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College Hill and East Side

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College Hill is that part of the East Side residential district concentrated on the steep slope rising from Main Street out of the city's center and extending beyond the crest of the hill roughly to Hope Street—the cutoff point in the local unconscious for the baconlike slicing of properties in the original colonial plat of the city east from Main Street (see Providence introduction). Beyond Hope eastward (and in some places before), the local designation tends to shift to East Side, although some across the boundary align themselves and their property with the distinction of College Hill and are widely considered to enhance it.

College Hill is the locale of one of the country's outstanding collections of houses from the late eighteenth through the mid-twentieth century—all the more significant because of its immediate proximity to a compact downtown. As a historic urban residential district in a mid-size city, it ranks in interest with any such enclave of historic houses on the eastern seaboard. At its heart are two educational institutions: at the top of the hill, Brown University; halfway up, the Rhode Island School of Design. Benefit Street provides the spine of the area. It runs roughly parallel to North and South Main. To the uninitiated, “Benefit” may carry charitable or moral overtones, especially in conjunction with “Providence.” The facts are more mundane. It was opened between 1756 and 1758 “for the common benefit of all,” to relieve Main Street congestion. A few houses were built along it before the Revolution, but only in the 1780s did the street begin to fill with the simple two-and-one-half-story Federal houses that popularly characterize it. On the west side of the street, numbers ranging south from 40 through 118 form a superb, subtle row of variations on the traditional late colonial or Federal format of the five-bay, center-door front, with scattered Greek Revival examples. The architect Alpheus C. Morse lived in the south side of the Earle Pearce House, at numbers 42–44 (1827) after coming to Providence and marrying Pearce's daughter Caroline. When photographers want to capsulate “Benefit Street” in a single image, this is where they usually come.

The perception that Benefit Street is almost wholly a late-eighteenth–early-nineteenth-century street is, however, mistaken. The street remained fashionable through the Civil War, during which time a number of important mid-nineteenth-century houses were built. At the opposite end of Benefit Street and on Jenckes Street, triple-deckers represent the incursion of early twentieth-century working-class housing into the area, as its formerly elite aspect turned shabby.

The area's gradual deterioration between the turn of the twentieth century and the late 1950s encouraged its preservation because few changes were made to building exteriors during that time, and many remarkable interiors also retained all or most of their original appearance. The threat of extensive demolition during the 1950s from urban renewal programs and some destruction of old houses for the expansion of Brown University galvanized a dedicated nucleus to form the Providence Preservation Society. Its first major project was the publication of College Hill: A Demonstration Study of Historic Area Renewal (1959). The report, unprecedented as a systematic listing and evaluation of such a large number of buildings in a historic area, provided the basis for its restoration. As we see College Hill today, it has the obvious patina of age and generally avoids the preciosity of over-restoration—save perhaps for the fakery of electrified “gas” lights along Benefit Street. On parallel Pratt Street (which was itself lined with tripledeckers during the doldrum interlude on College Hill), new houses (or condominiums), mostly of the 1980s, stilted off the steep slope, really take their cue from the humble triple-decker, crossed with neo–Queen Anne and neo–Neo-Colonial detailing. They pile up in a mixture of clapboard and shingle, tall, narrow and angular, with porches and decks, and a miscellany of openings of all shapes to take advantage of the view. So in the very heart of this “historic district,” heralded as a privileged place, consider the revenge of the once despised triple-decker, by which turn-of-the-twentieth-century immigrants managed to squeeze into this classy enclave while its luck was down. Now the least wanted of its array of “historic” types and styles proclaims its potential for regeneration.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.

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