1830: Arnold-Palmer House

An Historic House Is the Last Remnant of Cathedral Square's Merchant Elite of the Early 19th Century

The redevelopment of Cathedral Square in the late 1960s left few traces of what this busy city intersection once was. One of those remaining traces is the Arnold-Palmer house, moved in 1967 through the prescient preservation efforts of the Beneficent Congregational Church, to its current location at the corner of Pine and Chestnut Streets.

When the house was built, Cathedral Square was changing from a place where farmers weighed their produce on a hay scale to a posh residential district. The local economy had been transformed by the rise of finance and industry in New England. The need for labor drove immigration. All the new people and new jobs created new markets. The newly wealthy from this economic expansion were merchants and mill owners who built fine brick homes like the Arnold-Palmer House.

Daniel Arnold did well in the economic expansion of the 1820s and 30s. His trade focused on flour, but he speculated in cotton as well, as did almost all of the merchants who built their homes in the square at this time. Around 1830, five Federal-style brick mansions were built in a row on the north side of the square. Architectural historian Norman Isham has attributed these residences to skilled and prolific Providence builder John Holden Greene, whose signature monitor roof and fine craftsmanship argue for this attribution. Another merchant, Orray Taft, built his house at the corner of Jackson Street. His business focused almost exclusively on the cotton trade with Southern ports like Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans. Emma Taft, Orray's daughter, remembered that her father had spent his early business years in Savannah where he had met Greene, who was there to build a church.

Connections between Southern cotton ports and businessmen like Taft and Arnold--as well as architects like Greene--demonstrate how tightly bound Rhode Island's industrial economy was with Southern cotton and the enslaved people who produced it. Those ties would remain as long as there were cotton mills in Rhode Island.

By the 1850s, Arnold's house was sold to Joseph Palmer, who, through the firm of Palmer & Capron, manufactured gold rings in Providence's growing jewelry business. By the 1950s, the demographic and economic decline of the city altered Cathedral Square from the wealthy residential square and busy commercial district it had been. The house had become the Grace & Hope Mission, a nonprofit focused on providing support and services for the most vulnerable in the city. By the late 1960s, the wrecking ball threatened, and thankfully, the congregants of the Beneficent Congregational Church preserved this rare piece of the past.

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80 Cathedral Square, Providence, RI 02903