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Soldiers and Sailors Monument in front of Providence City Hall, with the Biltmore in red brick next to it.

With the fabulous Providence Biltmore as a home base, it made sense that one day’s exploration should be just out the front door. As it had been all week, it was very cold and windy. Despite wind chills in the teens, we bundled up and left the hotel lobby to start walking and see where our feet would take us. They took us to some wonderful sights.

Right next door is the Providence City Hall, a beautiful building on the outside, and simply gorgeous on the inside. It was built in the 1870s, and continues in use today as the City Hall. The five-story building is built of iron and brick, and at the time of construction employed some fascinating technology. There was a water-powered elevator that could carry 50 people, but is no longer in operation. Prior to electricity, a central control clock was used, wound up each morning by the janitor like a grandfather clock. The clock sent a signal to all the other clocks in the building. The City Messenger’s office was equipped with bells and speaking tubes that connected to all the other offices in the building. Remnants of these features are still visible today.

Stairs from the main floor up into the heart of the building.

Beautiful at every level.

Clock on the fifth floor.

Old elevators still gorgeous, but no longer in use.

The Hiker

We crossed the street to gaze at a few monuments. The first was the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, shown in the image at the top of this post. Dedicated in 1871, the 40-foot monument recognizes 1,727 Rhode Islanders that died during the Civil War. The figure at the top represents America, and the four smaller figures represent four branches of the military. The bronze reliefs are allegorical representations of War, Victory, Peace, and Freedom.

A short walk away is The Hiker,  installed in 1911 to commemorate those who fought in Spain, the Philippines, and China from 1898-1902. It is a replica of the original The Hiker, installed at the University of Minnesota in 1906. The name comes from a term soldiers in both the Spanish–American War and the Philippine–American War gave themselves.

Providence has a lot of hills, and since we began in a valley, it was inevitable that we would eventually hit an incline. We began walking uphill and a lovely white church caught our attention. It is the oldest Baptist church in America, aptly named the First Baptist Church, and holds a central role in the founding of the state of Rhode Island.

Plaque on the church wall

The church was founded by Roger Williams in 1638. The present building was erected in 1774-5. Roger Williams was a Puritan who left England to escape religious and political persecution. He did not come to America in the first wave however, but a few years later in 1631, and brought non-conformist ideas of what the colonies should be all about. Williams was adamant about separation of church and state, and insisted that the local church totally repudiate its ties with the Church of England. He also declared it a “solemn public lie” that the King of England had the right to grant land to colonizers without first buying it from the Indians. The ideas challenged the legality of land uses at that time and stirred up political and religious unrest, and threatened to upset the fragile economy. All this had been set up before Williams even got there, and his loudly proclaimed contrary ideas were a major disruption.

By 1635 the local authorities had had enough and tried and convicted Williams. As punishment he was to be banished to England. Instead, Williams hiked through the snow from Salem to Narragansett Bay and lived on the hospitality of the Wampanoag Indians. The following spring he purchased a piece of land from the Indians, and with some friends from Salem, started a community. He named it Providence, after the providence God had shown him. His community was based entirely on religious freedom, welcoming all to come and worship in their own way. Williams became a Baptist and began the Baptist Church in Providence, and was its first pastor.

First Baptist Church in Providence. The oldest Baptist Church in the country.

Eye-catching buildings line the street beside the First Baptist Church. That colourful one in the center is the Providence Art Club.

Interior of the church. There is stained glass behind that wall, only viewable from the outside. Not sure what that’s all about. Will guessed it could have been to maintain the humility and simplicity espoused by Roger Williams, who never would have approved an extravagance like coloured glass in his lifetime.

In the early days, patrons would rent their box, and would have a say regarding who was allowed to sit in it.

At the back of the church on the balcony, is an enormous organ. I don’t know if it still works, but the sound must be outstanding! {photo by Will}

We left the church and started uphill once more, coming across Brown University, another institution woven into the fabric of Providence’s early days. Dr. James Manning had been dispatched from Philadelphia to oversee some reforms in the Baptist church in the area, to include starting a Baptist college. (Dr. Manning was pastor when the church in the photos above was built) Originally called Rhode Island College, Manning was its first President. When the school charter was approved in 1764 it was the 7th college in America. Now called Brown University, it remains a premier American University.

Clock tower on a cold Winter’s day at Brown University.

On the grounds of Brown University.

On the grounds of Brown University.

We stopped for lunch and I had Indian curry & Jasmine tea because isn’t that just the thing on a fiercely cold day? (This time I mean Asian Indian, not North American Indian. So confusing. Chris Columbus you goofball.) Then we walked uphill some more and I was excited when it began to snow! We came to a park very high up that Will calls “The other Roger Williams Park,” but it’s actually called Prospect Terrace Park. I didn’t get photos of it but there is a curious larger than life statue of Roger Williams looking out over the city. So we looked out over the city too:

The State House dominates the horizon here.

