The Rhode Island State House.

A defective cannon, a fake Liberty Bell, some moon dust, and a convicted felon.

82 Smith Street, Providence
(401) 222-2357
sos.ri.gov

For the last one hundred years, the Rhode Island State House has loomed paternally over Providence from the crest of Smith Hill.

Actually, it doesn't seem to loom quite as much as it used to, as the view of the Capitol building's marble dome was blocked to travelers on Route 95 north by the construction of the Providence Place Mall in 1999. Additionally, three new skyscrapers went up next to Waterplace Park between 2006 and 2010—the headquarters of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island and the two towers of Waterplace Luxury Residences—extending downtown's cluster of tall buildings to the north north. At the rate Providence is growing, a day may come when the State House is surrounded by numerous skyscrapers that loom far more efficiently, if less grandly, than it ever did. That would be a shame, because it really is an impressive building.

The Rhode Island State House houses the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, general treasurer, the chambers of the Senate, the House of Representatives, the offices of the speaker of the house, Senate, and House majority and minority leaders, and the State Archives.

Touring the Building

As of April 2003, all State House visitors must pass through a metal detector. It's not that big a deal, just so long as you leave your weapons, illegal drugs, and pictures of children and animals in compromising positions at home. If you'd like to take a self-guided tour of the Capitol Building, head to the Visitors Center on the first floor, or up to the Secretary of State's office in room 217, for a free Rhode Island State House Guide. Guided tours are also offered by appointment. Or check out the info below to hit the highlights.

The North Portico

Enter the building via the north entrance and check out the cannon on display to your left (increased security may make it difficult to get close enough to read the display text, but be polite and respectful to the security staff and maybe they'll allow you access). What makes this bronze Napoleon twelve-pounder especially noteworthy is that it doesn't work. (Most people throw out their broken toys. Here in Rhode Island we put them on public display.)

The gun was one of six used by the First Rhode Island Light Artillery, Battery B, at the Battle of Gettysburg. At around 1pm on July 3, 1863, just before General George Pickett's assault on Union lines, two cannoneers were reloading this weapon when it was struck on the left side of the bore by a Confederate shell. You can still see the dent. The No. 1 gunner, William Jones, was killed instantly when a fragment of the shell tore off the left side of his head. The No. 2 gunner, Alfred G. Gardiner, lost his left arm. He died within minutes, reportedly shouting "Glory to God! Hallelujah! Amen!" in some sort of pain- and shock-induced religious delirium. The muzzle of the gun was altered by the heat of the explosion, and efforts to reload it with new shot were unsuccessful despite attempts to whack the ball into place with a hammer and axe. As the barrel cooled, it contracted, wedging the cannonball firmly inside, where it remains today.

Jones and Gardiner weren't the only ones in the company to meet their maker that day. By the time the battle ended, Battery B had been so hard hit that it had to be combined with another artillery unit.

A brass plaque mounted on the barrel of the gun reads:

U.S.
BATTERY B
R.I. LIGHT ARTILLERY

This gun was disabled
during the cannonade at
GETTYSBURG
July 3, 1863.
At the point where
PICKETT'S DIVISION
made the charge upon the
Union lines.
WILLIAM JONES and
ALFRED G. GARDINER
were killed by a
rebel shell while placing
the shot in its muzzle.

For a time the gun was placed on display in Washington, DC, where it served as witness to the ferocity of the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1874 the cannon was returned to the State of Rhode Island at the request of Battery B veterans. The twelve-pounder traveled once more in 1988, under the aegis of a recreated Civil War Battery B unit, when it joined in a re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

In 1962 someone realized that since the cannonball had never been removed from the muzzle of the gun, two-and-a-half pounds of black gunpowder must still be inside the barrel. Members of the Rhode Island National Guard's Army Corps of Engineers drilled holes in the barrel and submerged it in water so that the powder could be removed safely. Thus, tourists like yourself are now safe from the trauma of surprise cannonballs to the face.

