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Kennedy Plaza ca. 2005

Kennedy Plaza (formerly City Hall Park, Exchange Terrace, or Exchange Place) is a rectangular central plaza and the geographic center of the downtown Providence, Rhode Island. It occupies a focal civic space, between the City Hall and the Federal Building. Following a traditional colonial pattern, the Plaza has served as a transportation hub since 1847.[1] In 2017, mayor Jorge Elorza announced plans to transform it from a transportation hub to a public space that would serve as a "true civic heart" of Providence.[2]

Today, Kennedy Plaza is bounded by Exchange Street ("Little Wall St."[3]) on the northeast, Fulton Street on the southeast, Dorrance Street on the southwest, and Washington Street on the northwest.

Surrounding the Plaza are Burnside Park, the major ice skating center. Its mobile diner has been driven into the Plaza and parked next to City Hall nightly since 1893. On the east edge of the plaza sit the three buildings - One Financial Plaza; 50 Kennedy Plaza; Industrial National Bank Building - that comprise the center pieces of the city's skyline.




Kennedy Plaza has seen many transformations and redesigns over the years;[5] it has variously been known as City Hall Park, Exchange Place, "The Mall", and Exchange Terrace. The Plaza has not seen a ten-year period without salient change to its appearance.[1]

The primary uses of the site have traditionally been as a transportation hub and also as a recreational space; the two uses don't always co-exist easily. The Plaza has also been the site of frequent events, demonstrations, petitions and orations in front of City Hall or the Court House.[1] The plaza offers a convenient space for audiences to attend speeches on the City Hall steps.

Transportation hubEdit

In the early 1800s, the A&W Sprague company established a horse-carriage line in Exchange Place. The carriage took passengers to Sprague's Rhode Island mills and as far away as Connecticut.[5]

Exchange Place, ca. 1886. City Hall at center; to its right is the Union Depot train station with its two towers, where Burnside park currently exists.

In 1847, the first Union Station was built. Its two tall spires fronted on Exchange Place and were the tallest structures on the plaza.[5] The statue of Ambrose Burnside stood at the plaza's east end, and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial on the west end, in front of City Hall. In the early 1900s, the Burnside statue was moved to its present location in Burnside Park.[5]

From 1920 to 1924, the plaza was circled by trolley tracks.[5]

Panorama of Exchange Place in 1909

During WWII, the United Electric Railway and The Narragansett Electric company (owned by Marsden J. Perry) put "trackless trolleys" into service by installing electric buses in 1943.[6] Employing what was then known as a “WAIT” station in the form of a loop, U.E.R buses served North Main St to Pawtucket and through the East Side tunnel to Thayer, Waterman, Angell, Hope, and Elmgrove Streets. As federal funds became available in the late 1970s for automobile-free zones, all local bus-waiting areas were consolidated to Kennedy Plaza.

By the 1950s, the plaza became less central to city transportation needs, as the automobile became the dominant mode of transportation.[5]

1938 HurricaneEdit

The Category 3 1938 New England Hurricane flooded the entire expanse of Exchange Place when it made landfall on September 20. The storm surge hit just at the end of the workday; the water level rose from a few inches to waist deep, then to over 13 feet, with strong currents sweeping people off their feet.[7]

1964: Kennedy PlazaEdit

Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy spoke from the front steps of City Hall on Monday November 7, 1960, the day before he was elected president.[8] Kennedy spoke for 13 minutes to a crowd of about 40,000 to 50,000 people in the plaza.[8] Kennedy's speech was a campaign attack against Republican candidate Richard Nixon.[8] Emotions in the crowd were reportedly high, with many people screaming and chanting.[8] In 1964, after Kennedy's assassination the plaza was renamed Kennedy Plaza in honor of the late US President.

In 1983, mayor Vincent Cianci had the plaza redesigned as a central bus depot. City bus stops on Washington, Westminster, and Weybosset streets were consolidated at Kennedy Plaza in hope of reducing congestion and air pollution.[5]

1998 saw the addition of a skating rink to the plaza.[5]

In 2002, the Intermodal Transportation Center, a $12 million bus station, was built in the center of the plaza.[5]

2014 RIPTA hub rehabilitation projectEdit

In Summer 2014, RIPTA began a redesign effort that changed the configuration of Kennedy Plaza, and included the relocation of current bus stop terminus points formerly located at the Plaza. The overall plan transformed the Plaza into a pedestrian oriented environment, where bus terminal locations were moved to the periphery of the Plaza and adjacent Burnside Park. RIPTA has noted an 11% increase in ridership of the Statewide system.[9]

