by Michael Bell

An old memorial in a new location.

World War Monument, Memorial Square, Providence. Date unknown.
Photo by John Hopf.

If the passing of the Outlet Company represented the fading of Providence's old downtown commercial center, then the moving of the World War Monument characterized the beginning of Providence's renaissance; it was a tangible representation of the "old" and "new" Providence.

In 1925 (or 1926, depending on which source you consult), the city of Providence staged an elaborate competition to choose a design for a memorial to citizens who had served in the armed forces during the First World War. The monument process had begun as early as 1919 but was thwarted by disagreements between the mayor and city council over possible locations and designs. The committee entertained eight proposals, ranging from a 270-foot tower to an auditorium. Eventually, they chose a design for a granite shaft submitted by the French-born Philadelphia architect Paul Cret (whose buildings included the Folger Shakespeare Library and Detroit Institute of Art; locally, he was the consulting architect for the Brown University football stadium).

The following year, sculptor Paul C. Jennewein began carving, from Westerly granite, the low-relief frieze around the base of the shaft and the crowning female figure (variously characterized as a symbol of Victory or Peace). One source names Jennewein as the figure's designer and an Italian sculptor named Fiorato as the carver. The shaft itself has been described as being either 75 or 115 feet high.

The platform below the shaft is approached by steps in four directions. Set into the platform are four bronze plaques, depicting a battleship, airplane, tank, and machine gun. The plinth has four large faces separated by the insignia of the various branches of the service. The faces are inscribed with the city's dedication of the monument and quotations by Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The lower portion of the column contains a memorial frieze that symbolizes the virtues of Providence's citizens during the war. Above the frieze are inscribed the names of the major battles of the war in which Rhode Islanders fought. A band of stars surrounds the top of the fluted shaft; together, they represent the stars and stripes. The heroic figure of Peace (or Victory) stands atop the shaft.

The location selected for the monument was an open space near the conjunction of the Providence and Moshassuck Rivers that had been created by landfill and the gradual bridging over of the rivers. Many felt that this area, at the eastern edge of downtown and the foot of College Hill, greatly needed visual improvement. The construction of the nearby elevated railroad connection to the East Side train tunnel in 1908 had begun an aesthetic decline that was hastened by increasing automobile traffic. At the monument's dedication on November 11, 1929, the area's name was changed from Post Office Square to Memorial Square. The folk name "suicide circle," however, gained ascendancy as automobile traffic in the rotary around the monument increased in volume and intensity.

Where the World War Monument used to be. The Monument was moved, after river relocation, to Jackson-Gardner Park across from Superior Court on South Main Street.

In 1984, the monument was designated for relocation because of the pending rivers relocation project. It was partially dismantled and stored until reinstallation, in 1996, in Jackson-Gardner Park across from Superior Court on South Main Street, only a few hundred feet south of its old location.

The "old" Providence consisted of decline and demolition by neglect; an old downtown filled with old buildings, broken streets and rusting bridges; old rivers long since covered over by the "widest bridge in the world"—upon which rested the War Memorial. The "new" Providence was newly revealed rivers, a new Waterplace Park and Riverwalk (complete with gondolas and artistic fire displays); a new Convention Center and Westin Hotel; the new Memorial Boulevard connecting downtown to the new off-ramps from Interstate 95 and Routes 10 and 6; a new train station; a facelift for both the old and new State Houses; the new Providence Place Mall; and the proposed renovation and (after 70-plus years) completion of the Masonic Temple.

Pick Another Invisible Landmark

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires.

This article last edited December 10, 2001

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