A brief history of City Hall

"Our Municipal Palace" was the Providence Journal's honorific title for Providence City Hall at its inaugural, November 14, 1878, a momentous day for the city's new palatial structure. But it was a long time in coming.

For two hundred years after the founding of Providence by Roger Williams in 1636, local government functioned without a central facility where municipal business could be transacted in an efficient, orderly manner.

The need for a new municipal building

In 1832, under Providence's first mayor, Samuel W. Bridgham, the seat of city government was located in the Market House at Market Square. This building shared space with other offices at the bottom of what is now College Hill on the east side of the Providence River. It remains Market House, an academic and administrative building of the Rhode Island School of Design.

In 1843 a resolution was passed that a new City municipal building was necessary for the safety of City records, the convenience of City government, and "the more and ample accommodation" of its citizens.
In 1845, a committee of one councilman from each of the city's wards, one alderman and the mayor, was selected to prepare plans for a new building, provide a building estimate, and choose a suitable location.

In those days there were six wards, three on the east side of the Providence River and three on the west. Neither side could garner the votes needed to approve the site. The controversy over the location of City Hall continued for three decades and became known as "Providence's Thirty Years War."

The Opera House

During this protracted dispute, the primary parcel under consideration for City Hall -- and its present location -- was rented by Charles Harrington and R.H. Larned. They built a theater on the lot and called it The City Hall. Lectures and concerts were held in the building. It was the site of a funeral oration for President Abraham Lincoln and readings by notable writers including Charles Dickens. In 1869 it was renamed Harrington's Opera House.

By 1873 the City Council had pushed obstacles aside and declared that City Hall should be built on the site as soon as possible. The Opera House was closed in 1874 to make way for the building we see today.

Exchange Place- the Providence/Worcester/Fall River Railroad Depot (right foreground), designed by Thomas Alexander Tefft . Later, after more of the tidal basin was filled, this train station was moved to the north and became Union Station.