Rhode Island State House Tour
Rhode Island is the smallest state by land area in the United States, but is the second most densely populated state with a little over one million people. In the early 1900s when the State House was built, Rhode Island had the highest per capita income in the country. The lands across the state are low with rolling hills, forests, and inland lakes along its western boundary with Connecticut, and major population centers along its north and eastern boundaries with Massachusetts, mixed with farm lands. The state is less than 40 miles wide, but with its numerous islands and inland bays along the southeast Atlantic coast, it has nearly 400 miles of coastline. The State House is located in Providence, the largest city, along the northeastern part of the state only a few miles from the Massachusetts state line.
The Rhode Island State House was constructed from 1892 to 1904, in a Neoclassical architectural style by Charles McKim of McKim Meade and White. Charles Follen McKim, 1847 to 1909, was born in Pennsylvania, and educated at Harvard University in Boston, and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris France. His firm established itself in New York City, and became a leader in classically trained and technically skilled architects producing major works in New York City, Washington DC, and Boston Massachusetts, including the Boston Public Library, known as the McKim Building. In addition, McKim produced many residential designs for wealthy patrons in Rhode Island.
At the south entrance facing downtown Providence, the entablature above the Governor’s Reception Room balcony is inscribed with these words, To hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments.
And at the north facing Smith Street, the entablature above the visitors entrance is inscribed with a state chronology: Providence Plantations founded by Roger Williams, 1636; Providence Portsmouth Newport incorporated by parliament, 1643; Rhode Island and Providence Plantations obtained Royal Charter, 1663; and, In general assembly declared a sovereign state, May 4, 1776.
The State House is considered an outstanding example of American Renaissance architecture, derived in part from the designs of 16th century Italian Renaissance when architectural styles reflected those of ancient Greece and Rome, and considered appropriate models for a building dedicated to a representative democracy.
The state’s original name was the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. It was founded as a colony by Roger Williams through a land grant negotiated with the local Narragansett Tribe. Williams had been driven out of Massachusetts due to his views on religious freedom, so in 1663, like minded people established by charter their right to freedom of religion so no other settlements could dictate their religious beliefs. The name Rhode Island came from the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano from Florence Italy, while conducting exploration of the north American Atlantic coast for France. His ship, the Delfina, visited Narragansett Bay in 1524 where Giovanni described the area in his notes as looking like the Island or Rhodes, which is located in the Mediterranean Sea southeast of Athens Greece.
In 1665, a limitation on perpetual servitude or slavery was added to the charter to include no more than ten years servitude, and no service beyond the age of 24. Interestingly, the 1665 charter that freed slaves after a term of service seems in conflict with reality, because by the end of the 17th century Rhode Island ships were responsible for over sixty percent of the North American slave trade, where hundreds of thousands of Africans were sold into slavery. Thousands lived and worked in households and on plantations across the state, and many more came through the ports to be sent south to other states where there were few protections.
On the State House grounds flanking the south entrance are two sculptures, Perry by sculptor William Walcutt, and Greene by sculptor Henri Schönhardt.
Oliver Hazard Perry, 1785 to 1819, was a Commodore and Naval hero at the Battle of Lake Erie against the British during the War of 1812. He was born in South Kingstown Rhode Island, and was from a family of naval servicemen.
The sculptor, William Walcutt, 1819 to 1882, was born in Columbus Ohio, and studied in London, and then in Paris at the École Impériale et Spéciale des Beaux-Arts. In 1854 he opened a studio in New York City, and in 1860 he completed his most famous work, this statue of Oliver Hazard Perry. The original was carved from marble and stands at the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial in Put-in-Bay Ohio. Several copies have been produced in bronze from the original, this one from a 1929 reproduction.
Nathanael Greene, 1748 to 1786, was a General in the Continental Army. He was born in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation, and served George Washington in a successful command of the southern theater of the Revolutionary War.
The sculptor, Henri Schönhardt, 1875 to 1953, was born in South Providence Rhode Island, and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, and in Paris at the Académie Julian, the École des Arts Décoratifs, and the École Beaux-Arts. He later returned to the United States, taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, and produced this sculpture in 1931.
The building exterior is clad in Georgia marble, including the dome, which is noted to be the fourth largest marble dome in the world. The State House facade has numerous sculpted details, and was among the first major buildings in the United States to have electricity.
Atop the dome is the sculpture Independent Man, originally called Hope when completed by the sculptor George Brewster in 1899. It represents the independence that Rhode Islands’ founder Roger Williams sought when he established the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1636.