There's another cannon on the right side of the entrance. It was used by the First Regiment, Rhode Island Light Artillery, in the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Look at it if you want, but once you've seen the Gettysburg Gun, all others pale in comparison. In glass cases behind each of the cannon are old, rotting Rhode Island battle flags from wars dating back to the Revolution.

The Rotunda

Now head up the stairs to the center landing and look up at the interior of the dome. You'll see the striking murals, depicting events in Rhode Island's early history, that were designed by James A. King when the State House was refurbished in the mid-1940s. The murals are known collectively as "The Four Freedoms." "The Land Grant" shows Roger Williams receiving the first land grant, an area bounded by the Moshassuck, Woonasquatucket, and Pawtucket Rivers, from Narragansett Indian Chiefs Canonicus and Miantonomi. "Religious Tolerance" shows the settlers in prayer and worship, representing Rhode Island as a place of refuge from religious persecution. Settlers are shown enjoying the freedom to build a foundation for growth in "Origins of Construction," and "Beginnings of Industry" illustrates the sort of self-sustaining activities settlers engaged in which formed the basis for industrialized growth. King was too ill to undertake the painting himself, so the murals were actually painted by George DeFelice, Robert C. Haun, and Victor Zucchi.

A quote from the first century Roman historian Tacitus is carved around the interior of the dome:

RARA TEMPORUM FELICITAS UBI SENTIRE QUAE VELIS ET QUAE SENTIAS DICERE LICET

Which means, "Rare felicity of the times when it is permitted to think as you like and say what you think."

Below the dome are four medallions that depict Education, Justice, Literature, and Commerce, personified as women in Greco-Roman attire and flanked by cherubim.

Now look down. In the center of the Rotunda is a brass representation of the state seal, adopted in 1875, which includes an anchor and our state motto, the word "Hope." It is in this place of honor that high state government officials (governors, senators, etc.) may lie in state for a day or two following their deaths.

The South Portico

Continue forward, down the stairs, to the South Portico. On your left is a replica of the Liberty Bell, complete with repaired crack. The United States Department of the Treasury donated a similar replica to each of the fifty states in 1950.

On your right is a memorial to the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The memorial, designed by Peter Diepenbrock, consists of nine layers of glass gilded with gold leaf so as to suggest a 3-D representation of the Twin Towers, suspended within a glass and brass case. The piece was unveiled on September 11, 2002.

The Senate Chamber

Return to the Rotunda landing and take the stairs up to your right. The Senate Chamber, measuring fifty-six by forty-four feet with a forty-five-foot ceiling, is directly in front of you. The Senate is made up of thirty-eight members, each of whom has his or her own mahogany desk with a microphone and call buttons. Members are elected for terms of two years. Decorative elements in this room include the seals of the thirteen original colonies in the arch over the gallery. Rhode Island's is in the center.

Portraits of the Governors

Move to the right of the Senate Chamber and examine at the painting hanging between the doors to rooms 219 and 220. A resolution passed by the General Assembly on May 25, 1895, decreed that the halls of the new State House would be liberally decorated with portraits of past Rhode Island colonial and state governors. This one is of Edward DiPrete (governor 1985-'91) who was convicted on eighteen counts of racketeering, extortion, and bribery in 1999. (Please note that portraits may move around, depending on who is in office at the time, and how they feel about each individual past governor.)

A Woman's Place…

…is finally in the State House, with the addition, in Spring 2002, of a bronze bust of Elizabeth Buffum Chace (1806-'99), located in a small alcove across from a granite statue dedicated to the Coast Guard. Chace is the first woman ever to be so honored in the Rhode Island State House. She beat out thirty-six other notable Rhode Island women, including Christiana Bannister, an ardent abolitionist and booster of African-American artists, and Anne Hutchinson, one of the founders of the town of Portsmouth. Elizabeth Buffum Chace was an abolitionist and an outspoken proponent of the women's suffrage movement. Her house on the corner of Hunt and Broad Streets in Central Falls was a very active station on the Underground Railroad from 1835 to 1845.

