Sesquicentennial Memories

Demise of the Normal School's 1871 Home

By Michael Smith

In the early morning hours of Saturday, February 11, 1899, the third home of the Rhode Island State Normal School was destroyed by a three-alarm fire. Located at 265 Westminster Street on Christian Hill (now known as Hoyle Square), this building served the institution from September 1871 until larger quarters were secured on Benefit Street in December 1878. At the time of the fire, the building was occupied by the Star Theatre. According to an article published in The Providence Daily Journal that same day, “The style and class of performances given at the house appealed to the lovers of sensational plays…” The stage production, a presentation of which was given the evening before fire broke out, was “The Tarrytown Widow.”

The building was valued at $20,000 at the time of its loss, of which $15,000 was covered by insurance. Three stores located in the building’s commercial storefront sustained heavy damage, including William B. Stillman’s shoe store, the Salt Water Taffy Company of M.L. Brainard, and the barber shop of John L. Ives. One firefighter, William Mains of Hose 3, sustained severe injuries while fighting the blaze.

The three-story building was originally constructed as an armory and in 1844 was converted into a church, the High Street Congregational Meeting House. It was during its years as a church that the structure was acquired by Amos C. Barstow, former Mayor of the City of Providence, President of what was then known as “Butler Hospital for the Insane,” and an influential member of the state General Assembly. The state leased the second floor of the building from Rep. Barstow for the Normal School. During the time of occupancy by the Normal School, a dry goods store was located on the first floor, as evidenced by the accompanying photograph. After the departure of the Normal School, another church, The Church of the Emanuel, took residence. In 1898 the building was converted into a theatre.

In each edition of What’s News at Rhode Island College during the course of the College’s Sesquicentennial observance, Michael Smith, Assistant to the President, presents a brief glimpse of an historic College event that occurred at some point in the institution’s history corresponding to the publication date of that particular edition of What’s News. This is the second installment.

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