The image of an American public library as a large, rectangular-plan Italian Renaissance-inspired building was established by McKim, Mead & White’s Boston Public Library (1887-97), completed just before work began here. For a number of reasons, the Boston building was far more successful aesthetically than functionally. At the same time of the completion of this building, by Stone, Carpenter, & Willson, both architects and librarians were publicly congratulated for avoiding the awkwardness of “that beautiful mistake on Copley Square.” The architects looked not only to Boston but also to Jacobo Sansovino’s library (1554) on St. Mark’s square in Venice, the source for the animated wall surface on the building’s upper story. In need of additional space by the 1920s, the library hesitated to expand until the 1950s, when architects Howe, Prout & Eckman created a new face for the institution in the tepidly Moderne addition on Empire Street. By the late 1980s, when the complex was yet again in need of programmatic improvements, the 1953 addition seemed as hopelessly outdated as the 1990 building did when the addition was built. And by then the 1900 building looked much better, so the principal entrance and circulation were returned to the original building. The interior of the 1900 building, well worth a detour inside, was somewhat re-worked but many of the spaces convey a strong sense of original space and detail. The entrance hall and main stair ensemble appears as it did 100 years ago.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture