Providence Public Library Tour - Welcome

Providence Public Library Tour - Welcome


Welcome to the historic and beautiful Providence Public Library, a prime example of turn-of-the-century American architecture.

We are pleased to offer this online "virtual" tour, as well as live Historic Building Tours on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. Please come to our 225 Washington Street entrance at 10:30 AM. (Library tours go on hiatus during winter.)


The Library was chartered in 1875, but the iconic Venetian Renaissance building was not built until 1900. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Its architects, the preminent Providence firm Stone, Carpenter & Willson created a library of elegant proportion and delightful detail. It traces its architectural pedigree to the Sansovino's library in Venice and the Libraire de Ste. Genevieve in Paris, and still further back, the Italian palaces of the Renaissance Period.

Building the Providence Public Library

225 Washington Street

While establishing Providence’s first “free public library” in 1878 was a monumental accomplishment taking decades to realize, erecting a proper building befitting the Library’s growing role and importance in its community less than two decades afterward proved an herculean undertaking.

After enduring more than 15 years in cramped quarters unsuited to the Library’s needs, Library Trustees were particularly concerned that its new home be spacious enough to accommodate its growing collections and that access to materials be as direct as possible. The building committee desired a building that was more than a monument with shelves. Architects were to submit plans for a building that would be well designed both inside and out, with the goal to produce an efficient, modern library.

In 1893, with funds in hand, the Library purchased five lots of land bordered by Washington, Greene, and Fountain Streets for $88,000. Local architects were invited to draw and submit plans. The firm of Stone, Carpenter & Willson was chosen.

The Library struggled over the next few years to secure adequate funding to move ahead with architects’ plans for the T-shaped building; finally, ground was broken in August of1896.

John Nicholas Brown…

After much uncertainty as to whether the building could be built as planned, the dream of a permanent home for our public library became a reality thanks to one of our state’s most generous and celebrated philanthropists John Nicholas Brown -- whose total gift of $268,000 for the purpose of building a Rhode Island treasure.  (His initial offering of $200,000 swelled when it was determined that the planned structure would not otherwise be possible.)

Upon his untimely death only six weeks after the newly-built Providence Public Library opened, John Nicholas Brown was hailed as “a large-minded and whole-souled man who believed in deeds, not words.” By this most noble gift of about a quarter of a million dollars, Mr. Brown has made it possible for the City of Providence to have a fit and worthy building for one of the most widely influential of its public institutions, and received the unstinted gratitude of its citizens.


What has been said about the Providence Public Library...

“The lot on which the Library stands is nearly square, the longest side being 201 feet in length. It is most favorable situated, having streets on three sides -- Washington, Greene and Fountain Streets. The fourth side which joins two other estates, very fortunately is towards the downward slope of the hill, so that the second story windows of the Library building easily look over the tops of the nearest buildings in that direction. From every point of view, the location is a favorable one.” 1896, PPL Monthly Bulletin

 "The new library was beautiful and grand, but equally important, it was functional." 

“The Providence Public Library follows in the Renaissance mode essayed by McKim, Mead & White in the Boston Public Library, but it avoids the difficulties encountered by the Boston building’s squeezing a modern function into a 16th century form: no courtyard in Providence interferes with the business of retrieving books and serving patrons.”

“Avoiding what Harper’s Weekly called “the beautiful mistake which Boston made at Copley Square,” the Providence Public Library is a subtle, masterful refinement of its era’s emblematic architecture.”  William McKenzie Woodward, Architectural Historian for the RI Historical Preservation Commission, 1988, Providence Sunday Journal Magazine

CHAPTER 1 -- THE BUILDING… Intricate architecture represents the Gilded Age

Gallery Images

Providence Public Library...Building for the Ages - The story of our 117-year-old library's restoration. (video)

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