The sculptor, George Brewster, 1862 to 1943, was born in Kingston Massachusetts, and studied at the Massachusetts State Normal Art School in Boston, and in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts. He returned to teach at Cooper Union and the Art Students League in New York City, and at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence Rhode Island.
Today, the State House is actively used and includes the executive offices of the Governor, and the General Assembly. The north and south entrances lead directly through a grand entrance gallery to a central Rotunda, and then up to the Senate and House chambers in opposite wings, and the State Library, the Governor’s State Reception Room, and the executive offices.
The Rotunda is capped by a beautiful dome with several layers of architectural sculpture and colorful adornment. Inside the dome perimeter is a mural designed by James Allen King and completed by George deFelice, Robert Haun, and Victor Zucchi. The mural completed in 1947 has been known by several names including The Settling of Providence, the Origins of Rhode Islands Greatness, and The Four Freedoms. It depicts four events, The Land Grant, Religious Tolerance, Pioneering and Origins of Construction, and the Beginnings of Industry. In particular it depicts colonial founder Roger Williams with the sachems Canonicus and Miantonomi of the Narragansett Tribe.
The artist, James Allen King, 1905 to 1959, was born in Scituate Rhode Island, and educated in public schools, and became a self-taught draftsman, artist, and woodcarver. He was employed by the state Public Works department where he designed many state maps, freelanced with a lithograph company and produced portraits for campaign posters. He was selected to produce the mural for the State House in 1945, but was unable to complete the work due to poor health.
Below the mural, encircling the interior base of the dome is an inscription in Latin from the writings of first century Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, which translates, Rare felicity of the times when it is permitted to think what you like and say what you think.
Below the dome in the squinches between each supporting arch are paintings of allegorical figures named in Latin; Litera, Commercium, Educatio, and Justitia, painted by an unknown artist. They represent the virtues of Literature, Commerce, Education, and Justice.
The Senate chambers include the original desks for the state’s 38 senators. Above the rostrum are 13 seals from the original colonies, with Rhode Island being the one in the center.
The House of Representatives chambers also includes the original desks for all 75 representatives. Along the upper side walls there are tapestries that provide for better acoustics with mural like designs of Greek and Roman gardens. Like the building architecture, derived from classical forms, these make reference to the earliest democracies on which our government is based.
Above the north entrance is the State Library where the state’s history and records of legislation can be found among the 30,000 volumes dating back to 1750. The book cases are on three levels, accessible by spiral stairs and catwalks of cast iron, painted to blend with the surrounding woodwork. Above the bookcases along the ceiling are 16 circular motifs, taken from European printer’s marks of the 15th to 17th centuries.
Above the south entrance is the Governor’s State Reception Room, used today for special events and official ceremonies. As mentioned, it has a balcony overlooking the grounds toward downtown Providence. Among the historic artifacts in this room are portraits of President George Washington and Major General Nathanael Greene.
The portrait of George Washington was completed in 1802, and is a depiction of him while in office as the nation’s first President. The artist, Gilbert Stuart, 1755 to 1828, was born in Saunderstown on the southeast coast of the Rhode Island Colony. He studied under the artists Cosmo Alexander in Scotland, and Benjamin West in Britain. In 1795 he opened a studio in Philadelphia Pennsylvania where George Washington posed for a painting that Stuart was able to turn into a series of iconic portraits. Stuart became the leading American portrait painter in the late 18th century, producing thousands of portraits including those of the first six Presidents, and his most famous portrait of Washington known as the Athenaeum Portrait, still used today on the dollar bill.
On the opposite wall is a large painting of Nathanael Greene, second in command as a Major General under George Washington during the Revolutionary War. He is shown in uniform out in the field with one hand on planning maps and the other grasping his sword. The artist, Gari Melchers, 1860 to 1932, was born in Detroit Michigan, and studied art at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in Germany, and in Paris at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux Arts. During his highly acclaimed career he produced thousands of paintings and founded an art colony at Egmond ann Zee in the Netherlands, and later a studio in New York City.
Surrounding the rotunda are a number of recessed alcoves designed specifically for sculptures. These include a collection of six military service personnel by the sculptor Giorgio Constanzo from Italy, 1945, carved from Italian Carrera marble.
The sculptures represent an infantryman, aviator, and plane spotter…
…and a sailor, combat engineer, and paratrooper; intended to represent all branches of service from World War II. No background information was found on the sculptor Giorgio Constanzo.
