“Beautiful, isn’t it? I think it was voted one of the most beautiful State Houses in the country,” I recall a Lyft driver telling me, as he drove me past the front façade of the Rhode Island State House during PrideFest. It was the first time I had properly seen the State House. I still remember how I nodded in earnest, gazing at the dome lit up in rainbow colors, and topped by the Independence man that I could just make out in the dusk. A brilliant white, neoclassical structure crowned with the fourth largest self-supporting dome in the world, the Rhode Island State House sits on top of the hill overlooking the rest of Providence.
Though lil Rhody is the smallest state in the US, it boasts a glorious capitol. When construction of the current State House started in 1895, Rhode Island was the richest per capita state in the country, and the State House was built to reflect the state’s affluence. It was one of the first public buildings to have electricity, and prominent architects McKim, Mead, and White were chosen to design the building.
When I finally visit, I feel slightly intimidated as I make my way across the wide, empty stone courtyard. To my relief, Lane Sparkman, Education and Public Programs Coordinator of the State House, greets me warmly in the second floor library.
“Rhode Island has a rich and fascinating history,” Lane says, as we walk downstairs to the Charter Museum, a chamber dedicated to the Royal Charter of 1663. Roger Williams traveled to England to acquire the Royal Charter from King Charles II, which outlined one of the defining attributes of Rhode Island to pursue the “lively experiment. . . with full liberty in religious concernments.” Rhode Island was the first state to champion freedom of religion in a time when it was common practice to brand, cut off ears, or even execute people who practiced different religions.
“In downtown Newport, there is the oldest synagogue in the country… as well as one of the oldest Quaker Houses, Anglican and Catholic Churches, and different temples of worship,” she says, as we regard the portrait of Mary Dyer, a Quaker who had been executed in Massachusetts for preaching the freedom of religion. Rhode Island was the only state in which people of different faiths, whether they were Jews, Quakers, Puritans, or atheists, could coexist without facing structural persecution. The people of Rhode Island held dearly to this right; Lane explains this was part of the reason it was the last state to ratify the Constitution. Before the Bill of Rights, the Constitution didn’t outline the freedom of religion, and it was a right that people weren’t willing to forego.
Outside the Charter Museum, there are statues, portraits, and busts throughout the halls. One shows Elizabeth Chace, an abolitionist and women’s suffrage movement leader in Rhode Island; just around the corner, there is also the bust of Christiana Bannister, an African American and Native American woman, who as an abolitionist and art patron built Bannister House for aged women of color. The State House is not just a public office, but a monument dedicated to the people who fought for the rights that we enjoy today: freedom of religion, universal suffrage, and civil rights. In Lane’s words, it’s “a working space, but also a kind of museum.”
We pass the statue of Thomas Dorr, who led the Dorr’s Revolution for universal suffrage in Rhode Island, and the State Room, where Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington hangs on the wall. She then shows me the Senate Chamber.
“Democracy only works when the people are engaged,” she says. “Vote, yes, but it doesn’t work just once in four years. When people you’ve elected aren’t doing what you wanted them to do, you not only have the right to either elect or not elect them in the next few years, but to write letters, participate in hearings, petition, and have rallies.” She emphasizes that state and town level decisions impact people’s lives on a more personal and day-to-day basis than federal decisions. I look around the Senate Chamber a moment longer before we return to the public library.
Looking out to the lawn surrounding the State House, Lane says that she’s seen rallies from a wide political spectrum on the lawns. “That’s great. The State House is a symbol, but it’s also a gathering space.”
I leave the State House, feeling more comfortable in its halls. More responsible. I remember the staff encouraging visitors into the State Room and Senate Chamber, and the one thing they try to hammer home with anyone who visits: “This is your building. . . This is our building.”
By Jane Kim
Site: Rhode Island State House, Address: 82 Smith St., Providence, RI, 02903