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New life for the Providence Arcade

Built in the Greek rectilinear temple style, with Ionic columns at either end, the Arcade was the first enclosed shopping mall in the country.

Paul E. Kandarian for the boston globe

Built in the Greek rectilinear temple style, with Ionic columns at either end, the Arcade was the first enclosed shopping mall in the country.

When Evan Granoff was a boy, the Eileen McClure photo studio on the third floor of the Providence Arcade took his passport picture.

Granoff, 54, now owns the Arcade, a venerable downtown structure built in 1828 and the country’s first enclosed shopping center. The real estate developer fashioned the first floor into 13 small, locally owned boutiques and three restaurants. He turned the second and third floors into living spaces — a first in Arcade history: with 48 units ranging from micro-loft apartments to multibedroom units with rents starting at $550. They were quickly snapped up, some by owners of the downstairs stores. There’s a waiting list to get in.

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“Just about everyone in Rhode Island has a connection to this place,” Granoff said of the Arcade, which was dormant for years and threatened with demolition several times before he reopened it in October.

“When we opened, an 88-year-old woman told us her great-grandparents had a hat store and tailor shop here,” said Robin Dionne, the Arcade’s director of outreach and client services. “They met here, got married, and ran their stores for years.”

The Greek rectilinear temple-style building with Ionic columns at either end, is towering, with a vaulted glass ceiling that bathes the open atrium in light. The third floor is stepped back from the second; both are ringed by original wooden handrails, ornate scrolled-iron balustrades, and worn flooring. The first floor is a popular cut-through for pedestrians connecting to Weybosset and Westminster streets in the city’s financial district.

An image of the Arcade in the 1950s was seen on the wall of the renovated structure.

Paul E. Kandarian

An image of the Arcade in the 1950s was seen on the wall of the renovated structure.

The Arcade’s revival adds another dimension for residents and tourists, said Dan Baudouin, executive director of the Providence Foundation.

“Even when it was closed, people would go just to look in the windows,” he said. “Having it open again adds another attraction to downtown.”

Dash Bicycle, a repair and rental shop, located in the Arcade to augment its west side location, said owner Leo LaBelle, who worked at the Providence Cookie Co. here in the ’90s. He expects to rent bikes to tourists come spring to ride around the city or on nearby trails, including the popular East Bay Bike Path, which starts about a mile and a half away.

“This will be great, having a centralized location,” said LaBelle, adding that a plus for Arcade residents is having a bike garage in the basement to store their rides.

Shop owners living here include Amanda Rubin of GetModa, a designer consignment shop that sells Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and other brands.

The upper floors of the Arcade, which were transformed into living spaces.

Paul E. Kandarian for the Boston Globe

The upper floors of the Arcade, which were transformed into living spaces.

“I like that all the stores are noncompetitive; they’re all different and we promote each other,” said Rubin, 32, who moved her business from Ashland. “There are no chain stores and we’re all local.”

The diversity of shops adds to living at the Arcade, she said.

“If I want my hair done, or eyebrows, or need furniture,” she said, “it’s all right here.”

Another resident-owner is Ryan Bessette of Rogue Island Local Kitchen & Bar, with virtually everything house-made, including ketchup and butter, and food sourced from Rhode Island or within 60 miles of Providence.

“I loved the history of this building and thought it was a great way to revive eating fresh like they did back in those days,” said Bessette, who studied cooking at the Le Cordon Bleu College of the Culinary Arts in Boston. “All our craft spirits are made in New England, too, including Sons of Liberty whiskey and vodka [made in South Kingstown].”

Shop owners living above their workplaces is reminiscent of long-ago downtowns, Baudouin said, adding that residential growth in Providence’s downtown has blossomed to nearly 100 percent over the last five years, along with a hotel occupancy rate of more than 80 percent.

“That shows people want to be here,” he said.

Pairing whiskey and coffee is New Harvest Coffee & Spirits, a hangout for morning coffee and conversation that roasts its beans at the company’s Pawtucket headquarters, said Erick Armbrust, assistant manager.

“We have about 50 whiskeys,” he said of a range that includes French and Indian single malts, served at a long, curved stainless-steel bar. “It’s going well here; people are responding to it.”

Mayor Angel Taveras, who grew up on the south side, recalls “the Arcade’s buzzing first floor. You could buy pizza. There was a great cookie place I went to even after I became a lawyer. It was the center of activity and a gathering place. The saying was always ‘Meet me at the Arcade.’”

Its resurgence, Taveras said, “is symbolic of the city. Its rebirth has been a real boost of confidence for us.”

When the Arcade first opened, it was dubbed “Butler’s Folly” after the man who built it, Cyrus Butler, and his attempts to fill it, said C. Morgan Grefe, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society. Though it’s had some successful years, according to Granoff, “it’s been a building with about 180 years of uninterrupted failure.”

Now with stores and residents fillings its spaces, he said, “We’re hopeful this rendition works, that this is the one that makes it economically viable. I think this is going to work.”

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at pkandarian@aol.com.

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