A full-length, flesh-and-blood woman finally elbowed her way into the ranks of Rhode Island governors with the election of Gina Marie Raimondo in 2014.

The State Reception Room

Now continue clockwise around the rotunda to the State Reception Room, part of the Governor's office, which is the most lavish of the public rooms. Decorated in Louis XIV style with marble pilasters lining the walls, the room contains the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, one of two identical pieces commissioned by the Rhode Island Legislature in 1800, following Washington's death. The other hangs in the Senate Chamber of the Old Colony House in Newport. It's said that Washington's toe seems to point at you no matter where you stand in the room.

Various displays of historical artifacts have shared this space with Washington's wandering toe. For instance, for many years there was a small display containing a tiny Rhode Island flag and small bits of rock encased in Lucite. The appended caption read:

This flag of your state was carried
to the Moon and back by Apollo 11, and
this fragment of the Moon's surface was
brought to Earth by the crew of that first
manned lunar landing.

Our website architect, Dan, remembers that, as a twelve-year-old on a class trip, he was pretty impressed by the moon rocks; as he pressed his fingers to the smooth surface of the Lucite, he could hardly believe that he was almost, but not quite, touching a piece of another world. If you're ever lucky enough to see them you'd do well to cultivate the same sense of childlike wonder, setting aside the fact that the moon rocks look like something you'd vacuum off the floor of your car.

A similar plaque with a flag and a much larger hunk of lunar rock can be viewed at the State Archives, 335 Westminster Street in Providence. They were brought to Earth by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972.

Another glass case contained a silver service designed by William C. Codman, of the Gorham Manufacturing Company in Providence, for the battleship U.S.S. Rhode Island in 1907. Decorative elements such as quahogs, Indian corn, turkey heads, seaweed, and historic scenes are incorporated into the design. The whole service weighs a little more than 375 pounds.

Large French doors open south off the State Reception Room onto the Governor's Balcony, which offers sweeping views of downtown Providence. Every four years, on Inauguration Day, the High Sheriff of Providence County, dressed like a vaudeville entertainer, reads the formal Proclamation of Election of the Governor from this high perch as the adoring masses look on from below. It's like a scene from Evita except no one is singing. There is gunfire, though, as the newly elected Governor receives a nineteen-gun salute. (Contrary to popular belief, twenty-one-gun salutes are used only when saluting national heads of state, national flags and members of reigning royal families. Salutes for lesser personages step down, based upon rank, in increments of two.)

The House Chamber

Continuing clockwise from the State Reception Room will bring you to the House Chamber and the State House Library. The House of Representatives is made up of seventy-five members, also elected for two-year terms. Their desks are rigged much like those in the Senate, but theirs are made of oak. Like the Senate Chamber, the House Chamber has a viewing area where the public is allowed to watch the yawn-provoking legislative process.

The U.S.S. Rhode Island

A large bell outside the House Chamber was originally used to ring the time of day aboard the battleship U.S.S. Rhode Island. Launched in 1904 and commissioned in 1906, the Rhode Island joined fifteen other battleships and four destroyers to form the Great White Fleet (so called because they were painted white) in December 1907. As part of his "Speak softly and carry a big stick" policy, President Theodore Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet on a fourteen-month tour around the world beginning in July 1908. The Rhode Island State House Coloring Book describes this as a "good will tour" but it was really a show of naval might designed to cow the Japanese and demonstrate to the rest of the world the ease with which the United States could move a large naval force from the Atlantic to the Pacific theaters.

During World War I the Rhode Island served in Battleship Division 3, Atlantic Fleet, as an antisubmarine patrol boat. After the war it operated as a transport ship ferrying troops home from France. In June 1920, after a career that spanned only sixteen years, the Rhode Island was decommissioned.

The State House Library

Turning the corner again in a clockwise direction brings you to the library. Used primarily by legislators researching legal and historical matters, its 155,000 volumes are also available for use by the public during State House hours.

The Royal Charter of 1663

For your last interior stop, find your way back downstairs toward the entrance, but hang a right before the last set of stairs. Down this hall on the right you'll find the Charter Museum. Upon entering, pause a moment to allow your eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. The lighting is dim because there are several very old and irreplaceable artifacts in here that might be damaged by prolonged exposure to light.

Chief among those items, of course, is the original Royal Charter of 1663, granted by King Charles II, and under which Rhode Island was governed until 1843. The Charter is important and unique because it guaranteed Rhode Islanders freedom of religion, a separation between church and state, and the right of self-government. No other colony was granted such freedoms. It was in large part because of these freedoms that Rhode Island refused to ratify the U.S. Constitution until the Bill of Rights had been added.

For most of the twentieth century the Charter was housed in a big blue vault outside the Senate chamber. In 2013, the document's 350th anniversary, the vault was moved into this room, and in 2014, the Charter was encased in a new, state-of-the art enclosure to ensure its preservation for generations to come.

When you're done squinting at the artifacts on display, head next door to the Visitors Center and gift shop for a souvenir of your visit to the Rhode Island State House.

Additional Activity Suggestions

At this point you may be tempted to spice up your visit by wandering into as many offices as you can. Better yet, check out the restrooms where generations of Rhode Island leaders have attended to their private necessities. On the other hand, if your necessities involve consumption rather than elimination, why not sample the cuisine that keeps your leaders going throughout the day? There's a small cafe in the basement, open weekdays from 8am to 2pm.

The Exterior

With your arms now full of State House-related collectibles, you should step outside and admire the stern majesty of the Rhode Island State House. Circumnavigate the building and check out the words carved into the marble over the pillared porticoes. The North Portico features a chronology of Rhode Island History:

PROVIDENCE PLANTATIONS FOUNDED BY ROGER WILLIAMS 1636
PROVIDENCE PORTSMOUTH NEWPORT INCORPORATED BY PARLIAMENT 1643
RHODE ISLAND AND PROVIDENCE PLANTATIONS OBTAINED ROYAL CHARTER 1663
IN GENERAL ASSEMBLY DECLARED A SOVEREIGN STATE MAY 4, 1776

Over the South Portico there's a quote from the Royal Charter of 1663:

TO HOLD FORTH A LIVELY EXPERIMENT
THAT A MOST FLOURISHING CIVIL STATE MAY STAND
AND BEST BE MAINTAINED WITH FULL LIBERTY
IN RELIGIOUS CONCERNMENTS

Two bronze statues flank the wide marble stairs facing downtown Providence. They are of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and General Nathanael Greene, native sons counted among our nation's greatest heroes. Perry is known for his 1813 defeat of the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, while Greene is considered by historians to be one of the Revolutionary War's greatest generals, second only to George Washington. Greene's statue was created by Henri Schinhardt and was dedicated on April 4, 1931.

The Independent Man

Standing atop the dome, 224 feet above the terrace, is the statue of the Independent Man, a somewhat doughy-looking fellow who is the symbol of Rhode Island's independent spirit. He holds a spear in one hand and leans on the stock of an anchor with the other. Designed by George T. Brewster, he was cast from 500 pounds of bronze by the Gorham Manufacturing Company and stands eleven feet tall. The bronze came from a statue of Simón Bolívar in New York's Central Park that was deemed to be less than aesthetically pleasing. The Independent Man was placed on top of the dome on December 18, 1899.

The origin of the name "Independent Man" is unclear. Originally, the figure was to have been a statue of Roger Williams, but Charles McKim, architect of the building, vetoed the suggestion on the grounds that no one knew what he looked like. It was later reported that the idea of "the independent man" evolved out of discussions of the rejection of Roger Williams as model for the figure.

