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David Brussat, Architecture Here and There
The Rhode Island Historical Society yesterday
displayed its amazing 1809 drop curtain, owned by the society since 1833 and
depicting the town as it appeared in 1808, twenty years before the Providence
Arcade was built in 1828. It is thought to be the oldest curtain of its kind in
I dropped in to see it near the end of
celebratory viewing hours of 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and while I had long been
familiar with its existence and had seen it in books on Providence history and
architecture, one must see it in person to understand how fully it is charged
with the energy of time and place.
John Worrall, a scenery painter and pantomime
dancer at the first theater constructed in Providence, on the site of what is
now Grace Church, seems to have daubed the curtain from a vantage point on
Federal Hill. You can see the easterly edge of what was then still a
residential area, the Providence River flowing beyond, and beyond that College
Hill, then called “The Neck.” Brown University, founded in 1764, became Brown,
named for the prominent family of donors, merely five years before the curtain
was painted. University Hall, built soon after the college moved from Warren,
R.I., to Providence in 1770, can be seen in the above image along a seam of the
curtain, whose ten linen panels total 24 feet across and reach up 15 feet.
The curtain raises a number of questions for
your architectural sleuth. For example, the road that proceeds downhill from
University Hall (still called the College Edifice in 1809) must eventually have
become College Street, at the bottom of which you’d think would be Weybosset
Bridge, erected in 1663 and replaced five times before 1809. But the bridge
cannot be seen, perhaps because it is behind a stand of trees on the near side
of the river.
Where is it? The first image below is a
closeup taken Thursday by me of that segment. It does not show in the minimal
space between the trees. Perhaps the existence of the trees offered Worrall the
opportunity not to paint the bridge. Or, perhaps, for the same reason, he
painted in a stand of trees that did not exist. Hard to know, but fun to
speculate! The bridge was destroyed seven years later in the Great Gale of 1815
and rebuilt twice as wide.
Or maybe the bridge that existed in 1808 is
hidden behind houses along what seems to be the narrower southern stretch of
the river, which seems to widen just right of the stand of trees. The six-map
analysis of the changing banks of the river by John Hutchins Cady, which I
discuss in Chapter 13, “The Widest Bridge in the World,” in my Lost
Providence (2017), bears out that possibility. The third map in that
progression shows the Cove (not the Cove Basin, built later on the
Woonasquatucket River). So, it was indeed those houses that excused Worrall
from painting the bridge. Brilliant deduction, Sherlock!
(I have taken the liberty of enhancing the
contrast of the images above and below. The conservation of the curtain, by
Curtains Without Borders, did not attempt to erase the dimming effect of time
but to fill in imagery rubbed by folding and wear, mostly along the seams of
the panels. Marvelous as it is, this was not, after all, the restoration of
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.)
It looks as if the western embankment of the
river, nearest the observer, is more densely occupied than College Hill itself.
Of course, unlike on College Hill, most of the early structures on the
Weybosset Neck were torn down and replaced, maybe once or twice or more, by the
structures that now make up today’s downtown. Some of the houses on the west
side of College Hill that were there in 1809 still exist today. No doubt a few
are on the curtain. It is hard to know whether the houses painted onto the far
side of the river are accurate or artistic renderings of what houses there were
like in 1809, so that Worrall could generalize the appearance of each house he
drew. The truth is probably somewhere in between. It is even harder to
ascertain the accuracy of the houses on the near side of the river, since they
are certainly all gone.
If I come across an analysis of the drop curtain’s depiction of Providence that answers some of these questions, I will report dutifully to the readership. In the meantime, feel free to speculate based on the images above and below – better yet, visit the RI Historical Society at Aldrich House, 110 Benevolent St. – and I will be glad to publish the most interesting speculations. (Below, the images proceed from north to south, with a nearly full view at the bottom.)
By David Brussat, architect writer
and founder of www.architecturehereandthere.com