Located at the southern end of the city, this was Providence’s response to the urban-park movement of the second half of the nineteenth century. As early as 1866, Mayor Thomas Doyle had called for the creation of a large public park in the rapidly growing city that had no planned open spaces beyond its burial grounds, cemeteries, medical and educational institutional grounds, a few public squares, a military training field, and the city’s poor farm. In 1871 Betsey Williams, great-great-granddaughter of Providence founder Roger Williams, gave to the city the 102-acre tract of land, including the family burial ground, around her eighteenth-century farmhouse, with the provision that the land be used for cemetery or park and that a memorial to Roger Williams be created. Political problems delayed development until 1878, when Chicago-based Horace W.S. Cleveland presented his plan for the park. The picturesque design, with dramatically curving roads and paths, grouped plantings to enhance the sequential experience of movement through the space, and abundant ponds, created by damming the through-flowing creeks, was realized largely as planned and may be seen in the park’s northwest section, just beyond the entrance gates from Elmwood Avenue.
Enter the park through the Anna Hawke Man Memorial Gates (1903; William Codman), whose elaborate filigreed bronze section are suspended from stout granite piers. Visible immediately ahead is a rose garden. Turn right onto Linden Avenue and continue to the Casino (1896-97; Edwin T. Banning), a large-scale Colonial Revival pleasure pavilion overlooking Roosevelt Lake; the paneled assembly room is a sedate prelude to the pastel confection of the ballroom upstairs. Continue north on Rose Avenue to the donor-required Roger Williams Monument (1877; Franklin Simmons), a larger-than-life-sized “portrait” statue of Williams (whose likeness is unknown from his lifetime; all images of him are strictly imaginary) situated atop a high granite plinth with the allegorical figure of Clio, the muse of history, writing William’s name on a tablet; this is a bronze replica of a marble statue Simmons had carved a few years earlier for the United States Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Across the way is the so-called Betsey Williams Cottage, actually built in 1773 by Nathaniel Williams for his son James, Betsey’s father, a gambrel-roof cottage built so commonly in the mid-eighteenth century in Providence’s near hinterlands. Roger Williams Park Zoo traces its origins to the 1870s, but its earliest buildings are the Menagerie and the barn (now Sophie Danforth Center) from the 1890s; the zoo has a fine collection of animals, splendidly displayed, thanks to continuing efforts since the late 1970s to incorporate the latest methods of zoological interpretation and presentation. Overlooking Polo Lake is the Museum of Natural History & Planetarium (1894-95; Martin & Hall), an imperious building in the Henri IV/ Louis XIII style; its blind upper stories, while responding to programmatic needs, make it a little unsettling visually. Quite a contrast is the Dalrymple Boat House (1895-96; Martin & Hall), where the architects produced a cozy, informal Queen Anne building for recreational activity; Providence’s Park Department now makes its headquarters here. Down the slope from Betsy Williams Cottage is the charming statue of Bowen R. Church (1928; Aristride B. Cianfarani), a life-sized bronze of the cornetist in full swing, a jolly reminder of the many musical events held in the park throughout its history. And beyond is the site of those glorious concerts, the Temple to Music (1923; William T. Aldrich), a severe Greek temple whose Ionic column screen provides glimpses through to Cunliff Lake. The park is the setting to a number of representational bronze sculptures, many of them reproductions, not nearly of the caliber of the park’s overall design. Two sculptures not readily visible should be: the Richard Henry Deming Memorial (1904; William Cowper), now in storage, recalls the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial done just a few years earlier by Daniel Chester French and located on the west side of New York’s Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Streets; Cow Island Project (1977; Richard Fleishner), an abstract installation piece by an internationally known local sculpture on an island now without a bridge to the mainland, cannot be fully appreciated without first-hand experience. These individual highlights alone, however, cannot fully convey the satisfying experience of moving through this delightfully manipulated landscape, where water, bridges, hills, and vegetation complement one another exquisitely and create a remarkable recreational experience.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture