PROVIDENCE -- The Arcade, the nation's oldest indoor shopping mall, is a gorgeous space. When it was completed in 1828 , it was on retail's cutting edge in grouping a range of businesses under one roof. And as the first big commercial building west of the Providence River, it played an important role in the development of downtown.
The Arcade's architecture is an outstanding example of Greek Revival style. Each of the two entrances, or porticos, features six Ionic columns, their shafts 3 feet in diameter and 20 feet high. Inside , light pours into the granite structure's three floors through a glass skylight that runs the building's length. Even on a rainy afternoon, the interior glows. The Arcade was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and substantially renovated in 1980. It retains many of its original features. The second and third levels have wood floors and slightly bowed handrails that top the balustrades running from end to end.
Visiting the second and third floors is key to appreciating the Arcade's elegant interior. There are several tables on these upper floors, and it's a good strategy to grab lunch or coffee at ground level and then move up a floor or two. Both ends of the Arcade have exterior staircases, and there are stairs and an elevator at the mall's midpoint. This middle stairwell is worth a look for its display of vintage photos, including 20th-century shots in which the building is an island amid flooded streets during the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954. An 1829 print depicts an ox pulling a cart on the cobbled streets around the new building.
The Arcade's interior is unified and symmetrical, offering the visitor "a marvelous spatial experience," writes Wm Mackenzie Woodward, an architectural historian, in the Providence Preservation Society's "Guide to Providence Architecture."
The outside is another story as the two entrances have different designs. The columns are the same, but the Westminster Street side has a pediment, or triangular space, at its top, while the Weybosset Street side features a parapet, a low-slung wall. One theory has it that the Arcade's two designers, architects Russell Warren and James Bucklin, tried to outdo each other.
If it's shopping you want, there is the mammoth Providence Place Mall a few minutes away. Arcade tenants are chiefly small restaurants and cafes catering to local office workers. There are a number of empty storefronts, and the mall has a long history of commercial difficulties. In its early days it was called "Butler's Folly" after Cyrus Butler , who financed its construction. It was judged to be too remote from Market Square, Providence's center of commerce in the 1820s.
Though it is more food court than anything else, there are offices housing nonprofits on the upper floors, and a few retail and service outfits. There is a barber shop, you can talk Dungeons and Dragons at the Game Keeper , or you can buy a clock designed by a local artist at Copacetic Rudely Elegant Jewelry.
Everyone has probably seen too many malls, but none like the Arcade. "It has no peer in the nation," write Woodward and Edward Sanderson in a 1986 volume published by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.
Stamatis Karapatakis, a restaurateur born on Crete who has been serving up souvlaki and gyros from his eatery at the Arcade's northern end since 1982, concurs. "It's a beautiful building," he says.
Tim Lehnert, a freelance writer in Providence, can be reached at email@example.com.