The crown jewel of Providence is McKim, Mead & White’s white-marble monument, eminently located slightly below the crest of Smith Hill. Designed exactly at the same time as the architectural firm’s contributions (1891-93) to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, this is the first permanent expression of the thorough-going classicism that infused the vision for that fair and captivated taste across the whole spectrum of the western world. In that broad context, it was perhaps the most severe and restrained public building erected since the 1850s surpassing the firm’s Boston Public Library nearing completion as this was designed.
Even more important here is the building’s subtle swagger. Rhode Island was per capita the wealthiest state in the country when this was built, and this building proclaims that status in the passive-aggressive way monopolized by the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant culture that both commissioned and designed it. But what a fine building it is! The format, of course, had been established in 1791 by William Thornton’s United States Capitol and had been across the country: a central rotunda under the dome, one wing (here, the west) for the House of Representatives, the other wing (east) for the Senate.
The exterior vacillates between the horizontality, most noticeable in the east and west wings, of Italian Renaissance buildings increasingly influential in the architecture of the 1890s, and the emphatic Victorian verticality of the central section, which seems almost squeezed between the wings, especially as it extrudes beyond the wall plane to the north and south. The marble dome, the fourth largest structural-stone dome in the world, recalls both Michelangelo’s dome at St peter’s in Rome and Sir Christopher Wren’s at St Paul’s in London but goes them one better because of its siting. Visible literally for miles, the dome captures the brilliant colors of sunset’s fading light, and its evening illumination provides a lucent centerpiece to the city.
The inside, beautifully preserved in its original condition, is a marvelous spatial experience. The vestibules on both north and south are trapezoidal in the plan, wider at the entrance. They literally funnel the visitor towards the central rotunda, the location of the principal staircase linking the entrance level with public rooms on the second level. Most capitol rotundas are open spaces, but this is the architects’ reinterpretation of Mangin & McComb’s New York City Hall of 1810, not far from their offices in lower Manhattan. The axial change halfway between the first and second floors allows the visitor to experience and understand the organization of those spaces, for from this landing both legislative chambers are visible as well as the Governor’s Reception Room on the south and the State Library to the north. The House chamber to the west is appropriately the larger of the two, and the arcadian Baumgarten tapestries on the north and south colonnaded walls visually open a space deep within the building.
The library with dark woodwork and coved ceiling embellished with gilded Renaissance book-publishers’ monograms, is very much in the mode of the interiors of the many Manhattan men’s clubs designed by the firm. The Senate, semicircular in plan, is more intimate, as befits an upper chamber. The Governor’s Reception Room was designed to accommodate the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, commissioned in by the state in 1800, over the fireplace on the west wall; the room evokes the gaiety of the firm’s Newport summer cottages, as reflected in McKim’s 1900 comment that it seemed too pink and too “ballroomish.” The hallways on all floors are lined with a portrait collection of governors and legislators, worthy of examination by anyone interested in American portraiture. Since the early 1990s, a private organization, the State House Restoration Society, has been an effective advocate and fundraising organization for this much loved landmark. In sum, this building is in many ways the culmination of the wealth generated in the many commercial buildings represented in this tour and the industrial buildings in the following one.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture