The Arcade

The Arcade

The nation's oldest indoor shopping mall!

National Historic Landmark plaque
(February 22, 2014).

65 Weybosset Street/130 Westminster Street, Providence
(401) 454-4568

This is where it all began.

The Arcade, a building designed to look like a Greek temple to commerce, is the country's oldest indoor shopping mall. Built entirely of granite in 1828 (when Providence's population numbered only 14,000), it was not only the first commercial venture established on the west side of the Providence River, it was the city's first monumental business building as well.

1828 rendering of Arcade
1828 depiction of the Arcade.

1868 stereoview of Arcade interior
A stereoview look at the interior of the Arcade, circa 1868.

The 216-foot structure was designed by architects Russell Warren and James C. Bucklin, and construction was overseen by Cyrus Butler. The Arcade's twelve massive twenty-one-foot granite columns, which were quarried from the Bare Ledge Quarry in Johnston and dragged fifteen miles to the construction site by a team of thirty oxen, were the largest monolithic columns in the country at the time, weighing in at thirteen tons a piece. The total cost of the building was $145,000. According to this inflation calculator, that would be $3,416,078 in 2019 dollars, but of course that number doesn't include the cost added by today's safety regulations, building codes, union contracts, etc.

Early 20th century postcard view contrasting the Arcades facades
An early twentieth-century postcard highlighting the Arcade's contrasting facades.

Although the building is otherwise mostly symmetrical, the Weybossett and Westminster Street facades are very different: the Westminster Street side is crowned with a pediment, and the Weybosset Street entrance is topped off by a stepped parapet. The story goes that the architects couldn't agree on a single unified design, so they each put their own stamp on the building. Robert Alexander, in an article in the October 1953 issue of The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, however, argued that Warren and Bucklin were not, as has been supposed, equal partners in the design of the Arcade. Alexander believed that Bucklin acted more as a consultant to Warren, and that Warren was responsible for the majority of the design decisions. Alexander further posited that the design of the stepped parapet resulted from a combination of economics, simplicity, and aesthetics. A stepped parapet, made of cut granite blocks, is cheaper and easier to build than a pediment, which requires diagonal cuts. Moreover, at the time the Arcade was built it was its own context—no other building stood near it on the west side of the Providence River. The Westminster Street end was considered the main entrance and so was given the more expensive design treatment.

Circa 1890 exterior view by photographer P.H. Rose.
The Westminster Street side, photographed by P.H. Rose, circa 1890.

Circa 1890 interior view by photographer P.H. Rose.
A circa 1890 interior view by photographer by P.H. Rose.

An interesting artifact that dates from the building of the Arcade can still be seen in one of the west end pillars. The quarrying and carving of the pillars was supervised by Joseph Olney. One of the pillars had a small defect, and to hide it, Olney's son, Joseph Jr., carved a plug out of soapstone, snugged it in place, and marked it with the date and his initials. The soapstone came from another spot in Johnston, the Indian soapstone quarry, located just off Hartford Avenue.

Joseph Olney Jr's soapstone plug
Joseph Olney Jr's soapstone plug. (July 1, 2006)

The building was once named by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as one of the finest commercial buildings in the history of American architecture, and it has also been designated a National Historic Landmark. In addition to its impressive exterior, it boasts a huge glass skylight, supported by wooden beams, that runs the length of the building and floods the open area between the three floors with natural light. Shops on the second and third levels are connected by long, open balconies overlooking the ground floor.

Flooded Weybosset Street, post-Hurricane Carol, 1954
Pedestrians huddle on the Weybosset Street steps of the Arcade in the aftermath of Hurricane Carol, around September 1, 1954. (From Hurricane, published by the Livermore and Knight Company, 1954).

The building has survived a fire and three hurricanes, but the Arcade has never been profitable for any of its owners, and in 1944 it was very nearly demolished. While it was saved by the Rhode Island Association for the Blind (which bought it as an investment), the building suffered over the next few decades from deferred maintenance and a lack of tenants. Nevertheless, the Arcade was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and a three million-dollar refurbishment in 1980 brought shine back to the old girl. The Arcade in the 1980s and '90s was once again a bustling center of commerce.

Weybosset Street entrance, April 1958, photo by Tilley
Weybosset Street entrance, photo by Lawrence E. Tilley, April 1958. Tilley was an industrial photographer with an office in The Arcade. ([item number],[item title], Lawrence E. Tilley Photograph Collection, Special Collections, Providence Public Library).

Weybosset Street entrance, April 1958, photo by Tilley
Interior photo by Lawrence E. Tilley, April 1958. ([item number],[item title], Lawrence E. Tilley Photograph Collection, Special Collections, Providence Public Library).

Incidentally, Cleveland, Ohio's, Old Arcade (1890), Seattle, Washington's, Northgate Mall (1950), Appleton, Wisconsin's, Valley Fair Shopping Center (1955), and Edina, Minnesota's, Southdale Center (1956) all claim to be the country's oldest/first indoor/enclosed shopping mall. Losers.

Westminster Street entrance, September 2000
Westminster Street entrance. (September 7, 2000).

Weybosset Street entrance, September 2000
Interior views. (September 7, 2000).

Interior views, September 2000
Weybosset Street entrance. (September 7, 2000).

North side of building exposed by demolition of neighboring building, March 2006
Demolition of a neighboring building to the north exposed a side of the Arcade not seen in decades. (March 25, 2006).

Update, December 1, 2008: The Arcade closed today and will remain closed for the foreseeable future. The building's owner, Granoff Associates, had planned an eight million dollar renovation to convert the property from a collection of independent shops to space for a single company or retailer, but because of the economic downturn, those plans were put on hold.

Update, September 26, 2010: The Providence Preservation Society issued its annual list of the city's ten most endangered buildings. The still-closed Arcade was number one.

Locked and empty, December 2011
Locked and empty. (December 3, 2011).

Update, January 25, 2012: New plans for the Arcade include a major seven million dollar renovation with fourteen shops and restaurants on the first floor, and forty-eight affordable micro-lofts on the second and third. The restaurants will have separate entrances so that they can operate past the 9pm closing time of the retail floor. As part of the renovation, long-bricked-up windows along the length of both sides of the building will be opened up.

Architect's cross-section showing new retail and living space, 2013
Architect's cross-section showing new retail and living space, 2013. (From

Update, October 21, 2013: The Arcade re-opened, partially, with a ribbon-cutting by Providence Mayor Angel Tavares, Governor Lincoln Chafee, and owner/developer Evan Granoff. Eleven out of seventeen shops were ready for customers. Still to come—the balance of the shops and forty-eight micro-lofts on the upper floors.

Update, December 2013: Management began going through the waiting list of potential tenants for the micro-lofts. With no lack of interested candidates (the list was reported to contain some 4,000 names), the units soon filled up. Over the coming months the Arcade will be featured in dozens of national news and magazine stories trumpeting the newest trend of downsized living.

Update, January 15, 2014: The Arcade's last retail space was filled with the opening of Environs, a "stylish gifts, home decor, and more" store.

A couple of views of the renovated retail floor, February 2014.
A couple of views of the renovated retail floor. (February 22, 2014).

Update, January 2020: The announcement that The Arcade was going condo triggered an exodus of retail tenants from the building. All stores, with the exception of Lovecraft Arts and Sciences, left for greener pastures rather than purchase their spaces.

Cost: to look, free; to consume, flash the cash; to live, $130,000 to $140,000 (as of 2020)

Hours: Open Monday to Saturday, 10am-6:30pm; individual restaurants with dedicated entrances may be open later.

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