November 18, 2018

WaterFire - Providence, Rhode Island!

Theodore Roosevelt has been quoted as saying, “Life is an adventure; accept it in such a spirit.”  As early retirees, Alan and I have been enjoying the freedom to heed the call of adventure more often these days when it presents us with an opportunity.  With both Ryan and Kyra now young adults, we’re comfortable planning our own activities, knowing that the two “kids” are confident and competent and have plenty of friends and family members who would step up to help should any assistance be required in our absence.  Truth be told, Kyra’s first call is almost always to Ryan, who complains and teases as only a big brother will, then shows up to make whatever is wrong, right.  But, I digress.  Back to the adventures . . .

Adventures don’t need to be gigantic or lavish to draw us in; what attracts us is the enjoyment factor of the experience.  We’ve spent many a morning over the years on what we call our $4.00 date: a couple of bagels from our favorite bagel shop, coffee from McDonald’s and a drive down to a picnic table on the river to watch the pleasure and commercial boat traffic roll by while keeping an eye out for hawks and eagles.  Cooler weather will find us staying in the car, out of the wind, talking about everything and nothing.  It doesn’t take much to make us happy.  And I guess I should point out that, with tax, it’s actually a $4.16 date. 

That’s not to say that adventures of a grander scale aren’t of interest.  With our travel trailer tucked away for the winter months, we know we won’t be camping any time soon, but traveling remains one of our passions, even if we do grumble a bit if we have to pack an overnight bag for a stay at a hotel.  So my ears perked right up when I learned about WaterFire in Providence, Rhode Island, just before Veterans Day.  According to the organization’s web site, “WaterFire Providence® is an independent, 501(c)3 non-profit arts organization whose mission is to inspire Providence and its visitors by revitalizing the urban experience, fostering community engagement and creatively transforming the city by presenting WaterFire for all to enjoy.”

The essence of a WaterFire event is the lighting and tending of 80 braziers placed in the rivers of downtown Providence.  WaterFire received some really wonderful reviews on TripAdvisor and, while we had visited Newport years ago, Alan and I had never been to Providence.  The call of the open road is hard for us to resist and, realizing that WaterFire was an adventure we didn’t want to miss, I scrambled to make the last minute plans that would allow us to enjoy an impromptu weekend expedition.

The braziers in the basin at Waterplace Park - stocked with wood and all set for the evening

Alan and I left home on Saturday morning of Veterans Day weekend and arrived in Providence early on Saturday afternoon.  The plan was to take a self-guided walking tour of downtown Providence (link HERE) in the afternoon then attend the WaterFire event in the evening.  Providence was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, who had left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to seek religious freedom for himself and others.  The Roger Williams National Memorial (link HERE) is located here in Providence.  A Visitor Center operated by the National Park Service is on site and there you’ll find exhibits and a film about the founder of Providence and his quest for religious freedom.

Because the city is almost 400 years old, there is an incredible amount of history here.  I will confess that Alan and I are not big history buffs, but we do find architecture of many different styles both interesting and appealing, and we certainly found some exquisite examples during our walking tour.  Providence struck us as a clean and well maintained city and we came across several stories of buildings from the 1800’s that were saved from demolition by concerned citizens or businesses.  The older architecture is simply stunning, and a sense of pride and a love for the arts is definitely evident here . . .  

The Rhode Island State House was designed by the same architectural firm that designed the Boston Public Library in 1895 and the renovations to the White House in 1902.  It was built between 1895 and 1904 at the height of Rhode Island’s industrial prosperity and its dome is constructed of white Georgia marble.

Rhode Island State House

Providence City Hall was constructed in 1870 of cast iron and masonry.  It was heartbreaking to learn that the city actually considered demolishing this gorgeous building in the 1950’s but, thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and it still stands today as a testament to a time when government buildings reflected character and grace.

