Diocese House

also known as The Rialto, Hotel Plaza, Pilgrim Inn, Civic View Inn, Church House Inn, Sportsman’s Inn, Dean Hotel

A former church mission turned into a series of unsavory businesses establishments until a 30 year old law allowing indoor prostitution was rewritten

About this Property


The 1912 building at 122 Fountain has had a very colorful and varied history, built as a church mission and spending much of it time as a series of hotels, seedy bars, and nightclubs. Its tenant’s were also instrumental in creating a loophole in State law that effectively legalized indoor prostitution. It interesting how the building and its tenants changed the legal landscape of the entire state. See the News Story for more.

The building’s history is complex enough that we present what we have found in a timeline:

Constructed and funded by “Church House,” an Episcopalian organization1 founded by The Reverend Frank H. Decker. Their mission was to house, feed and counsel unemployed men.2 The mission only lasted 15 years, which is interesting considering how much the investment of creating a 4-story brick building must have been at the time.
The new owners converted the building into a hotel and extended the southeast end with a five-story addition. See Maps Section for links to map references.
Name is now the Rialto Hotel.3
When Prohibition ended, the owners covered the former chapel’s arched windows and opened a bar.4
The Rialto Hotel had among its guests vaudevillians in town for a show and sailors in port.5
Name is now the Hotel Plaza, though the manager at the same address is listed as working for “Rialto Hotel Operating Corp.”6 Reports of brawls, bookmaking, and prostitution prompted Navy officials to declare the establishment off-limits to sailors.7
Name is now the Pilgrim Inn8
“[W]hen it was the Pilgrim Inn and the police had denounced it as a den of iniquity, a District Court judge fined a bartender there for illegal possession of a blackjack. The bartender said that he used it to crush ice.”9
Late 1974 to early 1975
Name is now the Civic View Inn.10 “The Civic View Inn offers strip-tease. Its Stage Door bar is a hangout for prostitutes.”11
The Civic View Inn shows up numerous times through the 80s in Providence Journal Police Reports.
From 1988 to 1994, the building was remade as a European-style bed and breakfast called Church House Inn.12 The ground floor was a short-lived but popular live-music venue called the Red Brick Tavern. Owner Victor Brown ran the club with his brothers Jeff and Eric Dantas, programmed mostly blues and reggae and the venue was popular with the college crowd.13
Church House Inn fails and former owner Michael DeLuca forecloses on the mortgage and takes back the property. Renovations result in the opening of the Sportsman’s Inn and a short-lived Roger Clemens franchised fried-chicken restaurant. DeLuca resumes adult entertainment. Incidents of crime reoccur.14
The Sportsman’s Inn is advertised for sale.15
The building is purchased for $1.6 million by a Brooklyn, NY, group fronted by former marketing director for Cornish Associates and native East Sider Ari Heckman. The group intended to convert the building into a 60-room boutique hotel with a first-floor restaurant.16
The Dean Hotel opens in April with 52 rooms after a $7-million renovation.17 Later that year, the Dean earns a spot on Condé Nast Travel’s 18th annual list of the top hotels to debut in 2014.18 The project earns a Rhody Award in September and a Providence Preservation Society Award in November.

Current Events

The Dean has been open since 2014 and has become a mainstay, locally-sourced experience. The city’s artsy-academic vibe is reflected in all of it decor and attitude. Neon signs with ambiguous slogans hang on each floor; a quote from Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” is painted in giant letters on the side of the building; and the lobby is filled with international culture magazines. Bolt Coffee and Boombox karaoke bar have anchored the amenities, with a few different incarnations of a restaurant filling the ground-floor space. The restaurant started as German-inspired beer hall Faust which later was replaced by North.


From the National Register nomination form for the Downtown Providence Historic District, prepared by William McKenzie Woodward, Principal Historic Preservation Planner, 1984

Diocese House, later Hotel Plaza [sic], now Civic View Inn (1911): 4-story brick building with mid-20th-century stuccoed storefronts covered by an applied mansard “roof” below the second story; five evenly spaced windows between massive corner piers on upper stories; aluminum siding above fourth story covering cornice. Built by the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island as a rescue-mission, the building has since been used as a hotel. More recently it has housed one of the city’s few semi-topless bars.

Architectural Description

A four-story, brick rectangular building five bays wide by ten bays deep. Windows are rectangular with commercial storefront windows on the first floor and a arched double-wide entrance offset on the right side of the façade. Across a concrete band between the first and second floors is engraved “CHURCH HOUSE ERECTED A.D. 1912 TO THE GLORY OF GOD.” The fourth floor façade is embellished with stone panels with tile-inset crosses between each window. A new cornice has been added to the top of the fourth floor, undoubtedly based on original drawings, as the Providence Revolving Fund was involved in historic research. The brick patterning on the façade is decorative, running in pleasing patterns of columns and stripes.


