The Westminster Street end of the Arcade. Notice the pedimented facade.

The nation's oldest indoor shopping mall!

130 Westminster Street, Providence
(401) 454-4568
www.arcadeprovidence.com

This is where it all began.

The Arcade, a building designed to look like a Greek temple to commerce, is the country's oldest indoor shopping mall. Built entirely of granite in 1828 (when Providence's population numbered only 14,000), it was not only the first commercial venture established on the west side of the Providence River, it was the city's first monumental business building as well.

The 216-foot structure was designed by architects Russell Warren and James C. Bucklin, and construction was overseen by Cyrus Butler. The Arcade's twelve massive twenty-one-foot granite columns, which were quarried from the Bare Ledge Quarry in Johnston and dragged fifteen miles to the construction site by a team of thirty oxen, were the largest monolithic columns in the country at the time, weighing in at thirteen tons a piece. The total cost of the building was $145,000. According to this inflation calculator, that would be $2,983,943.26 in 2012 dollars, but of course that number doesn't include the cost added by today's safety regulations, building codes, union contracts, etc.

Although the building is otherwise mostly symmetrical, the Weybossett and Westminster Street facades are very different: the Westminster Street side is crowned with a pediment, and the Weybosset Street entrance is topped off by a stepped parapet. The story goes that the architects couldn't agree on a single unified design, so they each put their own stamp on the building. Robert Alexander, in an article in the October 1953 issue of The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, however, argued that Warren and Bucklin were not, as has been supposed, equal partners in the design of the Arcade. Alexander believed that Bucklin acted more as a consultant to Warren, and that Warren was responsible for the majority of the design decisions. Alexander further posited that the design of the stepped parapet resulted from a combination of economics, simplicity, and aesthetics. A stepped parapet, made of cut granite blocks, is cheaper and easier to build than a pediment, which requires diagonal cuts. Moreover, at the time the Arcade was built it was its own context—no other building stood near it on the west side of the Providence River. The Westminster Street end was considered the main entrance and so was given the more expensive design treatment.

An interesting artifact that dates from the building of the Arcade can still be seen in one of the west end pillars. The quarrying and carving of the pillars was supervised by Joseph Olney. One of the pillars had a small defect, and to hide it, Olney's son, Joseph Jr., carved a plug out of soapstone, snugged it in place, and marked it with his initials and the date. The soapstone came from another spot in Johnston, the Indian soapstone quarry, located just off Hartford Avenue.

The building was once named by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as one of the finest commercial buildings in the history of American architecture, and in 1976 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. In addition to its impressive exterior, it boasts a huge glass skylight, supported by wooden beams, that runs the length of the building and floods the open area between the three floors with natural light. Shops on the second and third levels are connected by long, open balconies overlooking the ground floor.

The building has survived a fire and three hurricanes, but the Arcade has never been profitable for any of its owners, and in 1944 it was very nearly demolished. While it was saved by the Rhode Island Association for the Blind (which bought it as an investment), the building suffered over the next few decades from deferred maintenance and a lack of tenants. Happily, a three million-dollar refurbishment in 1980 brought shine back to the old girl. The Arcade in the 1980s and '90s was once again a bustling center of commerce.

Incidentally, Cleveland, Ohio's, Old Arcade (1890), Seattle, Washington's, Northgate Mall (1950), Appleton, Wisconsin's, Valley Fair Shopping Center (1955), and Edina, Minnesota's, Southdale Center (1956) all claim to be the country's oldest/first indoor/enclosed shopping mall. Losers.

Update, December 1, 2008: The Arcade closed today and will remain closed for the foreseeable future. The building's owner, Granoff Associates, had planned an eight million dollar renovation to convert the property from a collection of independent shops to space for a single company or retailer, but because of the economic downturn, those plans were put on hold.

Update, September 26, 2010: The Providence Preservation Society issued its annual list of the city's ten most endangered buildings. The still-closed Arcade was number one.

Update, January 25, 2012: New plans for the Arcade include a major seven million dollar renovation with fourteen shops and restaurants on the first floor, and forty-eight affordable micro-lofts on the second and third. The restaurants will have separate entrances so that they can operate past the 9pm closing time of the retail floor. As part of the renovation, long-bricked-up windows along the length of both sides of the building will be opened up.

Update, October 21, 2013: The Arcade re-opened, partially, with a ribbon-cutting by Providence Mayor Angel Tavares, Governor Lincoln Chafee, and owner/developer Evan Granoff. Eleven out of seventeen shops were ready for customers. Still to come—the balance of the shops and forty-eight micro-lofts on the upper floors.

Information

Cost: to look, free; to consume, flash the cash.

Time required: allow 5 minutes or more, depending on what grabs your interest.

Hours: Open daily until 9pm; individual restaurants with dedicated entrances may be open later.

Finding it: from Route 95 take exit 21 and turn left (if coming from the north) or right (if coming from the south) toward downtown; drive along Empire Street to the intersection with Weybosset Street; turn left on Weybosset and continue down until you see the Arcade on your left.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to police roadblocks or glandular lions. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited October 25, 2013

© 1999–2014 Quahog.org (with the exception of elements provided by contributors, as noted).