Providence City Hall

The Trinity Repertory Company originated in 1963 and is one of the last remaining resident acting companies in the country.  Trinity Rep found a home in the old Emery Majestic Theatre which had been opened by local vaudevillians in 1917 and closed its doors in the mid-1900’s when Americans began to favor movies over live performances.  While the front of the Majestic looks much the same as it did in the early 1900’s, Trinity Rep has claimed this building as their own with a colorful and eye-catching mural on the back of the building.

Emery Majestic Theatre - now home of the Trinity Repertory Company

Trinity Rep's mural on the back of the old Emery Majestic Theatre
The Providence Public Library was founded in 1875 and this building on Empire Street was added in 1954.  What a stately and majestic structure!  Not only does the Providence Public Library offer an extensive variety of resources and programs, but it remains an active cultural and educational center in the city as well.  Libraries are close to my heart because of the many services they offer to their communities, making a variety of educational resources available to their patrons at little or no cost.  When our kids were young, we attended the weekly Story Hour at our small local library which included not only the reading of several books by kid-loving library staff members, but also a music and yoga program for the little tykes presented by a local musician and yoga aficionado.  Additionally, Ryan’s girlfriend, Anya, has worked at the library in the community in which they live for a number of years and is rarely without a book or two of her own in progress.  So, I guess you could say that our family contains some library aficionados! 

Providence Public Library on Empire Street - what a beauty!

The Biltmore Hotel opened in 1922 and became the hub for social activity in downtown Providence.  The Biltmore experienced a financial slump and closed in 1974 but underwent a million dollar renovation that restored it to its 1922 charm.  This elegant Hotel re-opened in 1979 and remains a hub for the city’s social activity today.

The Biltmore Hotel - still quite elegant!

Roger Williams founded the oldest Baptist church congregation in the United States in 1638.  In 1775 this lovely church was built as a permanent home for the congregation.  The First Baptist Church is the largest surviving wooden structure from Colonial America, and it combines the simple hall of a traditional New England meeting house with English architectural features such as the tall steeple.  Brown University (which was founded as a Baptist college) has held its annual commencement in the church every year since 1776.  See?  I told you there was a lot of history in this city!

The First Baptist Church - really, the very first one!

The Arcade is such an intriguing building!  First of all, it was built in 1828 and it’s the nation’s oldest existing indoor shopping mall.  Additionally, it was designed by two architects and it has two different facades, each designed by one of the architects – one facade is on Weybosset Street and the other on Westminster Street.  Currently, the skylight-lit interior houses shops, restaurants and residential micro-lofts.

Architect Russell Warren's facade on Weybosset Street

Architect James Bucklin's facade on Westminster Street

Last, but certainly not least, the Providence Performing Arts Center caught our eye.  Opened in 1928 as the Loew’s State Movie Palace, the theater enjoyed decades of prosperity that were followed by declining attendance.  This grand movie theater fell into disrepair and was eventually scheduled for demolition.  The Movie Palace was saved in 1978 by seven local corporations and became the Ocean State Theater, a non-profit organization.  In 1982, it became the Providence Performing Arts Center, affectionately known as “the jewel of Weybosset Street,” and this wonderful venue continues to offer live performances today.

The Providence Performing Arts Center

There was so much to see in Providence, that we ended up splitting the walking tour into two parts, the second of which we completed on Sunday morning after breakfast.  Just before 4 o’clock late Saturday afternoon, we made our way back to the Rhode Island State House.  Since this month’s WaterFire event was a Salute to Veterans, a special ceremony for veterans and new recruits was held on the steps of the State House which was theatrically lit in red, white and blue.  When the ceremony ended, a number of veterans carried lit torches a block southeast to Waterplace Park - the home of all WaterFire events - and circled the basin while a live band played our National Anthem and other patriotic tunes.  