In anticipation of the July 15, 2014 groundbreaking for the rehabilitation project, on July 12 going forward, Bus terminus locations were found along Exchange Street near One Financial Tower, North Fountain Street, Exchange Terrace along the Rhode Island Foundation Building, and on Sabin Street along the Rhode Island Convention Center, beneath the Omni Hotel Towers. RIPTA announced on December 9, 2014, that the Hub would reopen January 17, 2015.[10]

In 2016, to combat a growing reputation as a haven for drug dealing, vandalism, and prostitution, RIPTA hired a squad of unarmed private security guards to patrol Kennedy Plaza. [11]

Through 2017, Kennedy Plaza served as the modern nexus of the state's public conventional-bus and trolley-replica bus transit services operated by Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA), as well as a departure point for Peter Pan and Greyhound bus lines.

2018 civic redesignEdit

In August 2017, Mayor Jorge Elorza announced plans to transform Kennedy Plaza from its traditional role as a transportation hub into a public space which would serve as a "true civic heart" of the city, along the lines of New York's Bryant Park.[2] The plans include new traffic patterns, fewer bus stops, and new buildings with food service and bathrooms.[2] Kennedy Plaza will remain as a bus stop, but much of the bus traffic would be redirected to the Amtrak station.[2] The $17-million project is expected to begin in spring 2018.[2]

Notable speeches, parades, and gatheringsEdit

On April 20, 1861, at 10:30AM the sidewalks were filled with cheering throngs, who greeted volunteers, of the first division of the First Regiment of Detached Rhode Island Militia leaving for Washington, D.C.. Colonel Ambrose Burnside, in command, had ordered the men of the first division to assemble upon Exchange Place.[12] A second detachment left from the plaza on April 25, 1861.

Crowds gathered at the Plaza when President Teddy Roosevelt spoke on the City Hall steps on August 23, 1902:

One of the features of the tremendous industrial development of the last generation has been the very great increase in private, and especially in corporate, fortunes. ... It is not true that the poor have grown poorer; but some of the rich have grown so very much richer that, where multitudes of men are herded together in a limited space, the contrast strikes the onlooker as more violent than formerly.
On the whole, our people earn more and live better than ever before, and the progress of which we are so proud could not have taken place had it not been for the up building of industrial centers, such as this in which I am speaking. But together with the good there has come a measure of evil.… Under present-day conditions it is as necessary to have corporations in the business world as it is to have organizations, unions, among wage-workers. We have a right to ask in each case only this: that good, and not harm, shall follow.[13]

On March 7, 1914, Harry Houdini brought his show to American audiences and to Exchange Place due to the closure of European performance spaces during the World War. Over 20,000 people filled the plaza, to watch him perform his new act in "a straitjacket escape made while dangling high in the air, upside down" hanging from the fourth floor of the "Evening News" Building formerly sited at 50 Kennedy Plaza. The crowd filled the plaza expanse following Fulton Street.[16][17] In 1917, Houdini returned to Kennedy Plaza to perform his escape act a second time, as "80,000 fedora-hatted folks who thronged the streets".[18]

On June 3, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson called for the nation to ready itself for war in Europe. In response, Providence hosted a 6 1/2 hour World War I Preparedness Parade in response to president Woodrow Wilson's "call for preparedness."A review stand in front of City Hall and a gigantic human mosaic formed a "living flag" on scaffolding above the front steps, lined on each side with Civil War veterans. Over 52,000 people attended.[19]

On May 11, 1919, a World War I Victory Parade was held on Washington Street and Kennedy Plaza, which marched through what was a Victory Arch in the center of the plaza. On top of the arch was a reproduction of the Hellenistic sculpture "Winged Victory of Samothrace." The inscription on the Victory Arch read: "TO THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO WENT FORTH AND RETURNED NOT WHOSE SOULS ARE MARCHING ON."[20]

John F. Kennedy spoke on November 7, 1960, the day before he was elected president:

On other occasions, in other years, this country has elected Republican Presidents and Democratic Presidents. They do it when they make a decision that that party and that candidate will serve a great national purpose. In my judgment and the responsibility ultimately is yours, in my judgment the United States will be best served by a candidate and a party who recognizes the basic issues of our time, and that is that this country has to go back to work again.[21]

Sculpture and public artEdit

The Hiker by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson

Kennedy Plaza is home to three public art works. The most prominent is the 1871 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument[22] which occupies space directly in front of Providence City Hall. Dedicated originally in 1871, by architect Alfred E. Stone with sculptor-work by Randolph Rogers, it was moved during the City Hall Park/ Exchange Place transformation in 1913 to the center of the plaza, and returned to its present location in 1997. Large bronze plaques on the monument’s base list residents killed in the war.[22] Another plaque honors Rhode Island's African-American veterans.[22] A dedication on a northeastern plaque reads ”Rhode Island pays tribute to the memory of the brave men who died that their country might live.”[22] In late 2016, the Downtown Parks Conservancy of Providence started a fundraising effort to restore the monument and the infrastructure immediately around it.[23]

A clock occupies space in front of the main doors of the RIPTA Intermodal Transportation Center.

