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BENEFIT Street 2004
 
 

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Q U I C K  S T A T S:
Photographed April 22, 2004

The West side of Benefit Street, Providence, between Angel and North Main Streets

Streetscapes:
Benefit street
Capital Center
Downtown photos
Thayer street
Westminster street

Background

If the houses on Benefit Street could talk... In the late 1950s, most of the 18th- and 19th-century homes lining this “Mile of History” were in disrepair and seemed destined for the wrecking ball. Fortunately, the Providence Preservation Society saved the day. Together with capital provided by private citizens, PPS came up with an aggressive plan to preserve the entire neighborhood. Today, the expanse of the Benefit from Wickenden to Olney streets is one of the most impressive representations of Colonial and early Federal-style buildings in the country.

Lesser-known History

(The information presented here was gathered by Bela Teixeira and Rosemary Santos. Teixeira is executive director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, and Santos is on the board of directors of the Heritage Harbor Museum.)

The Old Arsenal, the Providence Marine Corps of Artillery building, 176 Benefit St.= Built in 1840 by famed architect Russell Warren, the building looks unmistakably military with its turrets. The building was the site of an illegal meeting of the Ku Klux Klan on May 17, 1924. Usually associated with the South, the Klan was active in Rhode Island during the 1920s. It organized a meeting at the Arsenal that attracted some 200 men. The group had no permit to meet on state property and had obtained entrance to the Arsenal by claiming it would hold a religious meeting. Later, Rhode Island's Gov. William S. Flynn denounced the Klan and forbade the group to use state property for meetings.

The Old State House, 150 Benefit St.= Work began in 1760 and was largely completed by 1762, but funds for finishing the interior were appropriated as late as 1771. The building's symmetrical composition and use of red brick with rusticated brownstone and painted wood trim reflect the late English Baroque architecture of the period of William and Mary and Queen Anne. It is now home to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. Here, at the time of the American Revolution in the late 1700s, there were intense debates between factions represented by Brown brothers John and Moses over the issue of slavery and a proposal by some slaveholders to free their slaves in order to let them serve as soldiers. Moses Brown, being a Quaker, was as opposed to slavery as John was in support of it.

Charles Shaw House, 132 Benefit St.= In the 1920s, this circa 1850 house served as the Providence home of the Prince Hall Masons. One of the country's oldest Masons' lodges, the all-black association was founded in 1797 by Prince Hall, a black Bostonian who had fought in the Revolution. Finding that blacks were not welcome in white Masons' lodges, Hall started a lodge in Boston that sparked brother lodges in Providence and Newport.

Sullivan Dorr House, 109 Benefit St.= Built in 1810 for the prominent Dorr family, the Dorrs found themselves split politically during what later became known as the Dorr Rebellion of 1842, which challenged state government.

Judge Staples House, 75 Benefit St.= Built around 1850. A small cemetery behind the house contains the graves of members of four black families who lived in the house from the 1930s to the 1950s. Across the street in the graveyard behind St. John's Episcopal Cathedral is a slate tombstone from the 1700s memorializing “Three Respectable Black Persons, Phillis, Rose and Fannie Chace, Who Served in the Family of Sam’l Chace Esq.”

Anecdotes

Harry J. Singleton Apr 16 2014 Born in Providence in 1946, I am one of 8 siblings and lived the first 9 years of my life at 33 1/2 Benefit Street. In 1955, my father (Fred Singleton) purchased our first home at 24 Wheaton St (believe street name now changed to Pratt), a house that still stands just below the Prospect Terrace. I attended Benefit St. elementary school in the early '50s, Doyle Ave middle, Nathan Bishop junior high, and graduated Hope High in mid '60s. I have super fond memories of coming of age in Providence in the sixties and, as a young African-American boy at that time, had instilled in me by my mother a keen appreciation of the historic nature of the neighborhood in which I lived. In my early teens, a great deal of my time was spent at the Benefit Street Recreational Center, with its large gymnasium located just behind the main facility which catered to all the kids after school and on weekends. That landmark, which served as a haven for youngsters back then, has long since been torn down and any historical reference to it, unfortunately, appears now to be nonexistent. Such memories as the time young Jack Kennedy was campaigning for President (1960) and my mom took me downtown to look and listen, and the throngs of people all pushing and shoving to get as close as possible to the candidate, shall never be forgotten. Although I left the city many years ago, Providence remains to me a wonderful place to have lived and grown up; a city which evokes warm feelings as well as affectionate memories and a city which I shall always call my home. And, yes, I continue to visit from time-to-time.

