Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tefft's Merchant's Exchange project next to the Arcade (1856)

Thomas Tefft (1826-1859).  Proposal for a Merchant's Exchange next to the Arcade. Collection of the Brown University Archives.
The 11-year architecture career of RI native Thomas Tefft was brief but of enduring impact because of the legacy of the Rhode Island Art Association (RIAA), which he helped found, and a portfolio of built and unbuilt projects. These include RI’s first designs for an Art Museum, proposed in 1853 a full 40 years before the RISD, Museum of Art was opened.  

Also of historical and aesthetic significance is Tefft's visionary proposal for a Merchant’s Exchange to be constructed next to the downtown Arcade. These original Tefft watercolors and drawings are on view at the Providence Athenaeum until September 23, 2010. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

Thomas Tefft’s visionary Merchant’s Exchange Building of 1856 was planned for a triangular site adjacent to the Arcade (1828) in downtown Providence. Accompanying drawings loaned from the Brown University Archives reveal how Tefft was planning to relate America’s first enclosed shopping mall to this planned first RI brokerage house and showcase for RI design and industry.

One of the clients driving this project was the Scotsman Alexander Duncan who is better known as the principal in the major NYC banking firm, Duncan, Sherman, & Co. (where the young J.P. Morgan started work). Duncan’s banking partner, Watts Sherman, is familiar to us in RI for his son and daughter-in-law’s significant William Watts Sherman House by H.H. Richardson, now owned by Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. Looking at the 1850s gives new insights into the beginnings of Gilded Age Newport.

Particular attention has been paid in this exhibition to Tefft’s planned extension of the east side of the Arcade to relate it to the proposed Merchant’s Exchange. This is developed further in my scholarship on this project. But note that Alexander Duncan had inherited the east side of the Arcade, through his wife, from the original Arcade developer, Cyrus Butler. Attention to Tefft’s drawings reveals how circulation would move from the Arcade to the Westminster St. entrance. Upon entering the Exchange rotunda, one would be directly facing the bank of stores on Alexander Duncan’s part of the Turk’s Head site property.

Tefft nearly succeeded in actualizing the Merchant’s Exchange project and achieving the goals of the RIAA to found a design school and museum in RI. But these dreams were cut short in part by the Panic of 1857. The rise and fall of Tefft’s 1856 project for a Merchant’s Exchange building should be understood within the context of optimism and prosperity suddenly disrupted by the destructive dislocations of banking failures and general economic collapse. Tefft’s talent and energy left, and this moment of synergy took decades to recover.

Tefft’s Merchant’s Exchange is often described as visionary architecture and among the most astonishing building proposals of the nineteenth century. Even more important to recognize is how close it came to being realized in RI. Formal precedents have been identified, such as John B. Bunting’s Coal Exchange (London, 1847), or the vast cast-iron circular amphitheater proposed for the temporary 1853 Crystal Palace exhibition building in NYC by John Bogardus (who made the cast zinc Benjamin Franklin statue for the Franklin Lyceum) and his partner, Hamilton Hoppin from Newport. But Tefft wrote in the Crayon about what he felt were the limits of metal and glass for permanent structures. Historian Jutta Bruhn has correctly noted that for the Providence Merchant’s Exchange “Tefft’s choice was for a circular building in stone, brick, and cast iron [and] was intended to convey the aesthetic and structural solidity of an ancient Roman amphitheater” (Curran, 125).

The Merchant’s Exchange is Tefft’s last commercial project and his third design for the historic commercial “Sign of the Turk’s Head” area of Providence on the west side of the Weybosset Bridge. In 1855 Tefft lost the commission for the Custom House (24Weybosset St.) to Ammi B. Young, the first supervising architect of the Federal Treasury Department. But in March and April 1856, Tefft returned to design for this urban core anchored by the Arcade. On March 27, 1856 Tefft completed drawings for his circular Merchant’s Exchange on the difficult triangular site formed at the joining of Weybosset and Westminster St. -  with the Arcade as a backdrop and the Custom House under construction across the street. Also under construction in 1856 was Tefft’s second Howard Hall, a little further down Westminster block, at the corner of Dorrance. And from the Turk’s Head site, views would have been possible through the many side streets connecting Westminster St. to Exchange Place (now Fulton St.), providing glimpses of Tefft’s Union Depot, then situated on what is now Kennedy Plaza. Just a few weeks after completing the design for the Merchant’s Exchange, Tefft designed the Bank of North America at 50 Weybosset St., still standing opposite the Arcade.

In 2010, many of the buildings on the Turk’s Head site adjacent to the Arcade have been demolished, allowing a unique opportunity to visualize the developing landscape that Tefft saw. (See aerial Bing Map below.)  Especially interesting is Tefft’s drawing that shows how concerned Tefft was to build transitions between the Arcade and the Merchant’s Exchange Building by providing a major new emphasis on the Arcade’s side entrance, and the extension of transitional spaces for each shop forming a denser urban fabric. I will lead a tour to this area on Gallery Night, September 16, 2010 to discuss this further on the site.

This Bing map shows the current state of the historic Turk's Head site between the Weybosset and Westminster Streets in downtown Providence. In 2010 the Arcade is boarded up and the developers who tore down the infill buildings have retracted plans for a hotel.  RI architectural historian Mack Woodward calls the Arcade an early commercial building with "no peer in the nation" and "one of the finest Greek Revival monuments in this country." (Providence, 238)

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

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