Along Westminster Street, beautifully lit ionic columns and granite steps greet visitors at the Arcade Providence. Built in 1828 in the Greek Revival style, the Arcade is, to this date, the oldest indoor shopping mall in the nation.
Having stood in downtown Providence for almost 200 years, the Arcade has weathered storms, hurricanes, and floods. The wooden banisters have been visibly curved and bent as the ground beneath the Arcade has shifted over time. It is astonishing that the building still stands prominently in its original location, its façade still intact.
While much of the building harkens to its historic past, with cast-iron rails and banisters outlining the floors, it has also accommodated changes over time. The original stone and brick walls of the interior have been neatly covered to create a clean, modern space. Black-and-white photos of the Arcade line the central hall showing the building throughout its history. One photo depicts the shops when they were mostly dry cleaners, photographers, and eye doctors in the 1940s, and another shows the building with its steps immersed in water during the 1954 hurricane.
Wilson Saville, the current Property Manager at the Arcade, tells me that during his childhood the Arcade was a food court home to fast food chains. He shakes his head. I try to imagine what the Arcade would have looked like, but it is difficult to envision this historic, neighborhood-friendly space as a raucous food court. Today, small locally owned shops, their matching signs printed in identical seriffed font, sell vintage apparel, H.P. Lovecraft goods, and coffee among other things. The Arcade also hosts local events such as farmer’s markets and the Urban Vintage Bazaar. During the bazaar, the atrium is full of vendors exhibiting antiques, trinkets, and vintage clothes. They speak with pride when they gesture to the Arcade.
In recent years, the second and third floors have been converted into 48 housing units. I ask what prompted the change. Wilson shrugs. “Stores on the upper floors never did very well. I guess it wasn’t very intuitive, for visitors to go upstairs. We had shops closing all the time.” They came up with a different way of using the upper space: urban micro lofts.
Wilson explained that the micro units at the Arcade are minimally furnished—many of them are 225 or 300ft2, and none of them have stoves or ovens. Instead, the apartments have maximized space utility with built-in furniture and efficient storage. The rooms feel cozy and neatly organized.
Efficient living has evolved into a modern trend, especially in populous, metropolitan cities such as London, Tokyo, and New York. Coming from Seoul, the overpopulated capital of South Korea, it was fascinating for me to consider the American perspective of micro-lofts as a bizarre, minimalist lifestyle. In Seoul, “one-room” apartments, where cleverly engineered furniture, kitchen, and bath are crammed into a single studio, are the norm for many young professionals living in the city. The 300 ft2 model unit that Wilson led me into felt almost luxurious compared to the studios in Seoul, or even the dorm room I recently shared with my roommates at Brown.
Once you get commit to a minimalist lifestyle, there are definite advantages to living in micro lofts; it is affordable housing only a level or two above the local mall. Arcade’s central location in downtown further makes it attractive to those who prioritize expediency and convenience. It’s easy to imagine a young professional in his mini studio, running down stone steps that have stood since 1828, to get his coffee in the atrium before heading to work.
It is impressive that the Greek Revival exterior now houses one of the newest living trends in urban areas. Its willingness to adapt to change, as well as its dedication to preserving the building’s past, are perhaps equally responsible for making the Arcade such a beloved part of the community.
By Jane Kim
Site: Arcade Providence, Address: 65 Weybosset St., Providence, RI, 02903