  • 1920-1921 Sanborn Insurance Map, Volume 1, Plate 4 (page 8) — The building is present and labeled “To be Hotel (Built 1912).” The footprint is trapezoidal in shape and shorter than its present depth, not extending to the southeast as much as it does currently.
  • 1920-1951 Sanborn Insurance Map, Volume 1, Plate 4 (page 8) — The building has been extended to the southeast with a five-story section labeled “Built 1922.” The plat is labelled “Hotel Plaza” and there is restaurant space on the first floor.

In the News

by Lynn Arditi
Providence Journal | May 31, 2009 (abridged)

It’s been nearly 30 years since Rhode Island granted a green light to indoor prostitution.

Asian spas now offer “body rubs” just blocks from Providence City Hall, and Internet sex sites rate Rhode Island as a destination spot. On weekend nights, out-of-state cars vie for parking spaces outside storefronts with drawn shades and signs that read “Spa.”

To understand how Rhode Island became the only state in America to decriminalize prostitution, you have to go back to the mid-1970s, when a powerful politician and devout Roman Catholic named Matty Smith helped advance the cause of a former prostitute named Margo St. James.

Though few recall the details of this chapter in history, three decades later lawmakers are still coping with the consequences.

St. James, founder of the sex workers’ rights group COYOTE (Call Off Your Old, Tired Ethics), was traveling the country and Europe to deliver her message about keeping government out of the sex business. During a stop in Rhode Island, she met the owner of a downtown Providence strip club. The police, he told her, were on his back for letting prostitutes hang out at his bar. He offered her a tour of his club. Then, he introduced her to his lawyer.

It was 1976 — the year that The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality became a bestseller and Lorretta Lynn’s song “The Pill” climbed the pop charts — when St. James’ group challenged the constitutionality of Rhode Island’s prostitution law. In a federal lawsuit, the group argued that the statute was so broad that it could prohibit sex between unmarried adults.

Back then, prostitution in Rhode Island was a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Yet, despite well-publicized reports of prostitution going on in places such as the Civic View Inn, just down the street from the police station, only a handful of arrests there resulted in convictions, mostly involving small fines and probation.

In the city’s West End, residents complained that streetwalkers flagged down cars night and day, and their customers cruised the neighborhood with their windows down, soliciting wives on their way to work and girls waiting for the school bus.

The neighborhood had a powerful ally in Matthew J. “Matty” Smith, then speaker of the House of Representatives. Smith had built his power base by getting things done for his constituents. If a voter said a fallen tree had cracked the sidewalk, he’d call public works. A social conservative, he protested abortion with a lapel pin that depicted a fetus’s tiny feet. […] The West End was part of Smith’s district, and he called the prostitution there “sickening and despicable.”

BY 1979, as neighborhood groups pressed the police to step up patrols, the trial opened in the civil-rights lawsuit filed by St. James’ group. St. James flew from San Francisco to Rhode Island to testify before U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Pettine.

At issue was how much power the state should have to control the sexual activity of its citizens.

Ralph J. Gonnella, the Providence lawyer whom St. James met through a downtown strip club owner, argued that the prostitution law was so broad — it failed to even mention money — it could make sexual relations between unmarried adults a crime punishable by a $10 fine. And the person who initiated the offer of sex, he argued, could be charged with soliciting and face up to five years in prison. The state, he said, had no right or duty to regulate such private activity between consenting adults.

The lawsuit also alleged discrimination in how the law was being applied, citing data that showed the Providence police were arresting female prostitutes far more often than their male customers.

In September 1979, after four hours of testimony from witnesses, including a prostitute identified only as Jane Doe, each side rested its case. […]

As the 1980 General Assembly session opened, Smith said he’d make it his priority to get legislation passed to help rid the neighborhood of prostitution. His ally, state District Court Chief Judge Henry J. Laliberte, spoke up at a meeting at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The judge was a former city councilman who, like Smith, the House speaker, had grown up on Providence’s South Side.

The way to get prostitutes off the streets, the judge told the residents, was to change the law — make prostitution a misdemeanor crime instead of a felony — to speed prosecution in the courts.

Judge Pettine was still working on his decision in the lawsuit when the General Assembly unanimously approved a bill introduced by Smith to amend the prostitution statute.

ON ITS FACE, the amended law, drafted by Judge Laliberte, achieved its supporters’ objectives: It reduced prostitution from a felony to a misdemeanor, allowing cases to move through the courts more quickly. And it added the phrase “for pecuniary gain” in the section on “harboring prostitution.” But in rewriting the law, the drafters deleted a section that addressed committing the act of prostitution.

The changes, Judge Pettine and the lawyers agreed, had rendered the lawsuit’s claims moot. The judge dismissed the case.

