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Downtown Providence Walking Tour
Item 2 of 10
The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Providence, Rhode Island is located on the eastern end of the Kennedy Plaza. The formidable five-story structure was built between 1904-1908 at the cost of over one million dollars. It was designed by architectural firm Clarke and Howe in the Beaux-Arts style. The building's most notable features are the three-story Corinthian columnns that adorn each face of the structure’s exterior. The courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

  • The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse
  • Aerial Image of the Federal Building (Courtesy of Firestone Building Products)

The growing size of Providence at the turn of the twentieth century prompted calls for a new federal building.  In 1904, the City of Providence donated the land at the east end of Kennedy Plaza to the federal government.  The federal government accepted the land transfer and allocated over $1 million towards the construction of a new building. The first agencies to inhabit the Federal Building included the Post Office, The United State District Court and the local Custom House.  The Internal Revenue Service, Steamboat Inspectors, District Attorney's Office, and the Civil Service Commission have also had offices in the building. The Custom House and Post Office moved to other locations in 1961.

The Federal Building is a giant cube-shaped structure that stands five stories high.  The exterior is finished with New Hampshire granite and Indiana cream limestone and it has a roof made of copper.  Two groups of statues flank the main entrance of the building. The statues on the left honor the character of the City of Providence. Independent Thought is displayed in the middle of the group, with Industry and Learning at her sides. The statues on the right of the entrance pay tribute to the United States. The middle figure portrays sovereignty, and it is surrounded by Justice and Law and Order. The government commissioned Scottish-American sculptor J. Massey Rhind to create the masterpieces which adorn the front of the building. He had recently completed a critically acclaimed work of art at a government building in Indianapolis and was asked to form another piece for Providence.  Both monuments are sculpted from Tennessee marble.

The building surrounds a small, square courtyard in the middle of the cube.  An aerial image of the Federal Building is shown above, which depicts the open area in the middle. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The group that argued for its placement on the register, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, stated that the Federal Building was historically significant not only due to its architecture, but due also to the fact that it acts as an anchor in downtown Providence. According to the Inventory Nomination Form (link included below):

Clark and Howe’s well-preserved Federal Building is, inside and out, and (sic) elegant and handsome example of the Beaux-Arts style as employed early in this century to house governmental agencies with the dignity considered requisite to their status.  This it would do well anywhere. However, in Providence it admirably fulfills another function – that of being a vital architectural anchor, by mass and placing, to a whole downtown area in which it also shares primacy as an aesthetic treasure.  

The building has undergone renovations with major ones taking place in the 1970s and between 1999-2001.  Only the District Court remains in the building today.

Downtown: Federal Building. Accessed September 15, 2017.

Hauck, Alice H.R.. National Register of Historic Places - Inventory Nomination Form: Federal Building. Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission. July 25, 1971. Accessed September 15, 2017. Co-written by Richard B. Harrington