In a fitting bit of symmetry, for the past 80 years, Roger Williams himself has enjoyed the best view of the city he founded in 1636. Located in the scenic overlook called Prospect Terrace – which is actually located on Congdon Street, one down from Prospect – his statue extends an oversized but comforting hand over Providence, as if to reaffirm his commitment to religious freedom and the peaceful coexistence with its original inhabitants that drew him and his small band of followers here in the first place.
A City with a View
Prospect Terrace is an important part of Providence. It is a tourist mecca for visitors, a student paradise for gathering and sunbathing, and the perfect vantage point for sunsets. That wasn’t always the case: According to historians, the current site of the park wasn’t much to look at in the mid-1800s. Given over to untended cow pastures and fields of haphazardly grown wild mulberry and huckleberry bushes, the land was pretty much ignored by the local townsfolk below.
That is, except for Isaac Hale. A successful businessman (although in somewhat poor health) working on North Main Street, Hale spent nearly every day of the 1860s trudging up winding paths to take in the view. His downtown friends would shake their heads at his routine, in part for fear of his well-being, while many others probably just accepted his daily activity as a bit odd.
But Hale persisted and, over time, committed to sharing his vision of this place with the rest of the city. Almost entirely by himself, he collected a sizable amount of money from some of the City’s most distinguished citizens, among them Ambrose Burnside (the famous Civil War General), future governor William Sprague, John Carter Brown, and businessman Jibes Gorham, to construct a permanent viewing area to overlook the city.
The money collected was donated to the city with the expectation that local government would be responsible for its maintenance and upkeep. With this gift, Hale’s dream was realized and his picturesque promenade was dedicated in 1869. And as for Mr. Hale? Climbing uphill proved useful to him after all. He lived to be 83.
A Monument for the Ages
Fast forward to 1936, the Tercentenary Celebration of Roger Williams’ founding of Providence. A flourishing city back then, and in response to an outburst of civic pride, a decision was made to properly honor the man for whom good governance and religious freedom were synonymous. After a national competition, architect Ralph Thomas Walker – best known for the MIT Library, AFL-CIO Building in DC, and New York Telephone Building – and sculptor Leo Friedlander were selected to create the design for the expanded park, monument, and giant 15-foot Westerly granite statue that now stands as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. The statue was finished in June of 1939 as a permanent tribute to our founder.
The statue itself depicts Roger blessing his city. He stands on the bow of his canoe with stylized water lapping at his foot. But is that really Roger’s face carved in stone? Since no actual depictions of our founder have ever been discovered, we’ll never know. But what we do know is that at the dedication, the remains of Roger Williams were encased in a small bronze casket placed within the granite base of the statue where they still rest. Plans for an elaborate set of stairs from the lower landing, a reflecting pool, several more statues, and a limestone-faced wall were unfortunately never realized.
From its inception, the promenade offered the best views of our city. For big events, like fireworks on the Fourth or to ring in the New Year, the park was the place to be. Old illustrations of the park depict couples strolling arm in arm, wearing their Sunday best. But over time, the dress code and, dare we say, the decorum, loosened up. In part due to the proximity of increasing numbers of students, it became a favored hangout for sunbathing during the day and party central after hours. Other uses were found for the Terrace as well. It remains a popular location for weddings, early morning outdoor services, and where virtually every local politician officially announces his or her candidacy in front of rolling cameras. The popular TV show Providence was shot here, as was the Farrelly Brothers’ blockbuster hit There’s Something About Mary.
Gradually, however, the wear and tear began to show. Benches needed replacement. The granite around the statue seemed to be losing its battle with graffiti. Some questionable late-night activities took place behind overgrown bushes. At one point, poor Roger even had the fingers of his right hand sawed off.
The City responded to an outcry from neighbors, and the park underwent a much needed initial facelift. Vegetation was cut down to size, better lighting was installed, and graffiti control was improved. What has been called “The Jewel of our City” began to regain some of its luster. Roger even got his fingers back.
Party in the Park
The current refurbishing is by far the most complete yet. Originally started as a project by the College Hill Neighborhood Association (CHNA), the present initiative represents an especially successful collaboration between neighborhood residents and the City. A trio of CHNA board members, led by College Hill landscape designer Sara Bradford, came to the city with a new design to update the park. A new path was created around the monument, more inviting and wheelchair-accessible than before, along with a new sitting wall. Pathways were resurfaced, new benches were ordered. An attractive new row of pavers and a levelled sidewalk were added, along with new signage and a modest irrigation system.
The project has drawn the community together.
After CHNA created the initial funding video to get the ball rolling, the group won some small grants. The first major contribution came from former councilman Sam Zurier, who combined monies available from two of his ward funds and earmarked them for the project. Rick Champagne provided leadership and led volunteers from his company on all-day cleanups. David Haffenreffer, among other neighbors, went door to door to raise additional funding. And of course, the City has gone all-in to insure Roger and terrace will be party-ready for a spectacular celebration on June 18.
Much of the success of the project is also attributable to an innovative new “Friends of Providence Public Parks” initiative, under the leadership of current Parks Superintendent Wendy Nilsson. She reports that many parks across the city have been raising monies to support projects and cleanups that will then be matched by the City.
“The participation of the neighborhoods adds more eyes and ears to these projects, making it more likely they will flourish,” says Nilsson, who as a private citizen was instrumental in generating the public-private partnership that created the successful Brown Street children’s park on the East Side.
So what’s next for Prospect Terrace? An endowment fund now exists to assist the Parks Department should the need arise for a quick replacement or unexpected upkeep, as well as to provide special programming for the park. But the City and the neighbors admit there is still a lot to do – most importantly, to repoint and clean up the retaining wall, which supports the park terrace and monument itself.
On June 18, the past, present, and future of the park will be celebrated during a festive sunset soiree. Back in June of 1939, the dedication was marked by four members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and four men attired in Colonial dress, who watched solemnly as the dusty remains of Roger Williams were ceremoniously reinterred in the base of the statue. This year, as we celebrate the 80th anniversary of that event, an attempt will be made to recall both its solemnity and joy.
The event is free and open to all and will begin just before sunset. In addition to the formal ribbon cutting and “modest”speeches, the City assures us there’ll be fun, too, including Native American music, food, twinkling lights, special visits from “friends” of Roger Williams, and other surprises. The famous founder of our state deserves nothing less.