The Rhode Island State House in a patriotic glow

Merriam-Webster tells us that the word “brazier” has several meanings: (1) one who works in brass; (2) a pan for holding burning coals; and (3) a utensil in which food is exposed to heat through a wire grill.  For the purposes of WaterFire, definition #2 is the most appropriate one, as there are numerous bowl-shaped metal fixtures in the rivers that hold firewood.  These sculptures (the first of which was created by artist Barnaby Evans in 1994) adorn the Providence and Woonasquatucket Rivers in the downtown area of Providence in and around Waterplace Park.   As darkness settles, “fire tenders” drift among the braziers in quiet, motorized boats carrying torches they’ll use to light the firewood in the braziers.  The fire tenders, dressed all in black, continue to move quietly among the braziers in the rivers, adding firewood whenever and wherever needed throughout the evening to keep the fires blazing brightly.  Imagine 80 campfires glowing warmly on the rivers as the water moves quietly around them, reflecting the lights of the city and the flames of the fires.  The burning wood crackles and hisses, sparks burst out over the water and the ever-present smell of wood smoke reminds one of the simple pleasure of an evening spent around a campfire with friends.  Water and Fire together create a magical and memorable experience.

This Salute to Veterans was both lovely and moving.  The crowd, although quite large, was not rowdy or noisy, but quiet and respectful.  The music continued on throughout the evening, boat and gondola rides were available on the rivers and the event drew singles, couples and families who spent the evening watching the fire tenders and strolling along the rivers.  Alan and I truly enjoyed ourselves and would certainly consider attending another event in the future.  The WaterFire organization holds a number of these events during the year.  Some seem to focus on a particular theme or group (breast cancer survivors and Rhode Island educators are two such examples) while others appear to be just general events.  Most are “full lightings” but, on occasion, only the braziers in the basin are lit.  Although the Salute to Veterans was the last scheduled WaterFire event for 2018, I have no doubt that this beloved Providence tradition will continue in 2019.  If WaterFire piques your interest, you’ll find additional information on the organization’s web site (link HERE).

Early (and I do mean early!) on Sunday morning, Alan and I headed up to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, about 10 or 15 minutes north of Providence.  And what, you ask, put Pawtucket on our radar?  I guess you could say that it’s our love of unique experiences.  We wanted to have breakfast at the very small, very old Modern Diner on East Avenue.  The thought of enjoying a meal at the first diner in America to be added to the National Register of Historic Places was more than enough incentive for us to set our alarm for six-early o’clock and be on our way in order to beat the Sunday morning breakfast crowd.

The Modern Diner looks anything but, as you can see by the photos.  It’s a “modernistic” Sterling Streamliner that was customized and factory built in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.  According to the diner’s web site, “Diners originated in Providence with a horse-drawn canteen created by Walter Scott in 1872 to sell pies, coffee and light food to people who worked at night when restaurants were closed.”  I’ve always loved diners, but until we visited Providence, I had no clue as to their origin.

Today's specials are . . .

This little eatery is a real gem!  The wall between the old diner and the newer addition in the back contains a huge number of “specials” currently being served.  I’m pretty sure the breakfast specials outnumbered the meals offered on the regular menu.  Alan decided on a standard order of French toast with sausage links on the side.  Not me!  When I read the description for Custard French Toast – one of the many specials on the wall – my brain went from “What’s that?” to “GOTTA HAVE IT!” in approximately 1.5 seconds.  Then, I noticed that it was “as featured on The Food Network's Top Five.”  I don't watch The Food Network, but that means it HAS to be good, right?

One of everything, please!

It was absolutely delicious!  When I sent a photo to Kyra, her comment was, “I might have to try to recreate that!”  When I showed Ryan the photo a few days later, his response was, “I make that all the time.”  Sure you do, Mr. I Can Manage Eggs and Hot Dogs.

Custard French Toast - strawberries, blueberries, kiwis, glazed pecans & warm custard sauce - YUM!

Alan and I often comment on the charming character of older buildings.  The Modern Diner was no exception.  The curved front of the diner (which resembled a sleek, but older, train engine) was lined with a banquette of wood that had table numbers painted directly on it.

You can see the table number (C5) on the sunlit wood.

For other booths and tables, numbers were indicated on the adjacent coat racks.  Although the hard seats had obviously been reupholstered, the original wood seat backs remained intact and the linoleum on the floor behind the cash register had been worn through to the wood subfloor.