Downtown Providence

The State House looked so impressive from a distance that I really wanted to go there. Will double-checked with me about that, since it was so cold I could barely feel my face or hands. Like those early settlers here, I didn’t let a nasty winter day get me down. Onward ho! At the bottom of the hill we stopped in the beautiful train station to chat and get warm before continuing the long walk to the State House. As my reward for tenacity, the clouds parted and the sun began to shine. It wasn’t any warmer, but it was prettier.

A lovely New England neighborhood on a hill.

The Independent Man atop the State House

Gettysburg Gun with charge in the muzzle.

Sun came out in time to illuminate the Rhode Island State House

Atop the State House stands the Independent Man, deemed to represent the character of a Rhode Islander. The statue of a muscular man clad in a loincloth and carrying a spear is made of gold and bronze, and was melted down from a donated statue. Previously a statue of Simon Bolivar in Central Park that the city of New York considered an eyesore, the gift from Venezuela was sacrificed. The Independent Man was placed atop the cupola in 1899, and has survived lightning strikes and many many Rhode Island winter storms.

To get into the State House we had to have ID checked and pass through a metal detector. Once inside, I was doubly impressed by the grandeur here than I had been by City Hall. The foyer holds a Civil War gun that was last fired on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The gun was struck by a Confederate shell, damaging the muzzle of the gun and killing two soldiers. An attempt was made to reload the gun. Try as they might, members of the Rhode Island Light Artillery could not force the charge into the gun. When another shell hit and blew a wheel off, they gave up. The gun was allowed to cool, sealing the charge in place.

The House of Representatives were going into session soon, and the foyer was packed with people: participants, students, tourists, and the media with their cameras and lights. Will and I ducked the crowd into a quiet hallway and found the original Charter for the state of Rhode Island!

The original charter from the King of England granting religious and political rights to the people of Rhode Island.

In the Royal Charter Museum, three pages that make up the original document are held. In the 1663 document, King Charles II allowed settlers in Rhode Island to govern their own colony and guaranteed their individual freedom of religion. It was the kind of action Roger Williams dreamed of, and was in fact the first time in history that a monarch had agreed to this level of religious freedom. The event is remarkable, and the documents themselves were extraordinary works of art with such elaborate calligraphy that I could not read them.

The first page with calligraphy and illustration.

Close up of the magnificent ink work.

We then wandered the halls of the majestic building. We had been warned by the docent in the gift shop that we would hear bells notifying Representatives to take their seat. She told us the bells would continue till the gavel was sounded. When the bell rang as predicted, it was very loud and sounded like the ring in a high school to notify students to head to their next class. Unlike high school bells, this one continued to ring.

I thought the children we call politicians only pulled their stunts in Washington, D.C. Oh no, their lack of discipline, lack of respect for their office, lack of concern for the pressures that the rest of the world is forced to work under, became quickly evident here at the state level too. The bells rang and rang. Will and I sat in the gallery and watched. Hardly anyone acted as though they had noticed the incessant clanging. People chatted happily and unconcernedly. Pages were summoned and dispatched, returning with requested cans of soda. About 5% of Representatives took their seats, and I seriously wish I could name the ones who were seated, logged in to their desk computers, notes in a neat pile, and patiently waiting. Those people deserve your votes.

And rang. And rang. Every few minutes, another elected official wandered in, chatted awhile, set down some papers and wandered off. The bells kept ringing. I timed them: for TWELVE MINUTES before finally the Speaker banged the gavel. It was ridiculous. These people are treating the job with the gravity of preschoolers who have been told it’s time to move from story mats to the play bins. It felt even more insulting since the federal government is shut down. If this is how they do it in D.C., well no wonder nothing gets done.

Entrance into the State House (I took this photo as we were leaving, when everyone was seated quietly in the House).

Sunlight adds depth and warmth to the arches and domes.

Looking directly up into the dome.

The much smaller Senate room was quiet.

We sat in the gallery and listened to the bell calling Representatives to work for a full 12 minutes.

…and FINALLY they went to work.

Please please do not infer that I mean to disparage only Rhode Island politicians. What I believe we witnessed is a culture that must certainly have its roots in D.C. My best guess is that every single state in the Union takes the job of politician equally (un)seriously. I was disgusted.

But it had been a beautiful day and I anticipated more! Outside the sun was dropping and we saw a pretty sunset.

Sunset over Providence.

I charged Will with finding cake. The day before had been my birthday and I had not eaten any cake for my birthday, which was a grave oversight. I demanded cupcakes. Will said he knew the perfect place.

