All About the Money: Financing Palatial Architecture

During yesterday’s visit to the Providence Public Library, Tonia Mason (Director of Marketing and Communications) and Aaron Peterman (Chief Operating Officer and Associate Director) repeatedly discussed both the financial constraints faced by the space throughout its history and the means by which the site has employed its relationship with the Providence community to overcome such limitations. Given that our class discussions have largely overlooked the means by which large ‘palatial structures’ are financed and constructed within the monetary constraints of a particular temporal period, I wanted to use this blog post to further explore the financial history of the Providence Public Library while also extending the concept of funding to the context of my final project. Indeed, my project research has yet to explore the means by which the palaces at Meroe were financed and, as such, this post will provide insight into the cultural and economic context surrounding the site that will ultimately prove beneficial in my palace design.

Unlike traditional ‘public’ libraries in the United States – where “over 80% of funding” is provided for directly by tax receipts and municipal structures of governance (DeRosa and Johnson 2008, 9) – the Providence Public Library operates as an entity entirely distinct from the City of Providence and receives no funding from the city. Initially constructed between 1896 and 1900 for just under $400,000 (around $11.9 million in today’s currency, given rates of inflation), the majority of financing for the project was provided by John Nicholas Brown in hopes of establishing a structure “worthy” of serving as a “Rhode Island treasure” (Providence Public Library 2017, 2). Since then, numerous additions and renovations to the site – including an expansion of the building in 1953, a major overhaul to the structure in 1987, and an ongoing reconfiguration of the space between 2018 and the present – have altered the size and appearance of the building, with the latest renovation seeking to improve the usability of 83,000 square feet of library space at a cost of $25 million (all figures were provided directly by Tonia and Aaron during my tours).

Despite difficulties faced by library administrators in securing “adequate funding” (Providence Public Library 2017, 2) to provide for the construction and renovation of the Providence Public Library since 1896, private donations, space rental fees, and overdue fines have largely enabled the space to continually serve its role as a “people’s university” (Providence Public Library 2017, 3) for the City of Providence. In addition, the architects and engineers who have worked at the site over the past 123 years have made great efforts to express elements of luxury, opulence and ornateness within the structure even in light of financial constraints. Indeed, while builders have clearly been forced to cut certain corners in constructing the library (e.g. the cement-based process of Scagliola was used to mimic marble construction in the presence of financial limitations), significant manifestations of luxury – including the use of ornate stonework, limited marble construction, gold leafing, and custom metalworking – enable substantial links to be drawn between the site and other palatial structures explored throughout our class (Providence Public Library 2017, 4). Funded almost exclusively through the generosity of Providence community members, the Providence Public Library thus stands to reflect the means by which palatial structures do not need to be supported by authoritatively-derived wealth as a means of appearing luxurious or grand.

While substantial temporal differences between the construction of the Providence Public Library and the palaces at Meroe make comparisons between the two difficult, my concurrent engagement with both PPL’s financial history and the history of Meroe has forced me to consider the means by which Meroitic Royal Palaces could have been financed during the Iron Age. In discussing the economic development of Sudanic Kingdoms prior to the arrival of Roman influence, David Edwards argues that royal wealth in Meroe was derived from “tax exactions” and the trade of “non-utilitarian luxury goods” with both Egyptian traders and other societies in Sub-Saharan Africa (Edwards 1998, 189-190). Corroborated by evidence from Souren Melikian that the Meroitic Kingdom was “in contact with most northern and eastern Mediterranean lands” (Melikian 2010), Edwards’ analysis thus stands to suggest that substantial patterns of trade in luxury goods served as the primary economic activity of Meroitic society and the means by which royalty would thus have been able to fund the construction of their palaces. Indeed, while proximity to the Nile River made some forms of agriculture possible, the immensity of storerooms at Meroitic sites and historical narrations of “embassy trade” (Edwards 1998, 188) paint ‘long-distance trade’ as the main economic activity of Meroitic royalty and the means by which such royals were able to sustain and consolidate power throughout the Iron Age. Given this prevalence of face-to-face trade, the palace that I will design will thus feature a large number of ceremonial spaces in which sustained interactions between Meroitic royalty and foreign trade ambassadors could have occurred. Without such trade, it is likely these palaces would not have existed.

Post Author: Sam Berube


De Rosa, C., Johnson, J., 2008. From Awareness to Funding: A Study of Library Support in America. OCLC, Dublin, Ohio.

Edwards, D., 1998. Meroe and the Sudanic Kingdoms. The Journal of African History 39, 175–193.

Melikian, S., 2010. The Mysteries of Meroe. The New York Times.

Providence Public Library, 2017. Providence Public Library: A Brief History of the Library and its Art and Architecture. Providence Public Library, Providence, RI.