The Shepard’s Building: its Rise, Fall and Rebirth

259 Westminster Street

Photographer Unknown. PPS Slide Collection

Photographer Unknown. PPS Slide Collection

Unlike some of my recent adventures, getting into the Shepard’s Building is not difficult; I walk by it and through it almost daily on my way to work and school. I did have to do some serious digging though to discover the history behind the building, piecing together what it must have been like in its heyday as a department store, and how it ever ended up on the Most Endangered Properties List. My journey of discovery took me to the Providence Public Library where I met my favorite librarian, Kate Wells, and to the uppermost floor of City Hall where I found the city archives (Why didn’t anyone tell me about this amazing place before?! Thankfully Kate finally did). Mostly I delved into the filing cabinets and slide drawers of PPS.  This is what I learned:

The Shepard’s company opened its doors in a 3-story Italianate building located at Westminster and Clemence streets in April 1880. It didn’t take long for this small business to grow into the largest retail center in New England. Over the course of 23 years, the store went from occupying 6,400sf in 1880 to 301,000sf in 1903, taking over what was once a three-block area into one giant store. And it wasn’t just a store. In fact John Shepard was adamant that Shepard’s was not a department store, rather a “collection of stores, each more complete in itself than the small separate stores” (I suppose this is an important clarification in the age of Walmart and Target). Inside the building you could find Shepard’s Tearoom, The Wellington (a 5 star restaurant), an ice making and refrigeration plant, bakery, grocery store, letter writing area, nursery, information bureau and even a small post office. WEAN, Rhode Island’s first radio station, also began inside of Shepard’s. Of course, that long list doesn’t even include all of the finery, clothing, jewelry and the like that was also found at the store. I think it’s safe to say that you could literally find anything and everything you ever wanted under Shepard’s roof.

Photographer Unknown. Photo from Providence City Archives

Photographer Unknown. Providence City Archives

Former employees can attest that it was more than just a store. Everyone who worked there was treated like family. The company held annual dances, clambakes and other outings for employees, and by 1936 gave all employees two weeks of paid vacation – a benefit that even today, most department store employees aren’t so lucky to receive. I haven’t figured out why, but the store closed in 1973. Was it a parking issue? Shopping malls full of chain stores opening? Do you know the story?

Photographer Unknown. PPS Slide Collection

Photo Courtesy of Paul Clancy

From what I can tell, the Shepard’s building stood vacant until the 1990’s when a new owner, who purchased the building at a bankruptcy auction, said that he had to demolish it to make a surface level parking lot in order to generate revenue to pay off his bank loans. This is when PPS stepped in and organized a “charette” between community leaders to brainstorm ideas on how to best adaptively re-use the building. Teams considered renovating the building into a museum of Rhode Island history, commercial space, housing, and retrofitting the entire building into a parking garage. The idea that had the most potential from the beginning, and backed by Mayor Paolino, was to relocate the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) downtown campus into the building. This concept had legs seeing that plans were already in place to demolish URI’s then current campus to make way for Providence Place Mall.

And so the Shepard’s building was saved. Well, that makes it sound simple. The building was nearly demolished, and there was actually a huge amount of controversy that surrounded URI’s move into the building, which ended up needing to be almost entirely gutted. But the preservation of the Shepard’s building, a cornerstone of downtown Providence, led the way to rejuvenating downtown more broadly and was one of PPS’s greatest success stories.


PROGRAM: So, I really glossed over the history of saving the Shepard’s building. For the real story, told from the movers and shakers who actually worked to save the building, check out PPS’s upcoming program, “Preservation through Collaboration: the Shepard’s Department Store Building” on Monday April 20th. It’s FREE!

IMG_1791FUN FACT: Not once, but twice, the Shepard’s Building was engulfed in flames. The first fire was on December 5, 1890 and the second was on March 8, 1923. In both cases, Shepard’s was back up and running within the next couple of weeks. Business had to go on!

Stories to Share?: It seems like everyone knows someone who used to shop or work at the Shepard’s Department Store. Or maybe you played a role in helping to save the building. Please share your comments below, and on twitter (Pictures too!) @pvdpreservation, #mep20.

6 comments for “The Shepard’s Building: its Rise, Fall and Rebirth

  1. April 9, 2015 at 7:48 am

    I’ve been learning so much! I hope you find some of those photos of the interior. It would be so interesting to see.

      April 9, 2015 at 5:27 pm

      I’ve been searching for interior photos Erika, and I’ve got nothing! The only one I’ve seen so far was shared by @W9GYR on twitter of the cafe. Can’t share it here, but you can see it in the storify at the end of the story. If YOU can find one, please share (#mep20)!

      • April 9, 2015 at 7:05 pm

        I did see the postcard, thanks, and shared your tweet request. I’m surprised that none are available, though I probably shouldn’t be. I wonder what became of all the ephemera related to the business itself. I’m sure they had photos of the interior.

  2. April 9, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    An important reason for Shepard’s closing, as well as for The Outlet, Gladdings, Peerless, and other “downcity” stores was the development of the Warwick and Rhode Island Malls and an exodus to the suburbs from city living. Several companies also moved — AMICA insurance among them. The jewelry industry moved south, and companies in Olneyville also closed.. Theatres also closed and/or were torn down and the remaining population consisted of many counter-culture people and a number of others with various addictions.

    There was considerable uncertainty about the future direction of the city. Westminster Street as an example was sometime a pedestrian mall, and /or a one-way street. The rivers in the city were in a planning mode for relocation. This included moving the World War monument, and the train station. There are but a few of the factors that contributed to the closing of Shepard’s and the resultant upheaval of downtown Providence.

      April 9, 2015 at 1:54 pm

      You so nicely summarized what was happening in the city at the time of Shepard’s closing! What you’ve written makes a lot of sense, and I know the growth of suburbia left many downtown areas struggling. It’s good to see life being breathed back into our cities, and the preservation of Providence’s downtown is testament to the value we are now putting back into our city centers. I hope that trend continues!

  3. Robert Solomon
    April 9, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Shepard’s actually opened a store in the state’s first enclosed mall in Warwick – the mall opened in the late 1960’s, had 2 stories, and was anchored by Sears and Shepard’s. The much larger Warwick Mall didn’t open until the early 1970’s. As I dimly recall, Shepard’s was purchased in the early 1970’s by a criminal who bankrupted both stores. In the late 1970’s Dewey Dufresne, the then proprietor of Joe’s on Benefit Street (now Geoff’s) opened downtown’s most upscale restaurant on the second floor of the then empty Shepard’s Building. It was named Joe’s Upstairs, but failed in a weak economy. Dewey had mistakenly used 1 corporation to own both, so the failure downtown took Joe’s on Benefit Street with it. Geoff was the unpaid meat supplier. Dewey’s son, Wiley, became one of the most celebrated chefs in Manhattan in the early part of the 21st century, opening WD-50 and Alder.

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