Downtown Providence

Tour curated by: Amelia Golcheski

Bordered by the Providence River and Interstate 95 is Providence’s downtown neighborhood, the geographical, political, economic, and cultural core of Rhode Island’s capital.

Colonial Providence was born on the East Side along the Providence River, but with the successes of the mercantile trade followed by the industrial revolution, the small city expanded west. With the advent of technology Providence became a bustling manufacturing town. The metal machinery, textiles, and jewelry industries all flourished due to the extensive railroad network here. By the late 19th century, Providence was the transportation hub of southeastern New England and attracted a variety of industrialists, bankers, and businessmen to its downtown neighborhood. East Side residents moved downtown and opened shops along the newly fashionable Westminster Street, further expanding the commercial district. Simply look at the architecture on Westminster Street to see remnants of this thriving era!

The 20th century brought an era of booms and busts for downtown. The 1920s saw the opening of cultural and social hubs, like the Biltmore Hotel, where Rhode Islanders gathered and celebrated in style. This era also saw the creation of Providence’s modern skyline with new Art Deco structures home to banks and businesses, now icons of this prosperous time in Providence’s history. However, the prosperous times did not last forever. The Great Depression, as well as other recessions in the mid 20th century, shuttered once thriving businesses downtown. Remarkably, in moments of plenty, residents organized to save and preserve buildings from earlier prosperous times. As a result of these preservation efforts, many architecturally significant buildings from Providence’s past still stand today, refashioned to fit the needs of 21st century.

Today, downtown Providence is a vibrant mix of nationally recognized arts and cultural institutions, top-ranked restaurants, universities, creative industries, financial and legal firms, and locally-owned businesses earning the city the name, “The Creative Capital.” Explore downtown and its cycles of economic successes and recessions where preservation and an appreciation for architecture and history is the constant thread in the neighborhood’s story.

This tour was produced in partnership with the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau (PWCVB) and supported by a generous grant from the Providence Tourism Council.

Locations for Tour

Few theaters can say they’ve housed the evolution of American entertainment like this one. Now home to the Tony Award-winning Trinity Repertory Company, this space has vaudeville roots, showed blockbuster hits, and now wows audiences with live…

A fixture of the capital city, the Providence Public Library (PPL) has continuously served the downtown community for over a century. Founded in 1875, the PPL opened at its present Washington Street location in 1900. It added the Empire Street…

No organization embodies Providence’s moniker, “The Creative Capital”, more than AS220. Founded in 1985, this organization supports artists by providing housing, studio, exhibit, and performance space in downtown Providence. AS220 began in one…

Weybosset Street was alive with excitement as nearly 14,000 people attended the opening of the new 3,100 seat Loew’s State Movie Palace on October 6, 1928 to see the movie “Excess Baggage” on the big screen. Those lucky enough to have seats to…

Johnson & Wales University is world renowned leader in experiential education, with degree programs in arts and sciences, business, culinary arts, education, hospitality, engineering and design, and more. Fittingly, the Providence campus is…

Imagine people hustling and bustling in search for the finest goods this 19th-century neighborhood had to offer. Now picture the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Greece. Together the two images create the landmark “temple of trade” known as The…

A symbol of the long history of business downtown, the Customs House was completed in 1857. Originally built as the first Providence Federal Building, the Customs House was home to the Federal District Court, the Post Office, and U.S. Customs. This…

Boston wasn’t the only place to throw a tea party! Here, on March 2, 1775, Providence residents protesting the Tea Act threw 300 pounds of British East India Company tea into the Providence River. Finding inspiration in Rhode Island’s founder…

Popularly known as the “Superman Building,” because of its resemblance to the iconic Daily Planet building in the television series, the Industrial Trust Building remains the tallest in Providence at 428 feet. Completed in 1927, it is a reminder…

Few places in downtown evoke such fond memories like the iconic Shepard Company Department Store, a fixture of the 19th and 20th-century Providence shopping experience. Built in the 1870s, Shepard’s initially was 6,400 square feet. By 1903, it grew…

It is said that every Rhode Islander visits the Biltmore Hotel at least once. Opened in June of 1922, the Biltmore immediately became a significant hub for social activity in downtown Providence, a legacy that continues today. Its elegant halls have…

Though the area around it has changed over the years, Providence City Hall remains a constant in downtown Providence. Constructed in the 1870s, the cast iron and masonry structure witnessed the evolution of Exchange Place into Kennedy Plaza, two…

Created as Exchange Place in the 19th century, Kennedy Plaza stands out in a neighborhood defined by change. It’s served same role for over a century: the city’s central transportation hub. Today, as many as 69,000 people move through the site…

Amidst the flurry of trains and industry that marked this area during the 19th century was a much needed bucolic retreat, what we now call Burnside Park. Adjacent to the historic transportation hub of Providence, Burnside Park was originally created…

Imagine this building as the central location for industry and modernity in 19th-century Providence. Picture a tangle of railroad tracks and constant motion, with engineers and manufacturers working hard to support (arguably) the most important place…

One acre of water in the four-acre park here today represents a vital part of early Providence history. The water is a reminder of the hundreds of acres of brackish water that covered the area that Roger Williams knew as the Great Salt Cove. Over…
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