First Unitarian Church

An Icon on the Hill

Only two months before Washington would burn at the hands of British troops during the War of 1812, Providence would witness the destruction by fire of a major monument atop the East Side. A victim of arson, the First Congregational Church (1795) was destroyed June 14, 1814. The structure that burned was the congregation’s second church; the first was situated on the present site of the Superior Courthouse on South Main Street. An unnamed man, presumed to have suffered from mental illness, placed a lighted candle inside one of the exterior columns. Writing 72 years after the fact, historian Welcome Arnold wrote that “it was supposed that . . . [he] wished to see what kind of a sight the two steeples would make burning and falling to the ground.” Although the town offered a reward for the person responsible, they never prosecuted anyone for the crime. The church was rebuilt soon after, designed by Providence architect John Holden Greene. The Federal-style building has classical arches and urns combined with soaring pointed Gothic style windows with delicate tracery decoration. Originally the First Congregational Church, the congregation became associated with the Unitarian movement and eventually changed its name.

If the church is open, have a look inside; after taking in the spare and tasteful elegance of its interior, note the tight rectangular pews that are arranged in sequence along the ground floor and mezzanine. Spaces for contemplation and devotion? Yes, but also prime real estate in a city that was leading the Industrial Revolution and, by 1816, was well on its way toward becoming one of the most affluent cities in America. By 1910, Providence was second in the nation in terms of per-capita wealth.

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1 Benevolent Street, Providence, RI 02906