Union Railroad Depot

also known as The Old Union Station, Tefft’s Depot

A masterpiece of the Italian Romanesque style designed by a young newcomer who would later become an architecture star in his relatively short life

About this Property

#Original Design & Construction

Designer

Providence’s first unified railroad station was designed by the then 21-year-old draftsman-architect Thomas A. Tefft out of the Providence office of Tallman & Bucklin. Astonishingly, the design was completed before Tefft graduated from Brown University in 1851 with a degree in architecture. In the three short years he studied and designed with the firm, he took part in drafting designs for 22 properties. Soon after his graduation, Tallman & Bucklin dissolved. In private practice he was the principal designer on 35 more properties in Rhode Island and beyond.

While Union Station was being constructed, another Tefft design served as an interim passenger station called simply Freight House No. 1 (1847-1848). That building survived until the early 1970s.

Tefft left for England in December, 1856, as the country and region were heading towards an economic slowdown that would lead to the Panic of 1857. Tefft’s intention was to tour Europe, visiting Paris, Rome, Geneva, Milan, Berlin, and Florence among others. In December 1859 he fell ill with a fever and died within a week or two. His body was shipped to Rhode Island in February 1860 where it was interred at Swan Point Cemetery.1

One can’t help but wonder what other notable architecture Tefft could have designed if he had lived beyond his short but relatively prolific 33 years — 50 buildings over the course of a 10-year career. Read the New York Times’ obituary from February, 1860.

Architecture

Designed in the Lombard Romanesque style, the handsome station had two wings on either side of a central pavilion with tall, slender towers. The exterior had much brick ornamentation in the form of drip mouldings along the cornices and breaking up the surface area of the façades, with rounded arch window groupings and arched supports for covered walkway openings. A double hip roof covered the bulk of the terminal wings while the central structure resembled a church with its steep hip roof and rosette window.

The two wings were each a terminal for a different railroad, while the central pavilion open to the Cove unified the two as passengers moved from one to the other to continue on their journey. Overall, the buildings extended 720 feet along the edge of Exchange Place and was the largest railroad station in the United States at the time of its construction. In 1885, American Architect and Building News voted the building one of the 20 best buildings in the country. 20th century architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote of the station, “without much question it was the finest early station in the New World.”

Tefft gave Providence one of the grandest of early railroad stations but it was built when rail traffic was relatively light. As railroad traffic increased over the coming decades, the need for additional transit space was apparent. While it took many years for the City and the various railroad corporations to agree on a solution, a new station began to be constructed behind Tefft’s station after Cove lands had been filled in. On February 21, 1896, a catastrophic fire gutted the soon-to-be “old” Union Station.2

#History

Thank you to Edward J. Ozog for the extensive research materials found at Railroad Stations of Providence

Up until 1847, Providence did not have a central railroad depot terminus. Providence was instead served by two stations more than half a mile apart connected by a water Ferry in Providence Harbor. Regular train service began on the Boston & Providence line in 1835 and by 1845 operated a depot in India Point that connected to New York city via ferries. In 1838 the New York, Providence & Boston Railroad began regular service to a depot on the Providence Harbor at Crary Street in South Providence which was then largely unsettled.3

The union of the Providence railroads at a new station on the Providence Cove was aided by the construction of the Providence & Worcester Railroad, built to replace the hard-working but short-lived Blackstone Canal. The P&W, with the support of the Boston & Providence and New York Providence & Boston, joined forces with commercial interests to fill in a large portion of the Cove as a means of creating the land needed for a station, freight depots, engine houses, and rail yards.4

A statue of General Burnside stood at the east end of the Union Station installed on July 4, 1887. Burnside was a famous Civil War leader, rifle manufacturer, railroad executive, Rhode Island Governor, and U.S. Senator. He was also the first president of the Rhode Island Locomotive Works which built engines in Providence from 1866 to 1908.5

During the early morning of February 21, 1896 the Tefft Union Station was destoyed by a fire which started in a second floor bedroom occupied by a restaurant worker. By the time fireman arrived from a nearby firehouse the entire length of the building was in flames. Four alarms were sounded calling to the conflagration all the fire fighting apparatus of Providence. The fire was under control in less than two hours and while the building’s interior was gone the brick walls stayed upright. The area was covered with ice from the thousands of gallons of water poured on the building in the frigid cold. An occupied Pullman car was at the station but was pushed to safety with its sleeping passengers unaware of the danger.

The fire was attributed to overheated pipes. The two boilers that heated the building had heating pipes rising through the floor. The pipes became too hot and ignited the old, dry woodwork. The flames crept through the floors and covered some distance before burning through and gaining the attention of the night watchman. The new Union Station was still under construction and temporary arrangements had to be used for two years. The fire did not prevent trains from running through the area even on the day of the fire.6

  1. Wikipedia page on Thomas Tefft, captured May 3, 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Alexander_Tefft 

  2. Wikipedia page on Union Station, captured May 3, 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Station_(Providence) 

  3. “Before the Union Station,” from RR Stations of Providence, by Edward J. Ozog. Captured May 3, 2021 from https://sites.google.com/site/rrstationsofprovidence/home/before-the-union-station 

  4. “The Union Station,” from RR Stations of Providence, by Edward J. Ozog. Captured May 3, 2021 from https://sites.google.com/site/rrstationsofprovidence/home/before-the-union-station/the-union-station 

  5. “More Union Station,” from RR Stations of Providence, by Edward J. Ozog. Captured May 3, 2021 from https://sites.google.com/site/rrstationsofprovidence/home/before-the-union-station/the-union-station/more-union-station 

  6. “The End of Tefft’s Depot,” from RR Stations of Providence, by Edward J. Ozog. Captured May 3, 2021 and copied verbatim from https://sites.google.com/site/rrstationsofprovidence/home/before-the-union-station/the-union-station/more-union-station/the-other-stations/the-search-for-a-new-station/the-end-of-tefft-s-depot