Railroads and Rivers
[Click on any image for an enlargement.]
Since the early 20th century and until recently Downtown
Providence was cut off from the magnificent Rhode Island State House
by the railroad, which included about ten tracks, many trestles,
bridges, viaducts, freight sheds, and much more infrastructure
all that prohibited physical and visual linkage with downtown. For
decades, the only means of connection was through a dark pedestrian
underpass that went to commuter cars in vast parking lots, which
further separated Downtown. Somewhere beneath the rails and asphalt
lay a polluted river, long forgotten by the city's citizens.
By the 1980s, Providence made it in to the Guinness Book of
World Records for having the widest bridge in the world
1,147 feet, all of it as a road and parking deck covering the Providence
River. Luckily, Providence was soon to lose this distinction as
it prompted by the long-sought opportunity relocated
the rails and removed bridges; moved two rivers; redesigned a tangled,
confusing freeway interchange; and reclaimed and started to redevelop
77 acres to create the Capital Center.
Moving the railroad tracks had been under consideration for decades,
with proposals starting in the 1960s. But it took until the early
1990s to realize much of this work. Today, work continues.
Railroad Station and Rail Relocation
|A Capital Idea: The Rhode Island State House
The Rhode Island State House(1895-1901) is one of Providence's
jewels. Due to its small size (at 1,214 square miles), Rhode
Island remains a city-state with Providence being
the only large city as well as the state capital. This
has bestowed upon the city both the monumental architecture
that a state government can provide. The crowning jewel is the
1900 capital building and its environs, even though it is still
poorly set in its greater context, and not connected with the
downtown area as will be seen. The presence of the state
government is a physical amenity, which has provided political
benefits to the city. Many states in America with large cities
located their capitals in other remote, small cities, placing
the monumental architecture of government in a small setting,
while depriving large cities of urban amenities.
|"View of the city of Providence as seen from
the dome of the new State House." Signed M. D. Mason, "Supplement
to Providence Sunday journal, Nov. 15, 1896." Providence
Journal Co., 1896. (Library of Congress)
Aerial view northeast toward downtown (lower right), former
railroad tracks and covered river, parking area, and the State
House (upper left), 1960s. Source: Providence
Department of Planning & Development
In 1835 the railroad came to Providence, wending its way southward
from Boston. By the 1880s, six railroads converged at downtown's
former Union Station (1847), increasing the area's importance as
a regional economic and transportation
hub. Starting in 1873, the city studied ways to improve the heavy
congestion of rail traffic. In 1889, the city adopted a plan to
fill in the tidal Cove Basin (in 1892) and bury part of the Woonasquatucket
River to provide a relocated, raised trestle for the rail track.
This work radically altered the city's character.
This relocation, and the subsequent construction of the (new) Union
Station (1896-98), helped create the present Kennedy Plaza. Today
the plaza has City Hall park with a restored fountain, a new ice-skating
rink, and a new bus transportation center all surrounded
by City Hall (1874-78) and the Biltmore Hotel (1920-22) hotel; late
19th- and 20th-century financial and commercial buildings, a Federal
Court House (1908), and a Federal Building Annex (1938-40). This
ensemble, with its variety of building types and styles, and its
range of urban infrastructure and civic amenities all in
a cohesive space serves to underscore the importance of the
new Union Station as an anchor to the plaza's north side, as a linkage
between the Downtown and State House, and as a transportation gateway
to the city, which at the turn of the century had over three hundred
trains (passenger and freight) moving though each day.
At the time, the State House (1895-1901) was being built on Smith
Hill, a kilometer to the north beyond Cove Basin. At first, the
new Union Station was to be built in the Richardson Romanesque style.
But this was changed to its present classical design to relate to
the architecture of City Hall and the new State House.
Union Station is a 100,000 square-foot complex of five structures
constructed by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.
The complex originally consisted of five buildings symmetrically
arranged on an axis, all with granite foundations, yellow mottled
brick walls, and red sandstone trim. The eastern most section of
the station burned in 1941. After that, matters got worse
at least until the 1970s. Starting after World War II, car, air,
and bus travel was favored. By the 1950s, the number of trains into
Providence had decreased 75 percent.
