Screen Shot 2024-03-17 at 6.43.46 PM

Providence Place: Still alive – David Brussat

Photo: Providence Place glimpsed between buildings in downtown Providence – David Brussat

I don’t have any deep inside knowledge (or shallow inside knowledge) of whether the downtown mall in my town, Providence Place, is going down the tubes soon. Still, my friend Will Morgan, who is also a local architecture critic, a rival of sorts, thinks it is, or thinks it might be. So, since I have a sentimental attachment to the thing, I wrote a reply to his piece on the GoLocalProv website. Here it is, with some minor changes:


Overall a very nice piece, Will. I agree that the mall has been through some shaky times, including new shops that are dubious. How many additional shoe stores are enough? Agreed! But some errors remain.

I think Adrian Smith’s early classical design (see way below) for the mall, circa 1994, was simply jettisoned in toto after Gov-elect Almond came in the next year, with St. Florian starting afresh. The original anchors were Filene’s and Nordstrom. Lord & Taylor opened to the rear of the middle. I believe it came in a year or so after the 1999 opening. When it closed it was replaced by more parking.

Fane Tower, as I suspect you are aware, was proposed long after the Burj Dubai was completed. Adrian Smith had suggested a dome on his version of the mall, which was replaced by St. Florian’s Wintergarden, which along with his rooftop skylights spread considerable light into the mall’s shopping areas. That elegant flourish, the skybridge from the Westin, was not added until quite a bit later.

The Providence Arcade of 1828 was not the nation’s first indoor mall but its oldest surviving mall. The New York Arcade and the Philadelphia Arcade opened about a year earlier. Not sure which opened first. One of the two did not last long, the other lasted late into the 19th century, and possibly into the next. They were both modeled after the then recently opened Burlington Arcade, in London, which is alive and kicking, to say the least. Here in Rhode Island, there was an arcade that opened before 1828 somewhere north of Providence, but I don’t know its name, its appearance, or its town of location. It didn’t last long.

I think the design of our mall, whether St. Florian or the anchor architects, is relatively charming. Aspects of it – such as the Filene’s curve, when its lights are on (rarely, it seems) – are quite charming. Stacked against the typical suburban mall, ours is much better. But it is far from perfect. Nobody would fly to Europe to see it. Its exterior features tend to be clunky. Indoors it lacks the traditional detailing you’d expect when looking at it from the outside. This is an obvious design flaw and St. Florian needs to hang his head in shame. But then, how could he possibly look his fellow modernists in the eye if he had not modernized the interior to apologize for classicizing the exterior?

I think your ideas for what to do with the mall if it closes are a form of surrendering in advance. Its managers should continue to try to run it as a shopping emporium, perhaps with bits devoted to other ideas. Victoria, Billy and I occasionally go to a movie there, and sometimes even shop or dine, and we have never felt unsafe, or lonely. If only it had a book shop. (Victoria worked at the Borders there until she was pregnant, and before it absquatulated.)

One bright spot is that if you watch the groups of kids, you will see the racial integration the powers that be have long wanted to force on the schools taking place au naturel in the mall. Hurray! The mall is not all gang fights, and in spite of the mall (or because of it) downtown has survived the pandemic and is reasonably vibrant. Lots of new restaurants have opened. I had lunch at Ellie’s last Thursday with Buff Chace – who has led downtown’s revival with his lofts above ground-floor shopping – and he is still trying to start new projects downtown.

I think today I am closer to supporting your position that the mall stores should have been installed behind the façades of Westminster Street. I seem to recall a D.C. developer called Federated that came to Providence hoping to do that. But that was simply not going to happen. Too bad, I’d say. Buff  and others opposed the mall worked hard to try to make something else happen, but without success. Or perhaps something else did happen, and it is working!

I’m sure you have your ear closer to the ground than I do, Will, but I have not heard that Providence Place is about to be shut down. What are you hearing? (Will replied that he had heard nothing.)

Adrian Smith’s design for Providence Place, circa 1994, was highly classical, a rebuke to the conventional wisdom. (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)

Detail of Adrian Smith’s design for Providence Place, circa 1994, before Friedrich St. Florian was called in by Gov. Lincoln Almond to design final concept. (SOM)

Providence place sits proudly amid its downtown neighborhood. (View from Governor’s Balcony, circa 2006; photo by author)


To read other articles by David Brussat:

My freelance writing and editing on architecture and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat, Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, [email protected], or call (401) 351-0451.

Leave a Comment