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About the Commission: The Old State House

old old state house

The Old State House is treasured for its associations with significant historical events and admired for its architectural quality. Known at various times as the Providence Colony, County, Court, or State House, the building assumed the popular name Old State House after the new capitol on Smith Hill was occupied in 1901. The Old State House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, and is a key element of the College Hill Historic Landmark District, designated in 1971.

The building is one of five former Rhode Island state houses that survive today. From the colony's earliest days, the General Assembly convened in different towns. The Assembly eventually adopted the custom of rotating sessions among the state's five county seats, meeting in buildings which were also used as courthouses.

Providence's first County House, a two-story wooden structure, was built in 1730-1731 on Meeting Street, on the lot now occupied by the Brick Schoolhouse. A fire destroyed the building on Christmas Eve, 1758.

The following February the General Assembly ordered the construction of a new brick courthouse. The building committee selected a new site north of the previous one. The long, narrow lot extending from North Main to the newly completed Benefit Street provided a grand axial approach to the building. Work began in 1760 and was largely completed by 1762, but funds for finishing the interior were appropriated as late as 1771.

1891 old state house

The building's symmetrical composition and use of red brick with rusticated brownstone and painted wood trim reflect the late English Baroque architecture of the period of William and Mary and Queen Anne. For their immediate source, the builders turned to the Colony House (1739-1743) in Newport. Prior to the Revolution, Newport was the commercial, political, and cultural center of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. As a smaller, less elaborate copy of its predecessor in Newport, the Providence colony house is an indicator of the relative status of the two communities.

Before the present tower on the west façade and the wing on Benefit Street were added in the nineteenth century, the Old State House bore a striking resemblance to the Newport Colony House. At the center of the west front was an elaborate classically detailed entranceway with a portico or balcony. Above, a pedimented front gable in the building's hip roof and a two-story, square cupola emphasized the central focus of the composition. There was also a pedimented entrance centered on the rear, facing Benefit Street.

The interior plan of the Old State House repeated that of the Newport Colony House. Both had roots in the customary layout of English town halls or market houses, which often had a large open space on the ground floor and a meeting chamber above. As originally completed, the first floor of the Old State House was a hall for public gatherings, with a staircase in the southeast corner leading to the second floor. Upstairs, the stair hall led to a central corridor running from back to front. To the north was the Chamber of Deputies, later the House of Representatives; on the south the Council Chamber of the Governor and Assistants, later the Senate Chamber. Today the former Council Chamber, with its beveled paneling, bolection moldings, and fluted Ionic corner pilasters, is the only room in the building that retains its original finish.

The Old State House has been the setting of many important events. Here on May 4,1776, the General Assembly repealed a previous act of allegiance to the crown. The date is now celebrated as Rhode Island Independence Day. While meeting here in 1784, the Assembly passed the first act in the United States providing for the gradual emancipation of slaves. In 1781, George Washington attended a dinner and ball given here in his honor. He returned as President in 1790 to attend a banquet commemorating Rhode Island's ratification of the federal Constitution.

As it stands today, the Old State House is largely a product of nineteenth-century alterations and additions reflecting the changing scope and structure of state government. Although the Assembly continued the practice of rotating sessions, and the inauguration of officers continued to be held in Newport, a growing number of state departments and commissions located their offices in Providence, which emerged as the economic, political, and cultural center of Rhode Island in the years after 1780. Agitation for a new state house in Providence began in the 1840s, but legislators continually deferred this action. As a result, the Old State House underwent numerous alterations during the 1800s. Many early changes were eliminated by succeeding renovations.

Little remains today of an important renovation by architect Russell Warren in 1840. At that time, the original twelve-over-twelve windows were replaced with six-over-six sash and the second floor hallway was removed to enlarge the Representatives' Chamber. The high coved ceiling over the space was probably installed then.

chamber, old state house

The Old State House figured prominently in some of the events of the Dorr Rebellion of 1841-1842, an important reform movement to make Rhode Island's government more democratic. At the time, the Charter of 1663, then the basis for state government, restricted voting rights to give nearly all political power to native-born property owners, and allocated representation in a manner that allowed rural areas to dominate the Assembly, undermining the voice of urban areas in state affairs. In 1841 the People's Party failed to establish its slate of officers as the legitimate government of Rhode Island, partly because they were prevented from occupying the Old State House. However, the crisis did force those in power to frame a new constitution, which was ratified in November 1842. This document regularized the system for rotating Assembly meetings among the five county seats, and apportioned the Senate and House of Representatives by population. A constitutional amendment passed in 1854 limited Assembly sessions to Providence and Newport.

The increase in the size of the legislature under the new constitution taxed the Old State House's limited facilities. The building was transformed by a major renovation in 1850-1851, planned by 24-year-old Providence architect Thomas Tefft. Offices were planned in the basement. The first floor, subdivided into offices in the 1820s, was converted into a Hall of Representatives. The Senate moved into the former Representatives' Chamber, and the former Senate Chamber became the Secretary of State's Office. To keep visitors from interrupting legislative sessions, the building's internal circulation was revised. The old staircase was removed and replaced by a new one in a separate entrance tower added to the west front, and the second-floor hall was recreated. In 1867 the large wing fronting on Benefit Street was erected according to plans by James C. Bucklin. The new wing provided space primarily for judicial functions.

old state house, benefit st.
Demands on the Old State House were temporarily relieved when the County, Superior, and Supreme Courts moved to the new Providence County Courthouse, built 1875-1877 (later replaced by the current courthouse at 250 Benefit Street, constructed 1924-1933). Between 1877 and 1883, the Old State House was refurbished under the supervision of Providence architects Stone & Carpenter (the firm of Stone, Carpenter & Willson from 1881). The second-floor hall was eliminated and the coved ceiling, which had been hidden by a dropped ceiling, was restored in the Senate Chamber. The tiny room next to the Secretary of State's Office, originally the stair hall, was made into the Governor's Office, a telling indication of the Governor's lack of authority at that time. The Secretary of State's Office, the eighteenth-century Council Chamber, was restored in 1883, at which time the present fireplace was built. However, many state offices still rented space in other buildings.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the General Assembly finally realized the need for a spacious capitol that would also be an appropriate symbol of state government. Designs for a new structure, by New York architects McKim, Mead & White, were selected in an architectural competition in 1891. Construction of the State House on Smith Hill began in 1895, and the building was occupied during the winter of 1900-1901. The former state house became the Sixth District Courthouse.

The Sixth District Court vacated the building in 1975. Since then the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission has supervised several restoration projects, including replacement of the missing roof balustrade, reconstruction of the belfry, and rehabilitation of the Council Chamber. In 1988, through a generous gift from the National Decorating Products Association and the Painting and Decorating Contractors Association, the first-floor courtroom, stair tower, and hallways were repainted in their historic colors. Today this landmark structure continues to serve the state as headquarters of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

Text by Robert Owen Jones
Color photographs 1988 by Warren Jagger

See the brochure
"The Old State House, Providence"
available at RIHP&HC, 150 Benefit St., Providence