The Story Behind the Turk’s Head Building in Providence

The looming structure at the intersection of Weybosset and Westminster may have been built in 1913, but the name's history goes back much further.

Photography by Wolf Matthewson

Looming above the intersection of Weybosset and Westminster in downtown Providence, an imposing figure scowls at the streetscape below. The sixteen-story Turk’s Head Building was constructed in 1913 for the Brown Land Company, but the name’s history goes back much further. “The Turk’s Head was a trading post originally back in the mid-1700s,” says Robert Burke, owner of nearby Pot au Feu restaurant and founder of the history-focused Independence Trail. As the story goes, a shopkeeper named Jacob Whitman hung a ship’s figurehead depicting an Ottoman sultan above his store to distinguish it from others. The name stuck, and architectural firm Howells and Stokes incorporated a stone version of the figure into the new building’s design. Over the years, the property has hosted everything from a social club to the office of the first woman to pass the Rhode Island bar exam. While many look to New York’s Flatiron Building as the model for the signature wedge shape, Burke points out the Turk’s Head bears a close resemblance to the 1855 Merchants Bank Building on the other side of the plaza. “I’m not sure I’m ready to look 180 miles away for inspiration when I can stand at the Turk’s Head and see the mini-me across the street,” he says.