Rhode Island researchers will look at the title of this story and say, that’s nice … wait … what? Rhode Island really doesn’t have a State Library in quite the way that other states do. If anything, the State Archives might come closer to what people expect from a state library. But there is a state library located on the second floor of the Rhode Island State House, and I visited it yesterday. This is the story (mostly in pictures) of my visit to the Rhode Island State House, Benefit Street, and the Licht Judicial Center where the Supreme Court is held.
The Rhode Island State House
Since the Rhode Island State Library is on the second floor of the State House, I traveled to Smith Street, found some metered parking well down the street, and entered the State House for the first time ever. The State House, completed in 1902, is beautiful. I wandered around the first and second floors for quite a while. Note for next time: ABSOLUTELY do not miss the full length portrait of George Washington, painted by Rhode Island native Gilbert Stuart, in the Governor’s State Room.
What’s hard to portray here is the unique auditory experience of the State House. There were school children visiting, but their voices and footsteps were heard only as a kind of whirring white noise. It was a windy day, but still I’m not sure why I seemed to be hearing that inside, too. At one point, a piano somewhere could be clearly heard; someone was playing well and loudly. Somehow, the piano and the circulating noises seemed to add to the homey, unique experience of the State House – I couldn’t help but think, I doubt you would hear a piano wafting up the stairwells in the State House of a really large state. But in Rhode Island, we are who we are.
The Rhode Island State Library
The library itself is imposing and beautiful, with two balconies and a marvelous gilt and glass ceiling. I looked over the local books and biographies. This library serves lawmakers, primarily, although the public is welcome to visit. If one were looking for specific records, or even for older transactions of the General Assembly, the State Archives is a better place to visit.
The beautiful portraits at the State House got me very curious about finding portraits related to my family. Since two uncles had served as Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, I decided to head to the courthouse. Knowing parking would be quite a problem, I drove down Benefit street until I found a spot, then had a pleasant walk over to the courthouse.
The Licht Judicial Complex
The Supreme Court is located in the Licht Judicial Complex, a landmark in Providence just to the east of downtown, completed in 1933 at significant expense. The building is ornate and beautiful, with gilding everywhere. A large law library is housed on the eighth floor, filled to the brim with law volumes. There wasn’t a lot for me to do there, but the librarian suggested that any portraits of Supreme Court Justices should be in the seventh floor and I should talk to the guard there.
As it turned out, the guard was able to give me a complete guided tour of the whole Supreme Court area. On this tour, I was able to take pictures in some areas (normally prohibited because the building is a working courthouse). We talked a lot about Rhode Island’s unique place in history and about the portraits. He had a lot of stories about the building and its history. I did find the portrait of my grandfather’s uncle, William Douglas, and I found a copy of Peleg Arnold’s portrait (an uncle who was Chief Justice from 1795-1809 and 1810-1812) although the original is held at the John Hay Library at Brown University (their portrait collection is browsable online).
I was very happy to spend my afternoon exploring these two historic sites. The State House, in particular, is a fun place to walk through or to take a tour. There is a welcome room on the first floor, or the website, where one can get more information.
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— Photos by Diane Boumenot.