Providence Public Library

Providence, Rhode Island | C.1900

Photo Credit: Accidentally Wes Anderson


This magnificent structure known as the Providence Public Library in Providence, Rhode Island is deeply dedicated to its role as an educator and cultural center. Unlike typical public libraries, this library is privately governed and supported by an elected Board of Trustees who run for four-year-terms.

The origins of the Library date to June 1871 when representatives from several societies formed to create a Free Public Library. Participants included the Franklin Society, the Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry, The Franklin Lyceum, and the Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers. The Free Public Library was fashioned from the merging of the libraries owned by all of the societies, that were then opened to the public.

The Library first opened its doors to the public in February 1878 when it was located on the second floor of the Butler Exchange in what is currently Kennedy Plaza. Two years later larger premises were needed to hold a growing collection and a new location was secured on Snow Street between Westminster and Washington Streets.

The current building located at 225 Washington Street was built in 1900. The marvelous edifice is a prime example of turn-of-the-century American architecture. Inspiration for the design haled from structures around the world including the Sansovino’s Library in Venice, the Libraire de Ste. Genevieve in Paris and the Italian palaces of the Renaissance period.

The interiors throughout the building are equally as stunning as the exterior. Stairwells elude elegance in their craftsmen finished mock marble dubbed Paronazzo. This illusion is created with a technique of laying color-soaked silk on top of drying concrete to create and effect that resulting in what looks like the marble from the top quarries of Italy.

The library has numerous halls and rooms to explore that all carry their own unique character. Within the halls the Library has its own special collections including five murals depicting popular childhood tales. The Library is open for the public and has been referred to as the “people’s university” for its commitment to educating all who enters its doors.

AWA Community Insights:

Did you know that the when the 1950s building was built, its was specifically proportioned to hide the classical architecture of the 1900 building from patrons approaching the new main entrance on Empire Street? A shocking decision from a modern standpoint, where the beauty of classical buildings is deeply valued— but back then, the emphasis was on new, new, new. A large goal of the renovation was to restore connections between the two buildings, both visually and programmatically.
– Theresa D (designLAB)

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