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Roger Williams Memorial

roger williams memorialWhen Roger Williams, man of peace, was buried in 1683 with the honors paid a soldier, his grave on the rear of his home lot, now the Sullivan Dorr estate, 109 Benefit Street, corner of Bowen, was left unmarked and in the course of time its exact location was almost forgotten. It was finally identified by the recollection of one who as a child had been present at the interment of another member of his family, and who had then been shown its location.

In later years the stone base of a broken pillar intended for the Arcade was placed at its head. This has remained the only marker of what since 1860 has been an empty grave, for in that year it was opened with the idea of removing the dust of the founder to a suitable memorial. No traces were found of any coffin; no bones remained; nothing more than a strata of earth somewhat darker than that which surrounded it. This was carefully removed and placed in the tomb of Stephen Randall of Providence, a direct descendant of the founder.

In this old tomb In North Burial Ground, the city's oldest cemetery, what was believed to be the dust of the founder remained for 72 years in an old soapbox until again its location was almost forgotten. Then it was rediscovered, placed in a steel chest and removed to a second tomb in the old cemetery, to wait further progress in the effort to erect a suitable memorial.

This effort was begun in 1850 by the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers, once one of the most outstanding of Rhode Island organizations for culture and progress, but now only a memory. The first effort by the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers raised $100 through a course of ten lectures and by subscription. This was deposited in the Providence Institution for Savings.

At a meeting attended by nearly two hundred citizens and held in 1860, in "Westminster Hall, the Roger "Williams Monument Association was organized. This association raised $50, deposited it in the Union Savings Bank and later in the Providence Institution for Savings. This fund, with subsequent deposits and interest, had increased by 1878 to $1,156.02.

Both efforts having ceased and public interest having died out, Stephen Randall of Providence, proud of his direct descent from Roger Williams and indignant at the neglect, deposited $1,000 in the Peoples Savings Bank on January 5, 1865 as the nucleus for a fund for a monument. He executed a deed of gift in which he stipulated the size, type and a description of the monument he desired erected, stipulating also that it should be placed on Prospect Terrace, the highest point of land in Providence, and should be visible from Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Mr. Randall died in 1874 without seeing further action and the suitable recognition of the founder for which he had planned, was forgotten. The State of Rhode Island placed in Statuary Hall in the Capitol at Washington, a marble statue of Roger Williams, executed by Franklin Simmons of Maine. The City of Providence erected in Roger Williams Park in accordance with a stipulation in the will of Betsy Williams presenting the old Williams farm to the city for a public park, a bronze statue on a marble base also executed by Simmons.

A statue was erected at Geneva, Switzerland, a bust was placed in the Hall of Fame in New York, but no further move was made toward a monument to Roger Williams in the city and State he founded, until 1934 when the General Assembly incorporated the Rhode Island Roger Williams Memorial Association. This was an organization of leading citizens in all parts of the State, with the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of the State, the Mayors of each of its five cities, the presidents or heads of historical societies and of the hereditary and patriotic organizations of the State as ex-officio members.

While the stipulations in the original deed of gift by Stephen Randall have, through action by the State, the city and the courts, been so altered as to remove the impossible restrictions he imposed, his desire to have the Williams monument on Prospect Terrace was respected.

The Rhode Island Roger Williams Association with architect F. Ellis Jackson of Providence as advisor held a design competition. The architects had to meet two requirements of the original Memorial Association as stipulated in Randall’s will: the monument had to be designed for Prospect Terrace, and its height had to be such that it could be viewed from far away. Of fifteen designs submitted, those by Ralph T. Walker and Leo Friedlander were selected.

The design is by Ralph T. Walker of New York, a noted architect and a Rhode Islander by birth and heritage.

The architect also submitted plans calling for a much more imposing memorial.

As originally presented, the monument was to have a broad stairway joining the terrace to a park below. In the park, statues of two Indians would flank a central pool of water. These designs were later abandoned.

As completed, Williams stands on a projecting pedestal between two huge granite pylons forming a rectangular arch. The fourteen-foot-high statue of Westerly granite reveals the simplified, linear, and self-conscious appearance of the new classicism that developed after World War I. Williams is portrayed as blessing the city while standing on the bow of his canoe. The monument to Roger Williams was dedicated in June, 1939, and his remains were placed in the base of the monument, behind his statue.

Sources: Outdoor Sculpture of Rhode Island by The Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, 1999