customary freedom of the best Greek Revival designers, its architects have not hesitated to use arched openings where they wished." Providence was enormously proud of it and rightly so, and engravings of it were widely published. In 1833 a Scotch critic found the Doric columns barbarized by the Tonic capitals (an "absence of taste") but this freedom of adaptation of ancient forms was typical of American architects, Parris' and Willard's St. Paul's in Boston was probably the inspiration for the Westminster Street Facade.

Robert Alexander comments on the interior:

"It shows a fine integration of practical structural and decorative requirements. The porticoes give access to the building and house the stairways supported by the granite walls. Passage to any part of the building is quick, the early Greek Revival character appears not simply in the decoration but in the compact organization into a clearly defined entity. At either end the arch and columns create a focal point. The iron railings and ionic entablature with the supporting planes of shopfronts sweep through to connect the ends and visually delimit the interior space. The whole is an immediately comprehensible structure."

He also documents the genesis of the building:

"A speculative venture, the Arcade was Cyrus Butler's initial challenge to Cheapside and the Brown family interests. Despite the utility and convenience of many shops grouped under one roof, it was less successful commercially than aesthetically.

The first newspaper mention of the Arcade, April 8, 1827, referred to the intended location and the presumptive increase in land values of the region. On April 22, the Gazette published a longer account based on drawings in which the major elements were present, the long avenue with entrance to the stores and the glazed roof for lighting. There were, however, twenty-eight shops on each floor, only two floors, and stairs at one entrance called the front.

At a later date, then, it was decided to add a third floor. This increase may have resulted from optimism on the part of the backers in the flush days of 1828. At any rate the depth of one store had to be surrendered, leaving only twenty-six on each floor. This space, thirteen and a half feet, permitted a vestibule at the Weybosset Street end for the additional stairways necessitated by the third floor and the expectation of great traffic. The inner columns and arch that support the ridgepole at either end were intended originally to stand on the floor. The crown of the arch would then have been exactly on a level with the cornice of the facade. Raised one story, these columns stand precariously over the edge of the spur wall below. A.J. Davis noted this structural peculiarity and carefully showed it in his drawings. The roof was built as originally planned, but, because the third story was so much narrower, coving along the side was introduced to cover an unfortunate gap below the skylight.

The north front shows little effect from this change of plan. The upper balcony seems crowded in at an awkward level while the first balcony railing is equidistant from the floor and from the architrave. The acroteria were planned from the beginning, and it was intended to have a marble statue on the center one. Those at the side, however, were now extended inward to the raking cornices. It was at the south or Weybosset front that the greatest change occurred. Planned without a vestibule and stairways, this facade had not even been given a pediment. An early lithograph shows how deserted this region was; not a building stood near the Arcade. The third story had to be concealed by some means, but as quickly and cheaply as possible. These requirements were not to be met by a triangular pediment with its cutting along angles. The simple block and panel railing was designed, hastily quarried, and erected. Apparently it is not of the same material as the rest of the building; the difference in color appears in the photograph. It was not as well constructed; the expansion of the wooden ridge beam forced it out of line necessitating repairs in 1947."