Eventually occupying a block-through six-story building, the establishment that became Providence’s most prestigious department store by the early twentieth century began behind the small shopfront now incorporated into the long east elevation on Union Street. The store’s final expansion (Martin & Hall, architects) in 1903 also included remodeling the modernized and unified the building visually through the installation of large two-story entrance arches at the north and south ends of the Union Street side, and tripartite windows that were closely associated with turn-of-the-twentieth-century commercial buildings. Shepard’s was sold out of founding-family ownership in the early 1970s and closed its doors in 1974. Vacant for almost twenty years, the Shepard Building became the focus of preservation concern in the early 1990s, when the Providence Preservation Society held a day-long charrette to investigate potential uses. The exercise eventually led the state university to relocate its Providence-based continuing education program here in anticipation of the loss of its home to Providence Place (11.23). The large open spaces of the interior eased rehabilitation, the design of David Presbrey. The clock on the Westminster Street side was a local landmark (“Meet me at the Shepard’s clock!” was an often heard phrase), and the rehabilitation included the creation of whimsical counterpart on Washington Street side.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture
In 1880, the Shepard Company Department Store opened in two floors of a small building at the corner of Westminster and Clemence Streets in downtown Providence. What was initially a small retail venture would by 1903 grow to be the largest department store in New England; in 1896 the company acquired an adjacent building and continued to expand until it occupied the entire block. The resulting structure was a 5- and 6-story building with a façade of brick, stone, terra cotta, stucco masonry and cast iron supporting members. The varied material mimicked the facades the previously existing buildings. Two-story, tripartite, transom display windows along Westminster and Washington Streets lured pedestrians through the two-story arched entrances at the corners of Westminster and Union, and Washington and Union streets. Inside, patrons delighted over tin ceilings and hardwood and terrazzo floors. These architectural details remain intact today. Outside, the freestanding cast iron clock provided a prominent downtown landmark.
Despite progress after the charrette hosted by PPS, the building remained vacant at the time of its 1994 nomination to the first Most Endangered Properties list.
Within a year of the listing, the University of Rhode Island, prompted by the Mayor and Governor, decided to use the Shepard’s Building for offices and its continuing education department, a use that was suggested by PPS in 1990. PPS did research in 1994 and discovered that there were successful precedents nationwide for the conversion of downtown department stores for educational facilities. The Shepard’s Building interior and exterior underwent a major renovation and it was saved.
SAVED: On April 7, 1994, shortly after it appeared on the Most Endangered Properties list, the Board of Governors for Higher Education unanimously approved the proposed relocation of the Providence URI campus to the Shepard’s Building. The move corresponded in large part to the necessary demolition of their facility at the future site of Providence Place mall. The Shepard’s location was chosen over a competing proposal from the Foundry Corporation. On April 20, 1995, PPS trustees and staff joined project architect David Presbrey to view the redevelopment’s progress. Work ended by the close of that year in time for January classes. As of February, 2019, the building continues to house URI offices in addition to its continuing education department.
Share your Story
Something to add? An edit or correction to suggest? Community input about the history of these important places is welcome. All submissions are reviewed before posting.