Shopping arcades were important architectural statements in early nineteenth-century urban settings, both in Europe and in this country. London’s Burlington Arcade (1818) inspired two similar efforts in the early 1820s in Philadelphia and New York, both by Philadelphia architect James Haviland. Designs of all the earlier arcades used a series of arches (hence the name) to organize the space. This building’s designers, Russell Warren and James Bucklin, adapted the monumental rectilinear Greek temple form for this through-block building; indeed, the only arches here are the ornamentation atop the interior walls at either end. Providence Arcade, now the oldest remaining building of its type in the country, offers the visitor a marvelous spatial experience. The colossal Ionic columns at either end screen a three story interior space with shops that step back at each level behind balcony walkways atop the shops below them; illuminated by a large skylight (which once also provided ventilation), the space is daily suffused with a soft glow. Typical of the best Greek Revival buildings, broad surface expanses are relieved with discrete amounts of intricate detail, here the frilly ironwork of the upper-story balustrades. Built by Cyrus Butler, this was known informally as “Butler’s Folly” because of its remoteness from Market Square and the slow rate at which it was occupied. Low occupancy rates have been, unfortunately, an almost-historic constant.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture
The Arcade has also landed on the Most Endangered Properties list several times. A 1962 profile of the Arcade by the Historic American Buildings Survey declared that “this is a well-preserved example of an early nineteenth century business arcade, and an important, early example of the Greek Revival in Rhode Island.” Today, the Arcade represents much more to Providence residents.
As America’s oldest extant shopping mall, it originally housed 78 small shops and restaurants, and, perhaps even more importantly, its central corridor served as a public pedestrian route between Downtown Providence’s most important thoroughfares. The Arcade is a staple of downtown, part of Providence not only because of its national historical and architectural significance but also because of the personal significance that is has for so many Rhode Islanders. To many local citizens, the renovation of the Arcade for only a single tenant is disillusioning, because so much of the character of this iconic building is in its interior.
It is constructed of granite blocks and stuccoed ashlar. Six Ionic columns on each facade are made of granite quarried and carved locally at Bare Ledge Quarry in Johnston, Rhode Island. The capitals were cut in Boston. Inside the Arcade, a linear central corridor spanning the Westminster Street and Weybosset Street entrances is lit by an impressively large skylight above; flanking the corridor is an evenly spaced series of glazed-front shops and offices on three levels, with balconies serving the top two floors. Tile is used on the first floor, and wood is used on the balconies and upper floors. This Greek Revival building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
It was rehabilitated by architects Irving B. Haynes & Associates and Gilbane Properties and reopened in 1980. In the early 2000s, it was administered by Johnson and Wales University as part of its commitment to Downtown investment.
In 2008, tenants were removed in order to accommodate an $8 million renovation that could have resulted in the building’s transformation to house a single tenant. The Arcade’s impressive architecture and deep roots in both Providence’s and America’s history contributed to the concern surrounding the building’s proposed reconfiguration. Should the Arcade have been reconfigured for a single tenant, the integrity of the interior space, especially the public corridor, may have been severely jeopardized.
The Arcade was included on the Most Endangered Properties List in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
SAVED: It reopened in October 2013 as a mixed-use commercial and residential “micro-loft” space under real estate developer Evan Granoff of Granoff Associates LLC working with Northeast Collaborative Architects. As of February, 2019, the project seems to be successful.