Life wasn’t easy for immigrants at the turn of the century, but Italian sisters Anna and Laura Tirocchi chose their path well. After less than a decade of life in America, they were known in Providence as premier dressmakers with little serious competition. To their credit, this success did not appear to come with the conceit of rising in society, and they created a business that supported and fostered young immigrants and working-class women in the city.
The Tirocchis began their dressmaking business downtown, and in only four years amassed enough elite clientele to move shop.The building they had been working in was beautiful, but it was also surrounded by the hustle and bustle of traffic, competing shops, and downtown life. When Laura married Dr. Louis Cella in 1915, they set their eyes on moving to the fashionable West Side of Providence – specifically, to Broadway Street, home to the wealthy and fabulous. 514 Broadway had been built in 1867 by prominent local architect Perez Mason and had housed two impressive businessmen: John Kendrick from 1867-1880, and George W. Prentice from 1881-1915. It was set up and furnished to present the appearance of wealth, and the Tirocchis capitalized on the space and effect. Surely both the family and their upper-class clients appreciated the display of affluence that the house created, inside and out. Its Italianate and Second Empire architecture – featuring sunburst gables and a mansard roof, capped with a three and a half story tower – stands out, even among the other beautiful homes of Broadway.
The large house became the perfect mix of public and private for the Tirocchi-Cella family; Dr. Cella took space on the first floor – eventually, they renovated and created an addition to the house that he relocated his practice to - and the public dressmaking business occupied the opulent second floor, while the sewing (and living!) took place on the third.
A. & L. Tirocchi Gowns flourished in the teens and twenties, despite the increasingly difficult economic situation for dressmakers. Ready-to-wear clothing at department stores had become more popular since it was introduced in the decades beforehand – the sisters’ saving grace was their elite clientele and their Italian training.
Anna Tirocchi’s beautiful gowns made waves in the Providence community and changed enough with the times that she was still a relevant designer more than thirty years after her debut. She and her sister made business connections in New York, Rome, and Paris that they visited with some regularity, bringing back brochures of the newest fabrics and fashions. Anna also invested smartly and bought several properties to rent, as well as a beach house on the Narragansett Bay. This relative affluence enabled her to support her workers and community in more ways than simple employment: shop girls were invited along on vacation, given housing when necessary, and had their wedding dresses made for free. In one instance, Anna wrote to a judge with familiarity, begging for leniency on the part of a community boy who had once worked for her when he was brought to court. The workers at A. & L. Tirocchi gowns functioned as apprentices; they were given rounded, practical instruction for years as they worked, and after a period of time they were able to strike out on their own as dressmakers in their own right.
The business ended in 1947 with Anna’s death, and its archives and collections were donated to RISD and URI in 1989. The house has undergone a few restoration efforts in the years since, most recently by the Dirt Palace collaborative, which plans to turn it into artist residences.