The 1911 Providence copy of The Hiker (Kitson), is sculpture in the center island of the RIPTA facility berths, and commemorates the American soldiers who fought in the Spanish–American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Philippine–American War. The original 1906 sculpture by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson is located at the University of Minnesota.

First food truckEdit

Haven Brothers in 2008

Haven Brothers Diner (located next to City Hall during the evenings hours), founded in 1888, is one of the oldest restaurants on wheels in America when it was launched as a horse drawn lunch wagon.[24]

Neighboring buildings and spaces (clockwise)Edit

Rehabilitation and historic tax credit projectsEdit

Panoramic view from 18th floor of the Biltmore Hotel
  • In 1975 the Providence Biltmore closed and remained out of use until a group of local businesses implemented Federal tax credits to rehabilitate the building, reopening it in 1979.
  • High Rock Development proposed a plan to convert the shell at 111 Westminster Street into mostly luxury apartments, involving $80 million in tax credits from the State. This plan was rejected. The State has applied to move some of their Health and Human Services offices into the now vacant property. High Rock Development has since offered a four-year plan that would invest $40 million of new funding for the rehabilitation of the tower into a dense urban mix of uses that include retail, business and 285 residential units.[25] The former and new financing proposals were met with mixed reaction.

Greater Kennedy PlazaEdit

Greater Kennedy Plaza is a partnership of private and public sector organizations that have come together to transform the downtown Providence area (including Burnside Park, The Providence Rink at the Bank of America City Center, Biltmore Park and Kennedy Plaza) into a lively public square, rich with activity.[26]


  1. ^ a b c Friedrichs, Melanie. "Ownership and Identity in Kennedy Plaza". Polis. Archived from the original on 3 April 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e Naylor, Donita (31 August 2017). "Kennedy Plaza plan envisions 'true civic heart'". The Providence Journal. Archived from the original on 1 September 2017. Retrieved 1 September 2017. Mayor Jorge O. Elorza unveiled a plan for transforming Kennedy Plaza into “a true civic heart for our city,” something less like a commuter hub and more like New York City’s Bryant Park.
  3. ^ "Exchange Place, Little Wall Street - Providence Public Library".
  4. ^ Woodword, William McKenzie. Guide to Understanding Providence Architecture (1st ed.). United States. pp. 97–98. ISBN 0-9742847-0-X.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hill, John (15 February 2017). "Change is a constant in Kennedy Plaza's history". The Providence Journal. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  6. ^ electric buses
  7. ^ "Image: The Path of the Hurricane of '38". PBS. The American Experience. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  8. ^ a b c d Miller, G. Wayne (16 November 2013). "Up to 50,000 greet JFK on election eve in Providence". The Providence Journal. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  9. ^ Hill, John (7 July 2014). "Bus stops to be moved out of Kennedy Plaza starting Saturday to allow for construction/ Poll". The Providence Journal. Archived from the original on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  10. ^ "RIPTA Announces January Reopening of Kennedy Plaza Transit Hub in Downtown Providence". RIPTA.
  11. ^ Kozma, Carol (14 July 2016). "Beefing up security in Kennedy Plaza: RIPTA hires private guards to discourage vandalism and loitering". The Providence Journal. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  12. ^ "Rhode Island Civil War Round Table".
  13. ^ "Context of 'August 23, 1902: Roosevelt Advocates Federal Regulation, Oversight of Corporations'".
  14. ^ a b "Roosevelt Speech, 1902 by Granger".
  15. ^ "TR Center - Server Error".
  17. ^ "GoProvidence on Twitter".
  18. ^ Hoffman, Barbara (October 31, 2010). "Hang man". New York Post.
  19. ^ "History of City Hall". City of Providence.
  20. ^ "Office of the Secretary of State: Nellie M. Gorbea: Virtual Exhibits".
  21. ^ "John F. Kennedy Speeches - John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum".
  22. ^ a b c d "Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, Providence, R.I." 23 Aug 2010.
  23. ^ "Restoring Soldiers & Sailors". Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy. DPPC. Retrieved 5 December 2016.
  24. ^ Seth Brown, Rhode Island Curiosities:Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities, and Other Offbeat Stuff(Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2007), ISBN 0-7627-4338-7
  25. ^ "'Superman' developer alters bid for state aid".
  26. ^ "Visit & Events - Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy - DPPC".

External linksEdit