The staff was welcoming, the service was spot on and the coffee flowed freely.  The tables and booths seemed to be filled with both locals and tourists visiting the diner for the creative specials and the building’s historic significance.  In fact, there were a number of out-of-state cars in the parking lot when we left and we were VERY happy that we had arrived as early as we did.

As we headed for home on Sunday afternoon, Alan and I agreed that our last minute decision to attend WaterFire had been a good one.  The event itself, coupled with the lovely city of Providence and its history, made for a delightful diversion from our chores of late which involve much splitting of wood and clearing of leaves.  Of course, given the choice between a road trip and a weekend with our friend the log splitter, I must admit that the decision was not all that difficult!

For those of you who may be interested in a hotel in the Providence area, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Clarion Hotel in Seekonk which is just over the state line in Massachusetts.  The hotel is about seven miles from Providence – a quick drive via Interstates 195 and 95 – and it has an onsite restaurant, an indoor pool and several attractive outdoor lounging areas that would be perfect for relaxing and enjoying the fresh air in warmer weather.  It was extremely clean, and offered a good value for the location and the room – top priorities for us when we’re not traveling by RV.  What made this hotel exceptional, however, was the attitude of Lynn at the front desk.  She was, by far, the most genial and welcoming staff member we’ve encountered at any hotel.  Even though we stayed only one night, Lynn set the tone for our visit when we checked in on Saturday and said good-bye on Sunday like a member of our extended family.  An excellent choice of hotels, in my opinion, should you ever be in need.

Thank you for stopping by today and for bearing with me on such a long post!  May you all spend the week ahead contemplating your blessings, expressing your gratitude and enjoying a lovely Thanksgiving with family and friends. 


  1. Loved the bit about the old diner; I would not have been able to resist, either. My kind of place!

    1. Mike, I couldn't tell you which I enjoyed more - soaking up the ambience or soaking up the custard sauce!

  2. Wow! What a awesome post about our great city and state! I learned a lot and I'm WaterFire Providence's managing director/coCEO! Thanks for sharing your experience and research. You happened to choose a day where our team unanimously agreed it was the most challenging weather conditions we might have ever encountered over the past 24 years. And please keep in mind, short of a hurricane, we never cancel because so many people like you travel from out of town to experience our art event. Thank you for braving the cold and wind and come back for warmer summer weather for an entirely different experience. Let me know ahead of time and we'll give you a peak into what it takes to put on the event. Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Wow, yourself, Peter! I'm guessing that you stumbled across my blog post when you were trolling for mention of WaterFire on social media - it was so sweet of you to chime in! When I was in banking, our VP of Marketing used to go to the local Dunkin' Donuts the morning after an event to sit at the counter and listen to the talk around him. (Based on the number of DD we saw in Providence, Alan and I decided that the residents of your fair city apparently DO run on Dunkin'!) Back in the old days, one of the marketing rules of thumb was that an event was successful if it was being discussed at the local coffee shops the following morning. Coffee shops to blog posts - what an impact the internet and social media have had on the field of marketing. Although, I'll bet your spectacular event was being cheerfully discussed at Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks, too!

      Having been involved with theater productions in college, I know how challenging it is to orchestrate a simple stage show. I can't even imagine the millions of details involved with an event the size of WaterFire. While I'm sure you could tell a number of stories involving creative solutions to challenging situations based on your experience, from a visitor's perspective the event was flawless, and your efforts and those of your team members were noticed and very much appreciated. Alan and I are used to cold temps and blustery weather so we came well prepared and enjoyed every minute of our visit. After WaterFire, we picked up dessert at the Cheesecake Factory in Providence Mall, grabbed cups of our aforementioned favorite coffee at McDonald's and topped off the evening with our feet up in our hotel room, talking about what a wonderful event it was.

      I just might take you up on your offer for a "backstage tour" sometime next year - that would be the icing on the cake - or the whipped cream on the cheesecake, as the case may be.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for taking the time to post such a delightful comment - and best wishes for an enjoyable Thanksgiving!


Comments are encouraged and appreciated, so please do join the conversation!