Speaking of models, click here for the story of one possible life model for the Independent Man.

The Independent Man was damaged by lightning in 1927 and forty-two copper-plated staples were required to hold him together. Further repair work was done in situ in 1951. On August 9, 1975, the statue was removed from the dome for the first time for extensive repairs and renovation, including a new coat of gold leaf. While he reclined in a warehouse, inquisitive reporters took the opportunity to determine whether he was anatomically correct under his bronze bear skin. He was found to be severely lacking in any sex differentiation of that sort. (This, however, was not repaired.) He was returned to his pedestal by helicopter just under a year later, on July 20, 1976.

In the late 1990s, a reproduction of the Independent Man was installed outside the food court at the Warwick Mall, giving the general public their own opportunity to check out golden boy's nether regions.

Construction

In 1890 the Rhode Island General Assembly created a commission to obtain plans for a new State House to replace the original State House, erected in 1761. On September 16, 1895, ground was broken on Smith Hill for the construction of a building based upon the designs of Charles Follen McKim, of the New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White. The cornerstone was laid October 15, 1896, while Charles Warren Lippitt was Governor, and in December 1900, the Secretary of State and his staff became the first to occupy offices. The Governor, other state officers, and the General Assembly followed on January 1, 1901. On June 11, 1904, the new capitol building, terrace, approaches and grounds were officially turned over to the state by the architects and builders. The building, power house, connecting tunnel, furnishings and decorations cost $3,018,416.33—quite a bit of money for the time. Depending on the source, replacement value has been estimated to be around either $25,000,000 or $500,000,000.

We did our own checking of these numbers using an online inflation calculator. Accordingly, what was worth $3,018,416.33 in 1904 would be worth $78,320,616.85 in 2014. We can only assume that the higher estimate above takes into account cost overruns, embezzlement, union slowdowns and strikes, state and federal regulations, payoffs, stolen equipment and materials, workers' compensation benefits, lawsuits, environmental impact statements and low-numbered license plates for the site foreman's daughter and brother. The lower estimate must represent a typical low-ball bid.

Approximately 327,000 cubic feet of white Georgia marble, 1,309 tons of iron floor beams and 15,000,000 bricks were used in the construction of the building, which measures 333 feet in length and 189 feet through the central vestibule section. The State House boasts the fourth largest of the four famous unsupported marble domes in the world, measuring fifty feet in diameter. The other three are Saint Peter's Basillica in Rome, the Minnesota State Capitol, and the Taj Mahal. "Unsupported" does not mean that the dome floats magically in the air, but that its marble blocks are held together by tension and gravity, like an igloo. No mortar or metal bands were used in its construction.

The Rhode Island State House follows the form established for bicameral legislative buildings by the United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC. It includes a central entrance rotunda flanked by two wings. The resemblance to our nation's Capitol Building was strong enough, in fact, that in 1997 Stephen Spielberg chose the Rhode Island State House to play that part in the motion picture Amistad.

The Rhode Island State House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

2012 C-Span3 video on The Rhode Island State House narrated by then-Secretary of State Ralph Mollis and Stephen Hourahan, senior advisor to Governor Lincoln Chafee:

Information

Tours: self-guided tours during business hours; guided tours by appointment only

Cost: free

Time required: allow at least an hour

Hours: Monday-Friday, 8:30am-4:30pm, except holidays

Finding it: From Route 95 North, take exit 23 for State Offices; at Orms Street go straight across on State Street to the State House.
From Route 95 South, take exit 23; turn right at the bottom of the ramp onto Charles Street, then take the next left onto Ashburton Street; continue straight through two sets of lights to a third set at the foot of Smith Street; turn right up the hill to the State House.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to potholes or flag-burning tigers. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited September 11, 2015

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