At that time, Union Station was nominated to the National Register
of Historic Places. In its description the nomination reports, "Today,
Union Station is in a state of extreme disrepair. Maintenance of
the complex has been almost totally ignored for twenty years. The
few "repairs" that have been made (e.g. removing the colonnades
and train shed) have generally been detrimental in nature. In spite
of this, the station is still structurally sound, and it retains
a hint of its former grandeur."
Today Union Station survives beautifully restored
unlike New York City's Pennsylvania Central Station, which was demolished
in 1965. Its tragic loss served as an impetus for preservation efforts
and policies nationwide, starting with the National Historic Preservation
Act in 1966, and sustained by much effort and many events, including
America's bicentennial celebration in 1976.
In 1976, a study of the rehabilitation potential of Union Station
was funded, in part by the AMTRAK [railroad] Improvement Act of
1974. The resulting report, Union Station Providence: A study
for reuse, by Anderson, Notter Associates, concluded that the
station could be "imaginatively rehabilitated to serve contemporary
functions while preserving its architectural integrity." A
mixed use was proposed, including retail, restaurant and entertainment,
government offices, and a transportation center. The major shortcoming
was a perceived lack of parking, and so ample parking was proposed
near the station.
On April 26, 1987, ten months after the new AMTRAK train station
opened near the State House, the vacant Union Station suffered a
devastating fire just as developers were planning to invest
$11 million for adaptive use as a retail location. Fortunately,
the North American headquarters of London-based Cookson America
chose to locate its American headquarters in the central terminal;
the Providence Chamber of Commerce occupied the westernmost building,
and remaining space was occupied by offices and restaurants. Following
Cookson America's departure, the states community foundation
(the Rhode Island Foundation) occupied the central space, making
it (once again) accessible to the public. The foundation makes meeting
space available at low or no cost; it has an art gallery; and its
philanthropic endeavors are a magnet for urban vitality.
Capital Center Commission
In 1976, America's bicentennial celebration helped coalesce
the many locate and state preservation efforts many that
began as a reaction to urban renewal, and as a realization of the
wealth and potential of remaining history. That year, Congress approved
a billion-dollar plan for high-speed train service from Washington
to Boston. This made available money to carry out a long-considered
plan: to relocate the tracks and trestles that had divided downtown
|Union Station, restored, and occupied by The Rhode Island
Foundation. (September 2002)
Meanwhile, the Capital Center Plan was developed (in 1979), followed
by formation of the Capital Center District (in 1981). Subsequently,
to achieve this work, the Capital Center Commission was established
by the State enabling legislation in 1981 (updated 1993) and City
ordinance in 1982. The Commission coordinated development and establishes
and enforces design criteria and regulations Capital Center District,
a special development district. The Commission reviews and approves
all public and private sector development plans and improvements
in conformance with the Design and Development Regulations.
The Capital Center District includes 77 acres of real estate surrounding
the State House and abutting downtown. Approximately 49 acres of
property are held in private ownership; approximately 28 acres are
in public ownership. The district is not an historic district, although
individual properties are listed on the National Register. Union
Station, and its restoration, was a key component of this plan.
The objectives of the initial plan were to: create marketable land
for a new commercial sector of Providence; to enhance access not
only to the project area but also to downtown Providence; to provided
an ordered set of diverse public open spaces; and to create visual
and physical linkages between downtown Providence and Smith Hill
(the State House).
A master plan was developed by the architectural firm of Skidmore,
Owens and Merrill. It included a new railroad station, streets,
bridges, a small cove (in the existing riverway), and 12 parcels
(now expanded to 15) for commercial development.
In 1979, the Providence Rail Relocation Concept Planning Report
was developed by Deleuw Cather / Parsons and Skidmore, Owings &
Merrill. This study, " concluded that it would be physically
and operationally feasible to relocate the railroad and to construct
a new station. This study also concluded that the costs of construction
would exceed the established NECIP [project] funding for the proposed
project. To make the project feasible, the City and State together
identified additional sources of funds..." Added funding was
provided by the city, state, other federal sources, and the railroad.
The private sector invested in rehabilitation of Union Station..
Armed with this information, a Rhode Island senator lobbied for
federal support of the rail relocation, which was approved. Work
began in 1983, with the federal government funding 70 percent of
the project, and the city, state and railroad paying for the rest.
