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74 Dexter Street

The Shepard's Building: It's Rise, Fall and Rebirth

259 Westminster Street

Photographer Unknown. PPS Slide Collection
Unlike some of my recent adventures, getting into the Shepard’s Building is not difficult; I walk by it and through it almost daily on my way to work and school. I did have to do some serious digging though to discover the history behind the building, piecing together what it must have been like in its heyday as a department store, and how it ever ended up on the Most Endangered Properties List. My journey of discovery took me to the Providence Public Library where I met my favorite librarian, Kate Wells, and to the uppermost floor of City Hall where I found the city archives (Why didn’t anyone tell me about this amazing place before?! Thankfully Kate finally did). Mostly I delved into the filing cabinets and slide drawers of PPS. This is what I learned:

The Shepard’s company opened its doors in a 3-story Italianate building located at Westminster and Clemence streets in April 1880. It didn’t take long for this small business to grow into the largest retail center in New England. Over the course of 23 years, the store went from occupying 6,400sf in 1880 to 301,000sf in 1903, taking over what was once a three-block area into one giant store. And it wasn’t just a store. In fact John Shepard was adamant that Shepard’s was not a department store, rather a “collection of stores, each more complete in itself than the small separate stores” (I suppose this is an important clarification in the age of Walmart and Target). Inside the building you could find Shepard’s Tearoom, The Wellington (a 5 star restaurant), an ice making and refrigeration plant, bakery, grocery store, letter writing area, nursery, information bureau and even a small post office. WEAN, Rhode Island’s first radio station, also began inside of Shepard’s. Of course, that long list doesn’t even include all of the finery, clothing, jewelry and the like that was also found at the store. I think it’s safe to say that you could literally find anything and everything you ever wanted under Shepard’s roof.

Photographer Unknown. Providence City Archives

Former employees can attest that it was more than just a store. Everyone who worked there was treated like family. The company held annual dances, clambakes and other outings for employees, and by 1936 gave all employees two weeks of paid vacation – a benefit that even today, most department store employees aren’t so lucky to receive. I haven’t figured out why, but the store closed in 1973. Was it a parking issue? Shopping malls full of chain stores opening? Do you know the story?

Shepard Paul Clancy
Photo Courtesy of Paul Clancy
From what I can tell, the Shepard’s building stood vacant until the 1990’s when a new owner, who purchased the building at a bankruptcy auction, said that he had to demolish it to make a surface level parking lot in order to generate revenue to pay off his bank loans. This is when PPS stepped in and organized a “charette” between community leaders to brainstorm ideas on how to best adaptively re-use the building. Teams considered renovating the building into a museum of Rhode Island history, commercial space, housing, and retrofitting the entire building into a parking garage. The idea that had the most potential from the beginning, and backed by Mayor Paolino, was to relocate the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) downtown campus into the building. This concept had legs seeing that plans were already in place to demolish URI’s then current campus to make way for Providence Place Mall.

And so the Shepard’s building was saved. Well, that makes it sound simple. The building was nearly demolished, and there was actually a huge amount of controversy that surrounded URI’s move into the building, which ended up needing to be almost entirely gutted. But the preservation of the Shepard’s building, a cornerstone of downtown Providence, led the way to rejuvenating downtown more broadly and was one of PPS’s greatest success stories.


PROGRAM: So, I really glossed over the history of saving the Shepard’s building. For the real story, told from the movers and shakers who actually worked to save the building, check out PPS’s upcoming program, “Preservation through Collaboration: the Shepard’s Department Store Building” on Monday April 20th. It’s FREE!

IMG_1791 FUN FACT: Not once, but twice, the Shepard’s Building was engulfed in flames. The first fire was on December 5, 1890 and the second was on March 8, 1923. In both cases, Shepard’s was back up and running within the next couple of weeks. Business had to go on!

Stories to Share?: It seems like everyone knows someone who used to shop or work at the Shepard’s Department Store. Or maybe you played a role in helping to save the building. Please share your comments on twitter (Pictures too!) @pvdpreservation, #mep20. 

Originally posted on April 9, 2015