Having failed on two previous occasions to get inside, I made sure that I was there at precisely 12:30 p.m. one recent Sunday for the hourlong public tour. After coffee and cookies downstairs with parishioners, church historian Stanley Lemons led us upstairs and explained that the design is really a composite of two styles, the English Renaissance (Georgian) and the Puritan, the latter evidenced by the square shape, white walls and complete lack of religious iconography. He said that its size -- large enough to accommodate one-third the late-18th-century population of Providence -- is owing to its "worldly" function, to accommodate commencements at nearby Brown College.
Directly across from the church is the Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum, one of the great small museums in America -- except that it really isn't all that small. Three floors and 40 galleries take you from ancient Egypt to the present day in a stylishly designed (this is RISD, after all) free-flowing structure that also incorporates the Federalist-style Pendleton House, opulently decked out in the finest American decorative arts, especially furniture, from the 18th and 19th centuries.
A little farther up Benefit Street is the Providence Athenaeum, built of gray granite in the shape of a Greek temple in 1753 and still exquisitely fulfilling its original mission as a public lending library and exhibit space. A block farther, and pre-dating the Athenaeum by nearly 50 years, is 10-time governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence Stephen Hopkins' red clapboard home, whose interior is tastefully furnished in period antiques. Not surprisingly given Hopkins' late 18th-century prominence, George Washington really did sleep here -- twice.
Just off Benefit Street, past the First Unitarian Church, stands the John Brown House, Providence's premier house museum, built in 1816 and boasting the largest bell ever cast from Paul Revere's foundry. Completed in 1788, the magnificent three-story brick edifice was merchant, civic leader and family patriarch John Brown's notice to the world that he had finally "made it."
One of the ways that Brown had made it was via the slave trade. In this, however, he was not alone. As we learned during the hourlong tour, an estimated 60 percent to 90 percent of American-flagged slave-trading ships in the late 1700s hailed from Rhode Island, even though the colony itself had prohibited the importation of slaves as early as 1774. The Brown family's involvement in human trafficking is traced in a poignant exhibit downstairs, just as the material fruits of it are displayed throughout the meticulously restored mansion.
It was Brown's abolitionist nephew, Nicholas, for whom the fledgling College of Rhode Island was renamed in 1804, and no exploration of the East Side is complete without a stroll through Brown University's leafy, compact campus atop College Hill. Many of the older libraries and galleries around the Quad are open to the public, so don't be shy about opening doors. But don't even bother with the ornate, iron Van Wickle Gates: They are only opened twice a year, first to let out the graduating seniors, then again to let in the incoming freshman.
After a mile of history, visitors to Providence may think they've seen it all, but that isn't the half of it. The other half is the commercial downtown, known as Downcity, which lies just across the Providence River. This was the part most in need of reviving. A stroll along Riverwalk's stone-sculpted passageways to Waterplace, a circular basin in the Woonasquatucket reclaimed from decades of not-so-benign neglect, reveals that Downcity really has cleaned up its act.
Towering behind Waterplace, ground zero as it were of WaterFire, is Providence Place Mall, a 1.4-million-square-feet retail behemoth that spans the Woonasquatucket on the site of what had once been a parking lot. Providence Place is the most conspicuous example of Downcity's multibillion-dollar revitalization, but other very big renaissance babies include the former Union Station (now offices and restaurants), the Dunkin' Donuts Center and the Rhode Island Convention Center. Nor is the process over: Two luxury condominium towers overlooking Waterplace are slated for completion this summer, and ground has been broken on One Ten Westminster, a 40-story combination office-condo-hotel that will eventually become the city's tallest building.