As is the case with the some of the most enchanting experiences — be they books or buildings — Providence’s beautiful Victorian Wedding Cake House is “bigger on the inside.” The Wedding Cake House (previously known as the Tirocchi House) occupies the lot on 514 Broadway in Providence, Rhode Island. Its exterior is perfectly in keeping with the other elegant Victorian mansions lining this street; it is one of several architectural points of interest in the Broadway-Armory Historic District (established 1974).
Originally built in 1867 by architect Perez Mason, the home took on the names of its first inhabitants — manufacturer John Kendrick and railway magnate George. W. Prentice — before becoming, most famously, the home of Anna and Laura Tirocchi, two Italian-American immigrant sisters who operated a dressmaking business inside the building for several decades. After the sisters’ deaths, the house sat empty, deteriorating in the harsh New England weather as the remnants of their life’s work were carefully documented and preserved by the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Rhode Island. After featuring prominently on the Providence Preservation Society’s “Most Endangered” list for several years, the Wedding Cake House is now undergoing a multi-year process of transformation — restoration, repair, and reinvention — that places it on the cultural map as a unique artistic and economic community project.
The interior of the Wedding Cake House belies its tidily historic, elegantly white-painted and corniced exterior. I’ve been inside the Wedding Cake House, albeit almost a year ago, before COVID-19 reduced public access to these kinds of creative and curiosity-inspiring artistic encounters to something that could fit on a laptop screen. Even in unfinished form — painting supplies on the floor, rooms devoid of furniture, plaster dust hanging in the air — the Wedding Cake House interior was kaleidoscopic and vibrant, its litany of color and pattern clashing in a way that produced sparks rather than disorientation. Each room and hallway is decorated with bespoke wallpaper; each bathroom sports its own dazzling tile arrangement; nearly every wall is graced with a unique painting or print.
The Wedding Cake House project is a major undertaking by the decades-old Providence feminist art collective The Dirt Palace, led by artists Pippi Zornoza and Xander Marro. While the history of the Tirocchi sisters has been explored in exhibition, website, and book form, the house itself has the potential to allow visitors to go beyond perusing beautiful gowns: In the vein of the most effective and transporting historic house museums, it allows them to place themselves in the world the sisters occupied, if only for a moment.
In undertaking this renovation project, Zornoza and Marro are reinventing both the physical and affective capacities of the Wedding Cake House in exciting and fresh ways, strengthening Providence’s status as a creative destination and promoting aspects of under-appreciated women’s history. Indeed, one more subtle impact of the Wedding Cake House project is that it continues the rather specific artistic tradition of reshaping Victorian homes in a major United States city (by two creative, community-minded women activists) into an expressive space, giving women artists and workers opportunities to shape the world around them, and to fulfill what they see as a pressing communal need. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr established Chicago’s Hull-House (1889–2012) as a home for the support of women’s intellectual and professional passions. For over a century, Hull-House was a site for advocacy of female creativity and labor among the city’s immigrant communities. Similarly, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, along with the women artists of California Institute of the Arts’ Feminist Art Program, created Womanhouse (initiated in1972) as a site for exploring the artistic contradictions and opportunities of the domestic space and developing the skills a new generation needed to succeed in a male-dominated art world.
The similarities continue further in the details: Hull-House, the Wedding Cake House will include artist studios and living quarters. Like Womanhouse, it is being physically renovated by Zornoza and Marro to include installations of work by artists. It is easy to imagine the kind of “mid-career” artists touted by the Dirt Palace as benefitting from the work undertaken by Womanhouse in providing a space for the political and social education of women artists preparing to enter an art world that they feared would diminish or overlook their talents.
Reflecting shifts in waves of feminist thinking, the Dirt Palace also practices an inclusive ethos, answerable to a constituency that is not only well-educated, middle-class activists or avant-garde art students. The inaugural exhibition at the Wedding Cake House, Ruffles, Repair & Ritual: the Fine Art of Fixing, included the queer artist Macon Reed’s print “Expand the Feminine Spectrum,” (2018–2019) which represents a feminine that is not grounded in the biologically female body. Of this work in the exhibition, Reed stated: “Expanding the notion of what feminine-spectrum people could be or what they might look like is part of it […]; the other part is making room for trans women to be part of sisterhood.” The inclusion of artists like Macon indicates the Dirt Palace’s recognition of a feminism that is inclusive of trans and non-binary people. We are a long way away from Schapiro’s “Menstruation Bathroom” (n.d.) at Womanhouse. Marro and Zornoza also plan to add accessible facilities to the historic house as construction and renovation progress, reflecting a refusal to concede to the ableist tendencies that have plagued waves of feminist thought and activism. Unlike Hull-House, the Wedding Cake House is on no paternalistic civilizing mission for underserved populations.
However, as a site operating in a 21st-century world, the Wedding Cake House cannot only reflect the positive changes in social movements as well as the powerful nature of artistic kinship; it also reflects the continuing turn towards valuing cultural and artistic output as consumer products in a marketplace economy. While the Wedding Cake House carries on the praxis of Hull-House and Womanhouse, it also, at this early stage, reflects the decidedly transactional nature of contemporary artistic practice — namely, that in order to justify its existence, it must contribute something of economic value.
Is it a requirement that all artistic ideas must now pay for themselves — that there must be a business mindset attached to these kinds of efforts to make them valid? In the framework of the neoliberal market economy, the Wedding Cake House cannot simply be a space for women’s and non-binary artists’ studio practices as well as an important, creative restoration of an under-appreciated segment of Providence history. It must also generate income to prove its usefulness; it must demonstrate a return on investment for the city, the state, and for the hardworking taxpayer-consumer. And the Wedding Cake House certainly plans to comply with this societal requirement: aside from the previously mentioned studio and residential facilities, as well as its capacity for immersive exhibitions, the Wedding Cake House also boasts its plans for a boutique bed-and-breakfast, where “arts patrons will have the opportunity to stay in unique short term rentals alongside of resident artists, allowing for audiences exploring the area to learn about the regional culture and history while directly supporting the creation of new work.”
This idea, frankly, sounds enchanting and charming — exactly the kind of touristic attraction that (in the post-COVID era) could buffer Providence’s artistic reputation. I could foresee this Wedding Cake House boutique hotel eventually having a waitlist for this curated experience. Tourism benefits the city, benefits the economy, and benefits the taxpayer; everyone wins. Yet Providence is already an expensive city for renters, and gentrification — particularly in Federal Hill, the neighborhood that houses the Wedding Cake House — is on the rise. What will a successful Wedding Cake House hotel mean for the adjacent buildings and communities not connected with the Dirt Palace?
In this country, arts and culture — in arguments made to increase public support — are too often framed within the paradigms of job creation and economic benefit, rather than for the idea that having access to a flourishing arts culture expands people’s emotional, intellectual, and social horizons is an inherently worthy goal. The challenge with the Wedding Cake House, as it continues to develop, is that it will not reify current and historical inequalities or exacerbate them further by contributing to gentrification and displacement. The potential of the Wedding Cake House as an artistic nucleus must challenge us to push the model further — or rather, encourage us to return to the mindset shared by Hull-House and Womanhouse, which were not required to generate profit in order to be considered valuable cultural and historical sites. It needs to matter beyond dollars and cents that the Wedding Cake House will strengthen the local artistic community and even potentially encourage similar creative restoration projects of historic architecture.