The next year, ruling on Gonnella’s request for attorneys’ fees, Pettine wrote that the omission “appear[ed] to have decriminalized the sexual act itself, even when undertaken for remuneration.” The judge puzzled over why the passage had been deleted, but to him, its effect was clear. And his analysis would prove significant in years to come.

For more than two decades, the omission went largely unnoticed.

Then, in 2003, as brothels posing as massage parlors opened around the city amid reports that Asian women were being forced into prostitution, the Providence police raided four of these “spas.” They arrested seven women and one man and seized $9,300 in what they called “Operation Rubdown.” The police said the women, all Korean, had come to Rhode Island from New York, New Jersey, Georgia and Oregon to work as prostitutes. In addition to charges of performing massages without a license, four of the women were charged with soliciting for prostitution.

As the case awaited trial, Michael J. Kiselica, a lawyer who was representing the owners of the Midori and Oriental Garden Spas, and city prosecutor Steven L. Catalano agreed to a statement of facts: Three Korean women working at the Midori and Oriental Garden Spas had offered sex for money to undercover police. The prosecutor argued in a written motion that state law prohibits soliciting for prostitution.

But Kiselica, quoting Judge Pettine’s analysis of the state’s prostitution law, asserted that regardless of what his clients had done, no law was violated. In addition, he said, the state Supreme Court in 1998 ruled in State v. DeMagistris that Rhode Island’s law against soliciting was “primarily to bar prostitutes from hawking their wares in public” and could not be applied to convict someone for activity that takes place in private.

State District Court Judge Elaine T. Bucci ruled in favor of the defense and dismissed the case.

Police still tried to shut down brothels over the next couple of years by charging the women with performing a massage without a license or the building owners with violating the criminal-nuisance ordinance. But the prostitution charges went nowhere.

Kiselica has won dismissals of criminal charges against about 15 of his clients who were arrested in spa raids, discouraging police and prosecutors from going after prostitution indoors.

And the number of spas multiplied. Groups that monitor the spa industry have documented more than 30 spas throughout the state, most of them in Providence.

“These are real businesses,” said Kiselica, whose clients now include about a half-dozen spa owners. “They pay the taxes that the business owes. They operate within the bounds of the law.”

NEARLY 30 YEARS after lawmakers rewrote the prostitution statute, few can recall why it happened.

“We probably vote on 500 bills a year,” Sen. John F. McBurney III, the only member of the General Assembly who served in 1980, said recently. McBurney says he can think of only one explanation for why a bill that decriminalized prostitution would win unanimous approval by the General Assembly: “They didn’t know what they were voting for.” […]

This year, as they have for the last three years, several state lawmakers are pushing to rewrite the 1980 law. A bill that passed the House earlier this month clearly states that anyone who engages in sex for money is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Margo St. James, the former prostitute who challenged the prostitution law in the 1970s, hopes Rhode Island keeps the law the way it is. […]

“We tried Massachusetts. California. Hawaii. Florida,” she recalls. “Most of them didn’t get anywhere.”

Twists and turns
COYOTE, a national sex-workers’ rights group, sues Rhode Island in federal court, alleging the state’s prostitution law is overly broad and violates the constitutional right to privacy.
The General Assembly amends the prostitution law, reducing solicitation from a felony to a misdemeanor and deleting a reference to prostitution as a crime. The COYOTE lawsuit is dismissed.
U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Pettine, ruling on legal fees, says the change in Rhode Island law decriminalized sex for money.
State Supreme Court rules in State v. DeMagistris that the law against soliciting for prostitution was “primarily to bar prostitutes from hawking their wares in public.”
Prostitution charges against four women arrested at two Providence spas are dismissed after attorney Michael J. Kiselica, citing Pettine and the Supreme Court ruling, successfully argues that Rhode Island has no law against indoor prostitution.
Bill to make prostitution illegal, wherever it occurs, dies in the General Assembly; similar bills fail in subsequent years.
On May 13, the House overwhelmingly passes bill to criminalize all prostitution. Bill now pending in the Senate.

Update: “By a tally of 62 to 8, the lawmakers [approved a bill to] make prostitution and soliciting sex illegal ‘regardless of the time, place or location,’ ending a four-year quest by Rep. Joanne M. Giannini, D-Providence, to amend the current law.”19

Arditi, Lynn. “How R.I. opened the door to prostitution — Broken legal barriers made public nuisance a private act.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. News, 31 May 2009, pp. A-01. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/152424BD2ECB04E8. Accessed 7 Apr. 2024.

Renovators find unexpected treasure

by Dan Barry
Providence Journal | November 25, 1988 (abridged)

For more than a decade, the Civic View Inn has had seminude women dancing in its lounge. And all the while, an artistic treasure lay beneath the red-and-black velvet wallpaper.

