by Michael Bell

Gone but not forgotten.

The Outlet Company Department Store, 168-176 Weybosset, downtown Providence, circa 1980.
Photo by Warren Jagger.

The demise of the Outlet Company was a result of more than just local trends. The fate of the Outlet was closely tied to the fate of Providence's downtown commercial district, which, in turn, reflected national trends in transportation choices, settlement patterns and retail merchandising. The rise and fall of the Outlet Company mirrors the rise and fall of downtown Providence as well as the rise and fall of downtown department stores nationwide.

Following the British occupation of Newport during the Revolutionary War, Providence became Rhode Island's most important commercial center. Accessibility created the present downtown, transforming a neighborhood of houses, churches, shops, and wharves into a commercial, retail, civic, and transportation center. This process accelerated during the nineteenth century as Rhode Island's economic base dramatically increased the rate and scale of downtown commercial development. Providence's central business district experienced its major period of growth between 1830 and 1930.

Providence's distinct retail district emerged during and after the Civil War, a prosperous era when shops moved steadily west from Market Square and Turks Head. The booming retail business stimulated construction of new stores west of Dorrance Street along Washington, Westminster, and Weybosset Streets. These included both well-established but small specialized shops and the recently-conceived department store, which offered a complete range of goods to the buying public. Following the lead of Paris (1852) and New York (1859), Providence acquired its first department store in 1866, the Boston Store, located on Westminster Street. Its success stimulated the growth of competitors, and this part of downtown soon became the major retail focus.

The Outlet was established in 1891 by brothers Leon and Joseph Samuels. Located in the newly built Hodges Building, on Weybosset Street, the Outlet immediately began competing with the full-service Shepard's Department Store. Both stores stocked furniture, housewares, clothing, books, cosmetics, and foodstuffs, and both eventually acquired radio stations.

In contrast to other, larger cities, Providence did not build its department stores all at once. The Boston Store, Shepard's, and the Outlet expanded cautiously from their original locations, building additions as success and increased customer demand warranted. One could see three distinct building campaigns in the Outlet's facade, all connected visually through the use of windows grouped vertically under colossal arches (the open-plan arrangement of the interior also masked this gradual expansion). By the 1920s, the Outlet had grown to occupy the entire block, bounded by Weybosset, Eddy, Pine, and Garnet streets.

The Outlet Company again expanded in the 1960s, acquiring stores and radio and television stations throughout the country. However, the prosperity and growth enjoyed by Providence dwindled during the post-war decades: between 1945 and 1985, the city's population declined by 40 percent. In just the decade between 1950 and 1960, Providence lost 17 percent of its populations (leading the nation in this statistic) .

Where the Outlet used to be, now Johnson & Wales University dormitories.
Photo © 1997 Dwight Primiano.

During the urban renewal of the 1960s and 1970s, Westminster Street was transformed into a pedestrian mall. Intended to revitalize the downtown retail center, this attempt at urban renewal seemed to hasten its decline. In 1981, the Outlet Company sold the original downtown retail store (and other stores) to United Department Stores; one year later, the Outlet closed its doors. Its demise reflected not the decline of the department store per se, but the rise of suburban shopping malls, where several department stores—regional or national chains—thrived.

While debate continued regarding the ultimate fate of the building, the question was settled by a suspicious fire on October 16, 1986. The Outlet block on Weybosset Street was subsequently bought by the expanding Johnson & Wales University. The university cleared the site and built dormitories. The clock tower on the site was taken from the adjacent broadcast building, also once owned by the Outlet Company. It is, perhaps, the site's only tangible trace of the Outlet's former splendor.

Pick Another Invisible Landmark

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires.

This article last edited December 10, 2001

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