We walked back to the Biltmore to get the car and went off to have many many cupcakes at Duck & Bunny. This restaurant calls itself “a snuggery,” which their website insists is a word. It is delightful inside, and the tables are scattered throughout the rooms of the former house. We sat next to the fireplace, that was filled with burning candles instead of of logs.

It was an incredibly fun day, the birthday cupcakes were extraordinary, and it still wasn’t over! Next we walked to The Trinity Repertory Company to see a play, which was so good I already did a blog post on it because I was excited to tell you!

Three of the six cupcakes I ate from their filled pastry case.

Entrance of Duck & Bunny is very New England

Inside this classy restaurant is artwork that seems familiar at first, but is distinctly rabbit- and duck- themed.

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Rainier City Hall with a diminutive & dark Christmas tree at its side, awaiting official tree-lighting time.

A couple weeks ago I attended the Rainier tree-lighting ceremony. It was a small affair. My new community of Rainier is pretty tiny. Its heyday was when the Trojan Nuclear Facility  was running, which lasted until the plant was closed in 1993. Rumor has it that the TV show The Simpsons modeled their nuclear plant after this one, which makes sense, since so many Simpsons characters are named after streets in Portland. When the nuclear plant shut down, the town of Rainier slowly began to disintegrate. It still exists because of the logging industry, with multiple mills on the Longview, Washington side of the Columbia River (two largest employers there are Weyerhaeuser and Kapstone, timber/paper companies). But it’s not enough to keep a town thriving, so my home of Rainier is understated and I can almost see it shrinking.

The indefatigable citizens organized a caroling event and tree-lighting on the steps of the impressive City Hall building. It’s the only impressive building in town. The tree appears newly planted, and is about 8 feet high and not quite grown into its oversized decorations. About 30 of us stood on the sidewalk along Highway 30 in the rain, and listened to Christmas carols.

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Carolers were energized when Chief Elf showed up.

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Tree is now lit

Soon the city fire engine pulled up next to us, and Santa himself climbed out. The kids all broke into a rousing version of Santa Claus is Coming To Town, and Santa helped sing. When the song was over, Santa led us in a countdown, and the lights of the tree came on at our command.

Then everyone hurried inside and out of the rain. Kids got in line to talk to Santa, grownups grabbed hot cocoa and cookies to wait for the kids. There was a long table piled with donated goods from local businesses. Each person who walked through the door got a raffle ticket and so everyone stayed to see if they won anything good.

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Soon the little tree will be a big tree, and these ornaments will look just right.

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Tree comes to life with lights.

This waiting around took a long time, and I entertained myself by wandering the main hall of the City Hall. There are historic photos on the walls and I was delighted to discover that one of the largest original industries in the town was the Rainier Soap Factory, providing critical employment for women as well as men.

Finally, Santa was done talking to the kids and assisted with the raffle. I won a little basket with a stuffed animal and some Christmas dishes, but traded it with the next door neighbor girl for a squirrel magnet. Squirrels are my favourite.

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Homemade antiquey looking clocks were the only thing I wanted, but no such luck.

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Photos of the Rainier Mineral Soap Factory and its employees (mostly women) are along the walls of City Hall.

Rainier soap

Rainier Mineral Soap – keeps out blood poisoning, cleans ink spots, polishes metals, and protects from pestilence. This natural antiseptic contains no dirty fats. It’s a miracle product! This great little advertisement for the Preston Manufacturing Company tells a story and lauds the many benefits of Rainier Mineral Soap.

I also found an old photo of the City Hall (not very good, so I didn’t include it here) with interesting bits from the back of the photo posted beside it on the wall. “The new City Hall. The American Legion post here was given the privilege of obtaining two cannons, which in a moment of enthusiasm they decided would be fine placed at either side of the entrance to City Hall. It didn’t seem like such a good idea after they were installed, so they were moved to the grounds of the new High School on Nob Hill (1926).

“In the building, provisions were made for a hall above for the American Legion. Also for the library on the east side.

“Bord Kegh, carpenter, built the fire bell tower to the south east side of the building (1922). On Sunday morning, young Robert McKinley (1925) begged the janitor of the Methodist Church across the street for special permission to ring the church bell for Sunday School. In his youthful enthusiasm, he rang it with such vim and vigour that he called out the fire department – the bell tones were similar.”

My first question about those notes from the back of the photo is “Why was it a bad idea to have cannons at City Hall, but a better idea to have the cannons at the High School?” I’m also curious about the timeline, since it appears that the fire bell tower was built in 1922, but the cannons weren’t removed till 1926. Apparently it took years for the bad idea to be discovered. And finally, look at that vigour: Americans in the 1920s also used the British spellings, just like me. Maybe I’m channeling my inner frontierswoman.

It wasn’t the flashiest Christmas party I’ve ever been to, but it was a good night because I visited my City Hall and learned some great little tidbits about the building and my town’s history. These are the kinds of things to make a person feel more connected to her home.

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