This project has been made possible by a grant from the Creative Arts Council of Brown University.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Archival reflections: historical narratives

This week I have spent time visiting the archives in order to see how the Arcade is represented in the archives, and to gain some insights into the building's history. The Rhode Island Historical Society Library was my starting point, and their extensive holdings included a lot of photographs, prints, and articles about the Arcade. The historical significance of the Arcade is reflected in the amount of materials related to it that are available. The research process for a site like this is very different from my last forray into the archives, where I was searching for information about a rather obscure and underdocumented site. To be so quickly presented with so many materials concerning the Arcade raises for me questions about the significance and symbolism of the site. The place files at the RIHS Library contain scores of images and clippings related to the building, alluding to the consciousness with which the Arcade was documented and archived, and points to the identification of the Arcade as historic and important in Providence's history.

Thus far (and my archival endeavours are only in their early stages), a narrative of monumentality and exceptionalism seems to surround the Arcade. Descriptions of the Arcade repeatedly reference things such as the fact that the design was based on that of the Church of the Madeleine in Paris (a highly exulted architectural specimen of Europe), that it was the largest indoor shopping mall in the United States at the time it was built, or that it outlasted almost all the other covered arcades in the United States. One example of this rhetoric is found in J. C. Thompson's 1876 Illustrated Hand -Book of Providence, which describes the Arcade as "a granite building if fine proportions, and superior at the time of its erection to any thing of the kind in the country" (page 84). Sources also repeatedly mention the impressive story of the Arcade's columns: they are monolithic, built of stone from Bear Rock Ledge quarry in Johnstone, RI, each weigh 12 tonnes, and were dragged to Providence by a team of 12-15 oxen one at a time (The Providence News, a daily that ran 1918-1929, notes that the beasts of burden were "specially picked oxen imported from Western New York State"). Also repeatedly referenced is the speed with which the columns were created, moved and set in place, and the incredible feat that was accomplished by doing so. Whilst there is no doubt that the task was a challenging one and well accomplished, it is interesting to note that the narrative of achievement, celebration and progress, seems to dominate the presence of the Arcade in the archive so far. This narrative romanticises many aspects of the Arcade's existence, and contains under- and overtones of not only civic pride, but also national patriotism.

To quote the closing paragraph from the Providence News article as one example of this,
The Arcade is not only one of the sights and charms of our city but is a memorial and testimony of the foresight, broadmindedness and public spirit of our citizens of a century ago. They dared to risk their money on a radically new and unusual contribution to American civic architecture and in their faith, they built firmly a structure able to withstand the ravages and changes of time.

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