Monday, January 16, 2017

A Little Retail History: Providence, Rhode Island


Over the past holiday season, I produced a pair of Providence Retail History Tote Bags, and, was fortunate to be interviewed by, and, featured on Country Living On-line.  In preparation for both tasks, I did a bit of research on the retail history of Providence.  There is still MUCH to add and learn, but, I wanted to share some of what I gathered, that did not make it into the CL piece, here with you!

The former "Tri-Store Bridge" is still visible from Westminster Street. It formerly connected the Shepard Store, Gladdings, and, Cherry & Webb to allow shoppers access to all three without going back outside. 

Although currently home to the University of Rhode Island's downtown campus, this lovely building retains a neon sign on Washington Street, and, the iconic "Shepard's Clock" on Westminter as a reminder of its retail history.

Most Rhode Islanders are aware of the former status of Providence as the major retail destination on the East Coast for decades.  Until suburban shopping malls became the norm, and, driving yourself to a parking lot replaced taking public transportation downtown, a visit to downtown Providence was usually a retail treat.

An image at Mathewson and Westminster facing east, not long after the turn of the previous century shows a bustling mid-day shopping center downtown.
The Outlet Company was the biggest store downtown and drew people for Christmas as well as throughout the year.  Sadly, a fire destroyed the building in 1986, creating the space that is now the main green for Johnson & Wales University.  Photo credit: Jack Delano; circa 1940,  courtesy of Library of Congress.

1906 "Meet Me at the Outlet" Postcard
A bustling Christmas season Westminster Streets shows the Shepard's Clock, shoppers galore, and a block full of independent movie theaters and retail stores.  Photo credit: Jack Delano; circa 1940,  courtesy of Library of Congress.

It's hard for those who did not grow up in Rhode Island to imagine the past, and, it is just as hard for those who grew up in the state to reconcile the present.  For this reason we should embrace and share the history so that it is not lost.  To help put some of the history in context, here are some then & now composites to educate, excite and confound you!


As the top Edwardian postcard says, this is indeed Dorrance at Weybosset looking West up Weybosset.  Note the location of the Outlet Company compared to the current location of Johnson & Wales.


Again looking west from Dorrance but this time up Westminster.  Note that you can still see the name Kresge's cast into that building currently under renovation.  Also, the large window that showcased the Fur Department at Peerless (this actually predates Peerless and still would have been The Boston Store).  The window is now a unique feature of one of the Westminster Lofts in the Peerless Residential building. 


Westminster at Union facing West.  This image is somewhat confusing because the artist's illustration of the Callender, McAuslan & Troup Building (which later housed the Boston Store, and, Peerless Department Store, and, at one point I believe Lupo's?) takes liberties with the building at the back to which he added an additional level.  That building actually was only five stories, and, two stories were added above at some point.  All of these buildings are now one, unified mixed-use space with retail, restaurants, architectural firms and design firms on the street level and residential units above.  Note: the main level houses a gallery and is open to the public during business hours.  The original Peerless sign, formerly on the building's exterior, is now on display in the lobby. 






Directly across the street at Westminster and Union facing South is another former department store now mixed-use.  This was the O'Gorman Building which housed "The Big Store" and later "Dimonds."




Interior view of Dimond's. 


From the same corner of Westminster and Union Street turn and look east.  The Boston Store/Peerless would have been to the left, you can see the Providence Journal Building ahead and what is most jarring is the absence of the Industrial Trust Building ("Superman Building") which has not yet been built. 


A closer view of The Providence Journal building also shows the sign for Liggetts, the pharmacy that occupied the entire first floor for decades.  Noon-day shopping "crowd" indeed!  The view looks so odd without the skyscraper to define it.


The name "Hall & Lyon" is used alongside the name Liggetts in other images.  Liggett is the person who founded United Drug Stores to consolidate under the Rexall name.



At the other end of Westminster, at Mathewson Street, stood Gladdings. 


Grace Church is always a useful landmark in determining where you are in old images of downtown.  Here, we are in a section of Westminster that is a bit quieter at the moment than it was 100 years ago!  Tom's Bao Bao and The Malted Barley are just out of sight to the right. 


Step backwards one block and you can see the previous view in more context.  Liggetts must have been the CVS of it's day in this busy downtown as there is a second location only four blocks from the main location.
Liggetts showing the Hall & Lyon name as well.  Image courtesy Providence Public Library Picture Collection.


The postcard to the left is a little more recent than the others I have shown here.  It likely dates to the 1940's given the cars, clothing styles, sailors on leave and the completed Industrial Trust at the background. You can just see Gladdings at the far left, Cherry & Webb, then Shepards is beyond that.  The Boston Store can be seen further across Union, which was followed at the same location by Peerless. 


One last look East down Westminster.  The Shepard Building is always unmistakable.  Grant's Block pre-dates Grants but is full of retail stores.  No Industrial Trust and a very green East Side.

The Shepard Cafeteria!  So many locals recall this fondly.


During the mid-to late part of the 20th century, Westminster Street was paved over as a pedestrian walkway from Dorrance Street to Mathewson Street! 







Of course, having a retail store in the Arcade Providence gives me a soft spot for the location; but what a location it is!  It is the oldest indoor shopping mall in the country; on the National Register of Historic Places, is built from New England granite, fronts two main thoroughfares, survived three major downtown hurricane floods and is downright beautiful.  And, most interestingly, although it has of course changed many times during the almost 200 years it has been in operation, it always manages to still look very much the same.  I am not composing a history of the Arcade here; many already exist.  Just including it as the last section of this small tribute to the retail history of Providence.


One of the earliest photos I've seen of the Arcade.  Although you can only see a tiny bit of it to the left, it looks identical to today, but, you can see the 19th century buildings to the right of it that truly help date the image. Image is housed in the collection of the Providence Public Library. 








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