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The State House Inns and the Rebirth of Providence, Rhode Island

 

Innkeeper Monica Hopton - click to enlarge
Innkeeper Monica Hopton

Frank and Monica Hopton are representative of a cadre of young Americans who, however indirectly, have played an important role in the revitalization of American cities. Monica was born in Germany; Frank in Alaska, but both grew up in Rhode Island and always considered the smallest state in the nation home. The late 1980’s, however, found them in neighboring Massachusetts running a Nantucket guest house.

“My father had been operating inns in Nantucket since 1978 and Frank and I had gotten into the business through him,” Monica, an attractive and animated strawberry blonde, told us. “But then we got the urge to return to Rhode Island. Frank thought to start law school, and we planned to start a family.

“About three years later we were living in Rhode Island doing just that when we had the opportunity to open a bed and breakfast in an 1889 house my family owned in Providence. Somehow it seemed right. So Frank gave up law school, we moved close to Providence, and we renovated the property. That is the State House Inn, a ten-room B&B with the Shaker design which we love and which we furnished with spare Shaker pieces and American folk art. Since then, we’ve owned four B&Bs all in the same neighborhood, sold one and are now down to three which we group under the heading: the State House Inns of Providence, Rhode Island.”

A room in the State House Inn, furnished in the spare Shaker style its owners love - photo credit:  State House Inns - click to enlarge
A room in the State House Inn, furnished in the spare Shaker style its owners love - photo credit: State House Inns

The neighborhood is Smith Hill, and the B&Bs are literally down the block and around the corner from one another. The State Capitol Building, which bears close resemblance to the one in Washington, D.C., is close enough to be glimpsed from more than one of the B&B bedroom windows. But in a blunder all too typical of mid-twentieth-century urban planning, the Interstate was built right through the heart of the city effectively cutting Smith Hill off from the Capitol and the rest of Providence.

Consequently, for a long time, the neighborhood felt like a rundown section of town. Yet somehow the Hoptons saw its potential, appreciated its solid blocks lined with neat homes, many of considerable architectural integrity. They played their hunch, and clearly, they’ve come up winners. In today’s very different climate where preservation is a valued urban goal, Smith Hill has become a desirable place both to live in and visit.

But none of this was a given when the State House Inn opened in September 1990. Directly across the way was a rundown Victorian whose wide side yard was filled with shoulder-high grass. “Frank would actually go over and cut the grass simply because we felt the unkempt look would affect our business,” Monica said.      

Nevertheless, seven years from the time the State House Inn first opened its doors, the Hoptons felt confident enough to purchase another Smith Hill property.

“My husband came up with the name ‘What Cheer’ for what would be our second B&B, and I thought it was wonderful,” Monica exclaimed. “That was what Roger Williams had said to the Indians in the 1630s. In their language, ‘hello’ is translated into ‘what cheer.’ If you are from Rhode Island, you’ll know what it means; although if you aren’t, then it doesn’t mean much,” she confessed.

The couple ran the salmon colored house for more than six years before selling it to a woman who is in the process of converting it into condominiums. And around that time, they bought and renovated the Christopher Dodge Inn, an exquisite three-story, red-brick federal-style mansionette with opulent features unique to the area like a grand staircase, eleven-foot ceilings, marble mantels, ornate plaster moldings and tin ceilings. 

Built in 1858 for the Dodge family, it had been a rental property with small apartments for more than a century when the Hoptons took it over. “Time had taken its toll,” Monica admitted. But restored to its original grandeur with all manner of modern accoutrements, the 15-bedroom Christopher Dodge Inn is one of Providence’s small luxury hotels and a jewel indeed.

The final piece of the State House Inns pie is a highly ornamental 1865 Victorian around the corner from the Christopher Dodge Inn on a street that, before the Interstate was built, went straight down to the Providence River. “When we first saw the house, it had been on the market for two years and was in a terrible state of disrepair,” Monica said. “The family that owns the foundry across the street, which is currently on its way to becoming a complex of condos, offices and shops, had acquired the property. They planned to raze the house and turn the land into a parking lot, but the house was on Providence Preservation’s Top Ten Endangered List, and the Historical Society made a big fuss. So they tried to sell it instead.

“We felt it was more than we could handle,” she continued. “And then, just around that time, my father, who had sold his inn on Nantucket and had quickly tired of the retirement thing, came to Providence. He took a look at the house and liked it so much we ended up doing it.”

Happily back in the business, Ken Parker has become an active partner in the State House Inns enterprise. His specialty is renovations and development. “He’s good at keeping the contractors moving,” according to Monica.

Under Ken’s supervision, the Mowry Nichsolson House, named for its first two owners, important figures in Providence’s rich manufacturing history, was painted bright blue and furnished with pieces he bought at a huge furniture dealership place in South Carolina, pieces that fit with the style Monica and Frank prefer, simple and comfortable, the kind that, as Monica put it, “make people feel at home.”

And one does feel at home in the expansive yet uncluttered Victorian.

The beds are deep and downy and made up with fine linens; the towels are plush. Breakfast is a complete meal, with freshly baked muffins, a choice of the house manager’s creation-of-the-morning or your standard eggs over.

Photo Credit: State House Inns - click to enlarge
Photo Credit: State House Inns

True, the Interstate is nearby, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter in the quiet environs of Smith Hill where a walk around the neighborhood reveals a mixture of styles and periods that make this historic area so colorful. There are some unexpected transformations like the art gallery made from the former carriage house of the Christopher Dodge Inn, and the many restorations among them the house across the way from the State House Inn whose formerly weedy lot now provides guests at the inn with the view of a beautiful garden and manicured lawn.

The State House Inns are within walking distance of the State Capitol, the Providence Place Mall, the Convention Center and Waterplace Park on the Providence River. They are but a short drive to Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island College, Johnson and Wales University, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Yet they inhabit a place apart.

Their story is tied up with the re-birth of Providence, something the Hoptons looked towards when they opened their first State House Inn. “We  knew the convention center would be coming up,” Monica said. “There would be the move to attract the Boston convention market and that would bring us business. We also thought people who have seen every Marriott in every city would like the change of a B&B. And that is what’s happened.

“During the week we get commercial travelers, on weekends we get tourists, and we always get people who come to Providence because of the five colleges in the city. For graduations, we are straight out booked a year in advance.  There is a continual stream of people picking up and dropping off their children.

“We’ve been part of an upswing,” she added, “part of the coming back of small cities in the 1990’s all across America. We built up our business as Providence was being revived. Since we’ve been here, the Smith Hill neighborhood has been on the way up. It’s part of the city, yet it’s not high rise.

“And it’s protected,” the ebullient innkeeper concluded. “You can’t tear any of the houses down.”

­State House Inns
11 West Park Street
Providence, Rhode Island  02908

Phone: 401-351-6111
Fax: 401-351-4261
Email: info@providence-hotel.com
Web: http://www.providence-hotel.com

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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