Rhode Island State House Tour
During the 1800s, the Rhode Island General Assembly rotated its meetings among the state’s five county courthouses. The courthouse in Providence was known then as the Providence Colony House, with the others named after the other counties of Kent, Bristol, Washington, and Newport.
The Old State House
Today the Providence Colony House is known as the Old State House. It is located in the city of Providence, Providence County, on a hill facing Main Street and overlooking the Roger Williams National Memorial park. Completed in 1762, it was designed in a Georgian architectural style by an unknown architect, but similar to the design of the Newport Colony House by the architect Richard Munday.
The building went through a number of changes over the years including interior modifications and the addition of the large front entrance tower in 1850 by the architect Thomas A Tefft, of Tallman and Bucklin; and a major addition on the opposite side facing Benefit Street in 1867 by James C Bucklin. In 1901 the General Assembly moved to the new Rhode Island State House, parts of which were still under construction. The Old State House was then remodeled again in 1906 for continued use as the county courthouse until 1975.
Thomas A Tefft, 1826 to 1859, was an American architect born in Richmond Rhode Island, and studied at Brown University in Providence. During his early career while studying at Brown he worked for Tallman and Bucklin, where he designed the tower addition to the Old State House.
James C Bucklin, 1801 to 1890, was born in Rehoboth Rhode Island and was educated in the public schools. He apprenticed with the architect and builder John Holden Greene before opening a partnership with William Tallman, forming the firm of Tallman and Bucklin.
Today the building is occupied by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission. It is not currently open for tours, but I knocked on the door, and one of the staff members was kind enough to let me in, and give me a brief tour of the first floor. The court room stretches across the front of the building with the remaining sections divided up into offices and service areas.
The Old Colony House
The Newport Colony House, known today as the Old Colony House, is in the city of Newport, Newport County, near the Atlantic coast about 35 miles south of Providence. It was completed in 1741 in a Georgian architectural style by Richard Munday.
Richard Munday, 1685 to 1739, was an American architect and builder in Newport Rhode Island, creating designs in the early 1700s in both Baroque and Georgian architectural styles. Other works by Munday that are still in use include the Trinity Church, 1725, and the Sabbatarian Meeting House, 1729, both in Newport.
The building was not open for tours at the time of this visit, but may have limited operations now. Many important American Revolution events occurred here making use of the building as a barracks, hospital, and courthouse.
The Old Colony House borders Washington Square which is surrounded by several other historic sites. Included in the square is a sculpture of Oliver Hazard Perry that is different in design from the one at the Rhode Island State House in Providence. This sculpture of Perry is by William Greene, 1885.
William Greene Turner, 1832 to 1917, was born in Newport and worked as a dentist, and then served in the Civil War until 1863 when he was wounded. His family sent him to Italy where the climate was thought to be more moderate for his care. There he became interested in the work of the Italian Renaissance sculptors, and began pursuit of that profession in Florence, where he set up a studio. Following his successful award and completion of the Perry sculpture, he returned to Newport and opened a studio producing sculptural works in the United States.
As mentioned there are three other courthouses that were used by the Rhode Island General Assembly when they rotated to each county in the early to mid 1800s. Two are still in existence today as historic courthouses in Kent and Bristol counties.
The Kent County Courthouse was built in 1803 in a Federal architectural style by Oliver Wickes. Oliver Wickes, 1757 to 1855, was a Revolutionary War veteran, carpenter, civil servant and politician. The building is now used as the East Greenwich Town Hall.
The Bristol County Courthouse was built in 1816 in a Federal architecture style by an unknown architect, and is currently used for community events.
This journey was a day trip that took about an hours drive from Boston Massachusetts to Providence Rhode Island, with touring in the morning at the Rhode Island State House and the Old State House.
Then another 45 minutes down to New Port where I had an excellent, late lunch, at the Corner Cafe, and then toured the Old Colony House and Washington Square area. I did not make it to the Kent and Bristol county courthouses, but will if the opportunity arises at a later date.
Notes and References
Story by David Smitherman, with historical data collected from brochures, onsite inscriptions, Wikipedia, and Google Maps.
Photographs are from May 17, 2023 by David Smitherman except as otherwise noted.
Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel. East Greenwich Town Hall front view, East Greenwich, Rhode Island.jpg