Additional sculptures of interest include a Civil War bas-relief, and a life-like sculpture of Thomas Dorr.
The bas-relief is an allegorical sculpture titled, History Guarding the Records, by an unknown artist. It is a Civil War memorial from the Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society, 1911.
And the life-like sculpture is of Thomas Wilson Dorr, 1805 to 1854, elected the people’s governor. His actions led to the Dorr Rebellion and eventually a new state constitution in 1843, that removed land ownership as a requirement for voting. The sculpture is by Joseph Avarista, 2014, from Providence, who is noted for his life like sculptures carved in wood. I have to admit that the work is quite good, but a little bit creepy, as you get the feeling it my turn and start staring back.
Additional sculptures in the State House include a number of busts of notable people important to Rhode Island history.
Thomas Jefferson, 1743 to 1826, was the 3rd President of the United States, whose writings and advocacy for human rights helped inspire the American Revolution. The sculpture is from about 1789, by Jean Antoine Houdon, 1741 to 1828, a neoclassical sculptor from France. He was born in Versailles and studied at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, and the École royale des élèves protégés. An original marble sculpture is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston Massachusetts.
Abraham Lincoln, 1809 to 1865, was the 16th President of the United States, and presided throughout the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. The sculpture is by Leo Cherne, 1912 to 1999, an economist and public servant, but also a gifted sculptor. He was born in the Bronx, and a graduate of the New York Law School. The original sculpture, produced in 1955, is on display in the White House.
Elizabeth Buffum Chace, 1806 to 1899, was an abolitionist, suffragette, and educator noted for her influence in the creation of the Rhode Island State Home and School for Dependent and Neglected Children. In 2001 she was selected by the Governor to be the first woman honored as The Conscience of Rhode Island with a bust in the State House. The Chace bust was sculpted by Pablo Eduardo.
Christiana Carteaux Bannister, 1819 to 1902, was also an abolitionist, an entrepreneur, and patron of the arts. She was born of African and Narragansett parents, and a descendent of enslaved Africans from the plantations in South County Rhode Island from the 18th century. Bannister, known has Madame Carteaux, used her hair salons to help facilitate the underground railroad to Boston. This Bannister bust was also sculpted by Pablo Eduardo.
Pablo Eduardo was born in La Paz Bolivia in 1969, and works from his studio in Gloucester Massachusetts. He studied at the Studio Arts College International in Florence Italy, and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Tufts University, in Boston Massachusetts.
There are two sculptures of Martin Luther King on display in the State House. Martin Luther King Jr, 1929 to 1968, was a Baptist minister, activist, and civil rights leader. He was assassinated in 1968, but was noted for his peaceful resistance to ongoing discrimination against African Americans. The second sculpture has an inscription across its base from his speech, Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.
There are also on display two sculptures of Theodore Francis Green, 1867 to 1966, and one of J Howard McGrath, 1903 to 1966. They both had long political careers and were United States Senators, and Governors of Rhode Island. The sculptures of King, Green, and McGrath are by unidentified artists.
And finally a modern art sculpture is on display titled Rhode Island’s First Elected Women. It celebrates the election of Isabelle Ahearn O’Neill, Representative, 1922; Lulu Mowry Schlesinger, Senator, 1928; Claudine Schneider, United States Representative, 1980; Susan L Farmer, Secretary of State, 1982; Arlene Violet, Attorney General, 1984; Nancy J Mayer, General Treasurer, 1992; Elizabeth H Roberts, Lieutenant Governor, 2006; M Teresa Paiva-Weed, Senate President, 2009; and Gina M Raimondo, Governor, 2014. It was created by The Steel Yard, 2020, which is an artist collective in Providence.
The Rhode Island State House is a beautiful work of classical architectural design, filled with sculpture, murals, and paintings that tell of Rhode Island history. This journey continues with Part 2 and a look at the Old State House in Providence, and the Old Colony House in Newport.
My first journey to the Rhode Island State House was in December 2020, following a snow storm, under a thick overcast sky, but a beautiful sight, with only a few people like me out touring and enjoying the beautiful snowy grounds.
Providence is about an hours drive from Boston, which is where I was visiting with family on this journey. You can park on the street around the south side if you can find a spot, but there is also plenty of covered parking across the street from the State House at the Providence Place shopping mall where I found shops, restaurants, and charging stations for my car.
Notes and References
Story and photographs by David Smitherman, with historical data collected from brochures, onsite inscriptions, Wikipedia, and Google Maps.
Photographs by David Smitherman are from site visits on December 20, 2020, and May 17, 2023.