Providence: Benefit Street Lives Up to Its Name

Stephen Hopkins House; photos by Christopher Klein

Shortly after Puritan outcast Roger Williams founded Providence, R.I., settlers cut a cow path across its plantations “for the benefit of all.” The dusty trail eventually grew into the city’s most historic avenue. Yet Benefit Street remains true to its communal origins, and those who stroll underneath its leafy canopy and visit its venerable institutions continue to reap its benefits.

Williams would probably be proud of what’s become of the old bovine thoroughfare carved into College Hill. The renegade preacher so valued equality that he designed an egalitarian community without a town center and apportioned equivalent plots of lands to settlers.

While Benefit Street is now Providence’s most fashionable address –– sporting gaslights, brick sidewalks, and plenty of boot scrapers and brass door knockers –– it still feels inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Modest dwellings stand shoulder to shoulder with grand mansions. Power brokers in suits and ties dine on the outdoor patio of the University Club as college students saunter by in tank tops and flip-flops. Inside the county courthouse and beneath church spires, sinners from all walks of life seek salvation from higher powers.

The best way to explore Benefit Street, dubbed “the mile of history,” is to join one of the Rhode Island Historical Society’s 90-minute walking tours, which begin at the John Brown House Museum. Tours traverse the civic and educational heart of Benefit Street, and take visitors inside two of its notable attractions. (Sites visited on particular days vary based on opening hours of attractions.)

The Historical Society guides lend texture to the amazing architectural tapestry that unfurls down Benefit Street, thanks in large part to dogged preservation efforts in the last half-century.

Across the street from the John Brown House, we visit the blooming gardens of the 1792 Nightingale-Brown House, an immense, boxy wood-frame manse once owned by Brown University’s namesake, Nicholas Brown, Jr., and now property of his eponymous school.

John Brown House

After a brief stop underneath the soaring steeple of the 1816 First Unitarian Church, home to the largest bell ever cast by Paul Revere’s foundry, we enter the Stephen Hopkins House, another structure with important Colonial ties. For more than 40 years, Hopkins, a Colonial governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, lived in this burgundy house that was subsequently moved to the corner of Benefit and Hopkins Streets. A portion of the house dates to 1709, making it the oldest standing structure in Providence.

The upstairs bedrooms offer a none-too-subtle glimpse into opposite ends of the spectrum of the American experience. The finely decorated front bedchamber used by George Washington in April 1776 stands in stark contrast to the incredibly austere slave quarters just steps away.

Back on Benefit Street we stop outside a granite edifice that resembles a Grecian temple, and for bibliophiles this 1838 Greek Revival marvel housing the Providence Athenaeum is indeed sacred ground. The Athenaeum, which dates back to 1753, is one of America’s oldest libraries.

It was amid these stacks in 1848 that poet Sarah Helen Whitman ended her brief, but torrid romance with Edgar Allan Poe two days before their planned Christmas Day wedding after learning he had broken his pledge to quit drinking. It’s not known if Whitman, herself a Benefit Street resident, dumped the American literary giant with a hearty “Nevermore,” but the flock of illustrated ravens who point their wings to direct visitors around the library keep Poe’s spirit alive.

Our tour ends at the meeting house of the First Baptist Church, which serves the congregation first established by Roger Williams in 1638. (The congregation claims to be not just the first Baptist church in Providence, but the first in America as well.) The Georgian gem was built in 1775 for a somewhat odd dual purpose: “for the publick Worship of Almighty God and also for holding Commencement” for Brown University. Portions of the Brown commencement ceremonies still take place on the grounds each spring.

While the walking tour itinerary is jam-packed, plenty of Benefit Street remains to be discovered.

The northern stretch of the street is home to more architectural jewels, including the Old State House, where Rhode Island renounced its allegiance to King George III on May 4, 1776, two months before the Declaration of Independence; the John Brown House, the first mansion on College Hill when it was completed in 1788; and the galleries of the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art, which include millennia-old artifacts from ancient cultures and the museum’s Pendleton House, a replica Federal-style residence filled with American decorative arts.

It’s easy to spend hours inside, reinforcing what my guide, Barbara Barnes, tells me of Benefit Street and its linear slice of urban life: “It’s not just a street. It’s a destination.”

 

 

  • Frank Brown

    Having grown up near it, I have always had hostile feelings towards Providence but this article prompted me to have second thoughts. Thank you!