The new owners found it earlier this month while renovating the building: a wall-size mural that depicted jolly men hoisting goblets to the admiration of comely maidens in a tavern.

The owners — stepbrothers Victor Brown and Jeffrey and Eric Dantas — did what anyone would do upon making such a discovery. They called the Rhode Island School of Design.

Within a week, Daniel Rosenfeld, RISD’s curator of painting and sculpture, and two associates visited the lounge, which had been called Wolfie’s bar.

The 4-foot by 8-foot mural was signed by three of RISD’s more-famous graduates: John R. Frazier, the school’s president from 1955 to 1962; Gordon Leif Peers, a former RISD professor; and his wife, Florence Leif Peers.

Frazier and Gordon Peers, in particular, “were both very revered teachers at RISD,” Rosenfeld said. “They were very important in the education of many generations of painters. They were very important in their time.”

The mural was probably painted shortly after World War II ended, in 1945, Rosenfeld added. “It was clearly painted for that kind of setting.” […]

Rosenfeld said that Alice Miles, an art restorer who accompanied him to the Civic View, expressed interest in salvaging the mural. […]

He said he and his brothers will either donate the mural to a museum or hang it in the lobby of the building once restorations are completed.

Meanwhile, he added, “we’re putting it down in the cellar.”

BARRY, DAN. “Renovators find unexpected treasure.” Providence Journal (RI), CITY FINAL ed., sec. NEWS, 25 Nov. 1988, pp. C-01. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/1525276398855030. Accessed 6 Apr. 2024.

  1. BARRY, DAN. “Owners to offer new view of inn.” Providence Journal (RI), CITY FINAL ed., sec. NEWS, 25 Nov. 1988, pp. C-01. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/15252764251F6EE8. Accessed 6 Apr. 2024. 

  2. Smith, Gregory. “From God to go-go, building is an icon.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. Local News, 25 Mar. 2009, pp. B-03. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/1524249D64EA93A8. Accessed 6 Apr. 2024. 

  3. The Providence Directory and Rhode Island State Business Directory, 1930. Sampson & Murdoch Company, page 1452. Accessed 06 April 2024 from https://archive.org/details/providencedirectunse/page/1452/mode/2up?q=%22122+Fountain%22 

  4. “Owners to offer new view of inn.” 

  5. “Owners to offer new view of inn.” 

  6. Polk’s Providence (Providence County, R.I.) city directory, 1950. R.L. Polk & Co. Publishers, page 758. Accessed 06 April 2024 from https://archive.org/details/polksprovidencep1950unse/page/758/mode/2up?q=%22122+fountain%22 

  7. “Owners to offer new view of inn.” 

  8. Polk’s Providence (Providence County, R.I.) city directory, 1968. R.L. Polk & Co. Publishers, page 144. Accessed 06 April 2024 from https://archive.org/details/polksprovidencepunse_3/page/144/mode/2up?q=%22122+Fountain%22 

  9. “From God to go-go, building is an icon.” 

  10. Providence (Providence County, R.I.) City Directory, 1976. R.L. Polk & Co. Publishers, page 118. Accessed 06 April 2024 from https://archive.org/details/providenceprovid00unse/page/118/mode/2up?q=%22122+fountain%22 

  11. SMITH, GREGORY. “PROVIDENCE — AN INFAMOUS LANDMARK — A new act for an old strip club.” Providence Journal (RI), 1 ed., sec. projoRhodeIsland, 5 May 2012, p. A1. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/152421DF78D68980. Accessed 7 Apr. 2024. 

  12. “From God to go-go, building is an icon” 

  13. Smith, Andy. “POP MUSIC | Downtown is alive with music | The new Red Brick Tavern fills some of the void left by Lupo’s.” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. LIFEBEAT, 23 Feb. 1989, pp. F-03. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/152525D275D51120. Accessed 6 Apr. 2024. 

  14. “PROVIDENCE — AN INFAMOUS LANDMARK — A new act for an old strip club.” 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. Ibid. 

  17. PELLETIER, JENNA. “Designed with staying power in mind | Providence.” Providence Journal (RI), 1 ed., sec. News, 3 Apr. 2014, p. MAIN_01. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/15241E866F0673C0. Accessed 8 Apr. 2024. 

  18. “Travel | Providence’s Dean lands on elite Condé Nast list.” Providence Journal (RI), 1 ed., sec. Features, 8 June 2014, p. RISLANDER_05. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/15241EC248429BD8. Accessed 8 Apr. 2024. 

  19. EDGAR, RANDAL. “At the Assembly — House OKs ban on indoor prostitution.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. News, 14 May 2009, pp. A-01. NewsBank: America’s News, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=NewsBank&req_dat=D4BD6B42F1AB4706B5E1244D477DEE03&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Anews/152424B510082BF8. Accessed 8 Apr. 2024.