College Hill Neighborhood on the East Side
College Hill Neighborhood
The East Side neighborhood we know today as College Hill was the site of the first permanent colonial settlement in Rhode Island. The year was 1636 when Roger Williams built the first home here. College Hill still proudly contains one of the Americas's most extensive and distinguished collections of historic architecture. Located on a steep hill going up from the east bank of the Providence River, the area has always been primarily residential in nature. In fact, Benefit Street, Providence's own "Mile of History," was established in 1756 and became home to many wealthy Providence businessmen. Providence's early commercial success was in the shipping trade. Schooners were docked at the Providence River wharfs at the foot of College Hill. Later Providence became one of the first American cities to industrialize, starting the Industrial Revolution.
Institutional growth flourished in the eastern and western sections of College Hill. Both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design continue to make important contributions to the architectural fabric and commercial success of this area. This is especially true near the western edge of the neighborhood along the river and along North and South Main streets. This area, while having been in use for hundreds of years, has recently been revived as a vital commercial corridor and is home to Waterfire, the renowned art installation that lights up the river. The foot of College Hill also provides an important residential to commercial transition point where the neighborhood meets downtown Providence.
Thayer Street is the neighborhood retail area that caters to Brown University students and other young adults. North and South Main Streets is home to many of the City's finest restaurants. Many are located right on the river.
From its founding to the late 18th century, nearly all the settled area of Providence occupied land on College Hill. By the time of the American Revolution, the narrow stretch of land at the river's eastern shore by the foot of the hill was already densely populated with wharves, warehouses, shops, public buildings, and residential houses. Constructed in 1770, the University Hall of Brown University stood alone at the intersection of College and Prospect streets-the top of College Hill. Other key public buildings that still remain in the neighborhood today include the Old State House (1762), the Brick School House (1767), the Market House (1773), and The First Baptist Church In America (1775).
After the American Revolution, the residential areas of Providence expanded. Merchants, artisans and professionals began to move farther up the hillside along Benefit, Congdon, George, Thomas, Power, Williams, John, Arnold and Transit Streets. College Hill became a popular location for elaborate mansions of the area's wealthiest merchants. The earliest of these is John Brown's House (1786), described by President John Quincy Adams as "the most magnificent and elegant private mansion that I have ever seen on this continent." Other notable homes include those of Joseph Nightingale (1792) and Sullivan Dorr (1809), both on Benefit Street. Friends School, now called Moses Brown School, was founded on College Hill in 1784.
By the first half of the 19th century, College Hill still showed continued growth but at a slower rate than the "Weybosset Side," which is what the downtown area and the west side of the city were called. During the 1820s, the Weybosset Side surpassed College Hill in population. The College Hill area, however, saw significant institutional growth during this period. Several churches, the Providence Athenaeum, which is a private library (1839), the Rhode Island Historical Society (1844) were established during this period.
Although concentrated in a few areas, commercial growth was significant. North Main Street became the center for jewelry manufacturing and other metal trades. During the 1790s, Seril and Nehemiah Dodge developed a precious metal-plating process on Thomas Street. By 1830, thirty manufacturers operated shops and small factories along North Main Street. These included Gorham Silversmiths Manufacturing Company and Brown and Sharpe.
During and after the Civil War, land in the northern and eastern sections of College Hill was being developed. At the same time, Brown University was also gradually expanding. The area closer to downtown had already been settled along with Prospect and Hope Streets. The Hope Reservoir was created in 1875 (the present site of Hope High School) as part of the city's water supply system. The reservoir provided a view that invited houses to be built around its perimeter.
During the 20th century, College Hill struggled to accommodate the institutional growth of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Brown University's expansion increased after World War II, entering residential areas. In the early 1950s, nearly 100 houses (many historic) were moved or demolished for the construction of two residential quadrangles. The Rhode Island School of Design, which by 1892 occupied Waterman Street, also expanded to cover three more large blocks and scattered individual buildings.
Through the 1950s, College Hill experienced a decline. Then in 1960, there was a rediscovery and renewed appreciation for its rare collection of historic houses along Benefit Street. Many of these historic homes had fallen into disrepair and some were targeted for demolition by the city's proposed urban renewal project. Due largely to the efforts of Antoinette Downing and the Providence Preservation Society, these plans were altered and the area became one of the first urban renewal projects in the country to embrace rehabilitation rather than resorting to demolition and redevelopment. Today, nearly all of the buildings on or near historic Benefit Street have been renovated and the area is home to one of the finest cohesive collections of restored 18th and early 19th century architecture in the United States. Here you'll see the neighborhood and homes much as they appeared two hundred years ago. In fact, many houses still have forged iron boot scrapers mounted on their granite front doorstep.
Map of the College Hill Neighborhood
See my selection of TOP 40 Homes presently for sale.
- - Chris Healy
College Hill Neighborhood Links:
College Hill Neighborhood Profile
Providence Historic Plaque Homes
Some thoughts on Providence's Old-Houses and Historic Neighborhoods
Providence Athenaeum Library
First Unitarian Church
Providence Art Club
The Old Court Bed & Breakfast
Mill's Tavern Restaurant
New Rivers Restaurant
Whole Foods Market
Do you want to live in a charming older home in one of Providence's historic East Side neighborhoods?
Contact Chris, the "Old-House Expert". Chris will help you make it happen.