Providence’s Union Station was rehabilitated as part of the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project of the Federal Railroad Administration during the late eighties. It was turned from a functioning intermodal station (trains and buses) to offices and ground floor/basement level restaurants. The Courtyard Marriott was added later in the same architectural style. The Station is the main offices for WRNI and the Rhode Island Foundation, as well as the Rafael Bistro, Ri Ra bar, Capital Grill and Union Station Brewery.
(From the RI Foundation website) Providence was already a thriving city in 1847 when Brown-educated architect Thomas A. Tefft’s Union Railroad Depot, the original train station, opened in 1847. The station’s Exchange Terrace site backed on to a large cove and a small hill where the State Capitol would be built four decades later. At the time, the immediate surrounding acreage looked nearly the same as it appeared when Roger Williams first arrived in Rhode Island more than 200 years earlier, (although it was soon to face a bustling market area).
Widely considered “a brilliant example of Romanesque architecture,” Union Station was then the longest building in America, at a disputed 700 feet long (some claimed it was only 625). Flanked by two graceful towers on one end, and an octagonal pavilion on the other, the building featured Railroad Hall, which was to house many public meetings, such as the one addressed by not-yet-nominated presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln.
As railroad demand grew, so did the need for more terminal space, made possible only by the filling of the cove (now the area surrounded by Union Station, the State Capitol, and Providence Place mall) in 1890. The question of what to do with the now-undersized but still-glorious train station was answered by a catastrophic fire which destroyed it in February, 1896.
The new distinctive yellow brick Union Station (a stylistic trend of the 1890s) was designed by the firm of Stone, Carpenter, and Willson. “The opening of the station [in 1898] marks a new era in the history of this city,” wrote the Providence Journal. And why not? Robber baron J. Pierpont Morgan had purchased 130 independently-owned train lines and transformed them into a single monopoly rail line: the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company. Nearly 300 trains were entering and leaving the station daily, and one observer predicted that the population of Providence would grow to 500,000 in the next 50 years!
Instead, Providence’;s population peaked at less than half that, and airplane, car, bus, and truck travel proved to be mighty competitors. By the 1950s, the number of trains had decreased 75 percent. When the federal government in the 1970s proposed a major upgrade to the rail system which was now Amtrak, local city planners saw the opportunity to eliminate what had become a physical barrier between downtown and Smith Hill, and came up with a Capital Center plan which included rail and river relocation and the transformation of the train station and the area between it and the Capitol into more modern use for offices, stores, tourism, and more.
On April 26, 1987, just ten months after a much smaller train station opened a short walk away, the now-vacant Union Station again suffered a devastating fire, apparently dashing the plans of developers who had begun a planned $11 million worth of renovations for a three story retail location.
What emerged instead were the North American headquarters of London-based Cookson America in the central terminal, the Providence Chamber of Commerce in the westernmost building, and a variety of offices and restaurants in the remaining space.
Today, Union Station again faces a surging Providence, this time on both sides. Out the front door is a public skating rink and a plaza prominently ringed by city and federal government and the financial district. Out the back door is Providence Place mall, a Marriott hotel, Waterplace Park and its Waterfire, and several vacant lots likely to be developed in the near future.
A. Douglas I remember when my mother and I went to Boston and took the train there from this train station. Wonderful memories, and I also remember when my mother told me stories when the soldiers came home and how the place was buzzing! I am glad they didn’t destroy this great and memorable building.
Claude Michel Etégny You should read CURRAN Kathleen, “;The German Rundbogenstil and Reflections on the American Round-Arched Style”, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 47, no 4, Dec. 1998, pp. 351-373. This article is full of interesting information about the architecture of Union Depot and its German influence. – CM Etégny, Switzerland
JIMBEAR Your description of the design of the original Union Station is quite incorrect. It was definitely not “flanked by two graceful towers on one end, and an octagonal pavilion on the other”. The design was perfectly symmetrical on each side of the centerline. The large towers were set at either side of the central facade of the main building. There were also two wings which branched off from the main building at a slight angle – one on the east (Boston) side and another on the west (New York) side. Each of the wings consisted of a large train shed covering four tracks and terminated on the street side in a two-story octagonal pavilion with a round external stair tower. A famous 1861 photograph of the 2nd RI Volunteers on parade in front of the station prior to boarding trains to take them south to fight in the Civil War shows the east end of the station to be a perfect mirror image of the west end as shown in your photographs. I have a fairly good copy of that photo in my files which I can send to you, if you’d like to have it. Photos of Union Station were almost invariably taken from in front of the building, and rarely from the sides. Because the focus in this photo was on the troops, the station was just part of the whole scene. It’s the most detailed photo I’ve ever seen of the train sheds which were at both ends of the station.
Tom Parker As I child I grew up in nearby Seekonk, Ma. My grandmother lived in New London, Ct., and would visit us often by train. My greatest memories of picking her up at the train staion was standing on that platform only feet from a train as it roared in. I think they were New Haven RR trains at the time (late 60 - early 70s). Also, the fact that you had to walk under the tracks to get from the station to the platforms was really exciting as a kid. The sound was deafening if you were underground when a train came in. I probably wouldn’t recognize the area now as I look at these recent photos. But thanks for this awesome website. I cannot get over some of the changes in my old stomping grounds.
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