With the railway relocated, a new station was built near the State
House, which opened up the potential for adaptive use of the old
railroad station, and it made possible a connection between the
previously inaccessible Capital Center area and Downtown (also called
|Waterplace Park, view to the east, with new construction at
the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers
to the left (northeast) and the rehabilitated Union Station
to the right (south), (August 2002)
|Riverwalk,view to the west, upstream toward Waterplace,
with the Providence Place Mall in the distance. (September 2002)
The 1979 master plan developed by Skidmore, Owens and Merrill (SOM)
included plenty of new infrastructure and improvements. But this
$110 million project missed an opportunity to address the rivers:
at the time little more than slow-moving and polluted. These rivers
were an unconsidered part of the problem: in fact, the SOM plan
favored paving over more of the rivers. Instead, the rivers became
part of the solution, as conceived and developed by William Warner,
a Rhode Island architect.
The rivers had been abused and neglected for decades. Remember
that by the 1980s, Guinness Book of World Records listed
Providence as having the widest bridge in the world 1,147
feet, all of it as a parking deck covering the polluted rivers.
With the help of the Providence Foundation, and added funding from
the National Endowment for the Arts, Warners plan received
preliminary project funding and approval in November 1984 for Phase
I: realignment of the Woonasquatucket River along its natural course;
relocation and conservation of a World War I Memorial (around what
was known as suicide circle: a vehicular roundabout); and
construction of Waterplace and the first section of Riverwalk, to
include an open-air auditorium surround a cove, new streets, Venetian-style
bridges, parks, cobblestoned pedestrian walkways, pavilions, sculptures,
fountains, and more, all along the rivers and connecting to the
greater downtown. Boat landings are accessible from the Riverwalk,
and canoes, kayaks, and gondolas are frequently seen on plying the
waters. Riverwalk, including Waterplace, is the site of Providence's
Waterfire, a nationally acclaimed multimedia installation that features
over sixty small fires illuminating the river.
The scope of even this first phase rivals the large-scale urban
renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet this Downtown project
did not displace residents (largely because no one was living in
The Center's parcels include the State House, new railroad station;
parking lots and vacant land (to be developed); the restored Union
Station, with offices, retail, restaurants; new construction (mimicking
the Union Station in form, scale and materials) including a hotel;
and nearby, the site of the new Providence Place Mall.
The restored Union Station and adjacent City Hall park, Riverwalk
and Waterplace, and a new boulevard (planned since the 1870s) have
done so much to claim this land as a vital part of an expanded downtown.
Yet a complete connection between Downcity and the hill has not
been achieved. There remain vacant, large parcels scattered between
new construction whose scale is perhaps too large, yet whose grandeur
As noted in a January 1994 report, by the year 2000, the Capital
Center was to have over one million square feet of retail space,
2 to 2-1/2 million square feet of office space, one thousand hotel
rooms, five hundred residential units, ten thousand permanent jobs.
Yet today at Capital Center, more than a third of the development
parcels remain empty, even after two decades of growth citywide.
Even with empty lots, construction of the Providence Place Mall
has partially obscured the viewway of the State House site. Memorial
Boulevard, a new access road, connects the East Side of the city
to Route I-95, allowing motorists to bypass the often-congested
Kennedy Plaza. However, this boulevard is so wide it promotes fast
traffic and it acts as a barrier to Riverwalk and points north.
Despite these points, this inspired and inspiring
rail and river relocation project has expanded the Downtown area
and connected it with the greater Downtown. And, also, so it has
expanded the opportunities Providence holds for preservation and
new work well in to this century.
Railroads and Rivers : Sources Cited and Resources
The Capital Center Project, Providence, Rhode Island: Design
and Development Criteria incorporating revisions in response to
the relocation of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers,
The Capital Center Commission, July 11, 1985, amended August 8,
Capital Center, January 1994, factual summary, typed.
Notter, George M., Jr., et al. Union Station Providence: A study
for reuse, Anderson, Notter Associates, January 15, 1976
Providence Rail Relocation Concept Planning Report, Northeast
Corridor Improvement Project, Providence Station, Providence, Rhode
Island, Deleuw Cather / Parsons; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
/ Project Architects, November 1979
The Rhode Island Foundation
Union Station, National Register Form, Rhode Island Historical
Preservation & Heritage Commission
Union Station, Providence, Rhode Island: Development Prospectus,
Rhode Island Department of Economic Development, n.d. (c.1986)