Hidden PVD

The Story Behind the Sultan

How a mysterious Turkish warrior became a famed Providence monument

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With his elegant turban and long mustache, the “Turk” looms over the paving stones of Weybosset Street, scowling at passersby. He cuts an imposing figure, grappling the stone ledge with curled fingers, flanked on both sides by bas-relief of winged lions. Strolling down the sidewalk, you might not even notice the Turk, as the deco-style bust is perched on the third floor, high above an arched entryway. But this ornery Ottoman is the namesake of the Turk’s Head Building, which is just one reason the pie-shaped tower is among the most conspicuous skyscrapers in the city.

Why a Turk’s head? According to lore, the original face was the figurehead of a ship, appropriately named The Sultan. A shopkeeper named Jacob Whitman somehow procured the eye-catching visage and hung it above his storefront. By the late 19th century, the stoic face was a popular landmark, and shoppers would convene regularly “at the sign of the Turk’s Head.” In 1913, New York architects Howells and Strokes constructed their 16-story edifice on the same site, and the Turk’s Head Building was briefly the second tallest structure in Providence (after the State House.) The original Turk’s head is lost to history, but the builders carved their own replica to embed in the facade.