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College Hill

The community we know today as College Hill was the site of the first permanent colonial settlement in Rhode Island. The area currently contains one of the Providence's most extensive and distinguished collections of historic architecture. Located on a steep hill generated 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. The neighborhood boundaries include Fox Point to the south at Williams Street, Wayland and Blackstone to the east at Arlington Avenue and at Governor Street, Downtown to the west at North and South Main Street, and Mount Hope to the north at Olney Street.

Institutional growth has since 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. The foot of College Hill provides an important commercial and residential transition point where the neighborhood meets downtown Providence.

Major thoroughfares in the neighborhood include Thayer Street, the retail strip for much of the student population, North and South Main Streets, which is actually one street running parallel to the Providence River, and Waterman and Angell Streets running perpendicular to North and South Main and providing many East Side residents with access to the rest of the city.

From its founding by Roger Williams in 1636 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 which 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 Meeting House (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).

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 Cabinet (1844), Friends School (1819) and Dexter Asylum (1822) were all established during this period.

Although concentrated in a few areas, commercial growth was significant. North Main Street became the center for jewelry 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 along North Main Street, including the Gorham Manufacturing Company. There were also a number of base-metal operations such as Congdon and Carpenter (1791) on Steeple Street and Brown and Sharpe (1833) on South Main Street.

One of the more interesting buildings in the city still stands at 118 North Main Street. This late Georgian structure has an exterior door on the second floor of the street facade. That would seem curious to casual observers until it is divulged that like the Hudson Street Market in the West End, this building was raised and a commercial store front placed underneath, replacing the ground floor.

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. By that time, 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 1880s and 1890s, impressive homes were constructed south of Dexter Asylum on Stimson Avenue, Diman Place and along Cooke Street. By the turn of the century, College Hill was an area mostly occupied by middle and upper income housing, making it one of the city's most culturally homogenous neighborhoods. Although foreign immigration flooded other neighborhoods, College Hill remained predominantly white, with the exception of a small black community on Meeting and Benefit Streets.

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 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.

College Hill also experienced a decline and rediscovery of historic houses along Benefit Street during the 1950s and 1960s. These houses were occupied mostly by Providence's early minority population and were often subdivided into tenements. These units were dilapidated and without adequate facilities and were targets for demolition under one of the city's proposed urban renewal projects.

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 encompass rehabilitation as opposed to demolition and redevelopment. Unfortunately, some displacement of the local minority community did occur in this area during the rejuvenation of these structures. 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 17th and 18th century architecture in the United States. Perhaps the most important aspect of the historical nature of the area is that the fabric of the area is virtually intact and remains in place, largely as it was hundreds of years ago. In fact, many houses still have cast iron boot scrapers on their front steps.

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