This week, another in the long series of posts that have investigated Lovecraft’s College St. I was going to hold off from posting pictures of the Courthouse Buildings at the foot of College St., Providence. Partly because it doesn’t seem the most exciting place in the world, and he may well never have set foot in it. But also because I was still unsure of what exact routes Lovecraft habitually took from the hill to the city-centre. Even when he lived in College St., was it a regular sight for him? Some scholars say he walked into town one way, some another.
But then I read Lovecraft commenting on the old courtyard at the back of the buildings a little down from the Courthouse, in the new Letters to Family books. His aunts had both sent a fine drawing of this courtyard, cut from a local newspaper or magazine (see my earlier blog post on this courtyard). Lovecraft then remarked, in 1924, that he had climbed up the hill that way “thousands” of times. And this was before he even lived at No. 66, a little further up the hill.
Thus, while he may well have descended from College Hill into the commercial district by a different route (longer and more scenic, perhaps varying by season) and thus avoided the very foot of College St., it sounds to me like he often returned up the hill by the shortest and most direct way. That would be logical, if he were returning carrying groceries and library books.
He would thus have been walking on the side of the street opposite the Courthouse, and had a good view of the building across the relatively quiet street intersection. His side was the obvious side of College St. to choose to walk on, as it would avoid Brown University students. By tradition the students were supposed to go up and down the hill on the Courthouse side of the street, so as to give the other side to residents. He would also avoid tripping over any undesirables that might be loafing on or milling around the Courthouse steps. Thus, the building would have presented itself to him as a fine landmark on his starting to ascend the hill and return home, whatever he may have thought about its architectural merits.
Here are some indicative views of the exterior. First we see the wider context. The ascent of College Hill is ahead, and the Courthouse a little way up on the right of the picture. The date is 1905, but it was fundamentally unchanged for several more decades.
Now the camera is sited a little way up College Street and the cameraman looks across at the Courthouse frontage from a side-street. College St. runs across the picture from left to right.
Here we see why the above ethereal picture was made in winter. In summer the same view was obscured by trees, as you can see in the picture below — which also provides the best glimpse of the slanted louver-boards on the belfry pinnacle. More on those later.
An artist has no such problem with foliage, and can artfully restrain the trees. Below is Henry J. Peck’s pen-study of the Courthouse frontage, before 1927 and most likely 1924-26. There is now apparently a need for a litter-bin (trash-bin) on the corner, although it might be an American post-box (Post Office mailing-box) of a type unknown to me.
In the end I needn’t have worried about if he actually habitually observed the building as he walked up and down College St., or if he came back up from the commercial district in such a way as to approach it face-on. Because it turns out that at No. 66 he saw it every day, or at least an evocative bit of it. The Courthouse appears briefly in Lovecraft’s late tale “The Haunter of the Dark”…
At sunset he would often sit at his desk and gaze dreamily off at the outspread west — the dark towers of Memorial Hall just below, the Georgian court-house belfry, the lofty pinnacles of the downtown section, and that shimmering, spire-crowned mound in the distance whose unknown streets and labyrinthine gables so potently provoked his fancy.
Thus the belfry structure must have been visible from the windows of his room at 66 College Street, and it can plausibly be said to have helped inspire a key setting in “The Haunter of the Dark”…
the black tower” with “the smoke-grimed louver-boarding
Possibly more of the Courthouse tower could be seen from up in the monitor-roof attic of his house at No. 66, which had a thin line of windows and an old west-facing door to the exterior roof-space. This door was opened for Lovecraft by Brobst, who found a way to spring the intricate locking mechanism that held fast the cobwebbed door.