Link Ridgewell Feb 16 2014 I graduated in 1946 from St.Dunstan’s. I sang in the choir at Grace Church from 1940 to 1947

William Bissell Jan 22 2014 I attended St Dunstan’s along with my brother from 1947 to 1957. Around 1955 the School moved from 84 & 88 Benefit St to 140 (I think) Hope St, since demolished for the construction of Brown’s Electrical Engineering building. Looking at the Benefit St buildings on Maps, I see that the play yard is now a lovely flower garden. Looking up the back side of 88, I see the bay windows where I was in K & !st on the top floor and the admin offices were on the first floor. The library 2nd and 3rd occupied the rest of the top floor of 88 while 4th & 5th were in 84 first and 7th 8th and 9th were on the second of 84. Looking across the garden to 84, I see one window in the basement where we had a cafeteria to eat in. There was an apartment for MR & Mrs Coleson, the custodian and his wife (the cook) in the back first floor of 84. During our tenure on Benefit St, the whole of the south end of Benefit and S. Main St below (except RISD), were what was known as slums. All the buildings were run-down with gaping holes in the foundations, siding falling off and many broken windows. We would walk down to S Main to catch the UER (United Electric Railway) bus out to Branch Ave. The UER had converted from rail to rubber tires several years prior to us using the lines but at first they were still using the overhead electric lines for power with two long booms at the back of the bus reaching up to the wires. Many of streets in Providence then were what most would call cobble stone but my father correctly called Belgian Block. You can still see them on Bowen St above Benefit.

Don Mason Dec 8 2013 Attended St. Dunstan’s 3rd grade thru 8th grade duting the 60s. Sang in the choir all 6 years. You’re correct as to location of the building. Schoolyard was still pavement and concrete when I was there. Facilities sucked but received a very good education. Anyone know what became of choirmaster T.J. Hallen?

David Colinan Feb 3 2013 I attended St. Dunstan’s 1942 - 1945 (Alex Pausley’s class) and vividly remember, larger than life, Roy Howard and his “3 R’s”. Church Street "The First Street In Rhode Island" ran From Roger William’s spring (landing) on Main Street along side the Church of St John to St. Dunstan’s at the corner of Benefit. Legend has it that Church Street then continued its very steep ascent across Benefit St to a log cabin shelter built by Roger Williams .

Robert Abell Sep 22 2012 My brother Richard Abell and I attended St Dunstans from 1938 to about 1942 and have many great memories of our times at the school. We were both active in St Martins and Grace Church choirs during that time and continued singing with Grace Church until about 1946. One of my strongest memories of school was being taken to and from our home in Edgewood by Bob Day in his Rio truck with wooden benches for sitting in the truck bed. Our only protection were canvas side curtins which were pulled down when it rained. I will never forget the ride home the afternoon of September 21, 1938 when the great hurricane struck Providence. Looking back on my years of attending St Dunstans were fond memories for sure.

Stephanie Peacock Jul 17 2011 With regard to St Dunstan’s School and the message from Alex Pausley... You must have known Roy W Howard. He was the Headmaster of St Dunstan’s School from 1931-1947 (dates approximate). Roy W Howard was the stepson of my great-great-grand-aunt Emma Howard (nee Wooller).

Paul Payton Nov 28 2010 As a student at Brown and for a couple of years after (1965-1971), I lived in several apartments on Benefit Street, including at 110, 119 and 34. The first and last were said to be mansions built by or for the Gorham silver family. At 34, especially, we had great views of the Capitol building, and friends would often come over for post-studying parties to stare out the window and "watch the lights go out" on the Capitol dome (at about 12:08 AM, if I remember it correctly). I was in a band at school, also called Benefit Street; two of us have re-formed a new version of that group. More can be found at www.benefitstreetband.com. Thanks for this website; it’s a delightful diversion and tribute to one of the coolest streets I know!

Jeanne Edgerley McGirr Apr 29 2010 In this area the Providence District Nursing Home Office was located. I was a district nurse---grad from RIH and worked out of there for three years. We would show up there in the AM to get our schedule for the day and then take off to our respective areas. For a while I had South Providence, and then Federal Hill

MATTHEW ROSE Sep 15 2009 I lived at 134 Benefit Street as well, second floor, one room apartment, while I attended Brown University (1977 - 1982). I used to climb out the bathroom window, up onto the room and have cocktail parties and over look Benefit Street and the Capitol Building. Most of the RISD students lived along Benefit St, too. The autumn was insanely beautiful, the spring magnificent. Now I live in Paris... I’ve just done this: abookaboutdeath.blogspot.com

robert savitski Feb 3 2008 I lived @ 134 Benefit st... while poking around the place found some newspapers where the headlines were... “President Lincoln shot”... anyway... thought it interesting

Alex Pausley  The two houses on the northwest corner of Church Street ( I think that’s the right name) and Benefit Street were St Dunstan’s School in the 1940s. This was an Episcopal Choir school with grades 1-9 that provided boy choristers for St Martin’s Church on the east side, and Grace Church downtown. The back yard was all concrete where we played ball during recess, with a high fence separating it from the Cathedral graveyard downhill on the west. On occasion a ball would go over the fence, and there was a hatch and ladder we could pop through and down to search for our ball among the ancient stones. The building on the corner was associated with Edgar Allen Poe and one of his young ladies. The timbers of the house showed deep charring from a fire that apparently was sucessfully extinguished thus saving the building. I graduated in 1947 from the school.

Add your Anecdotes

The information about each building grows as visitors let us know about their experiences. Did you or a member of your family work here? Did you grow up near it as a child? Let us know. All entries will be moderated and may be posted in an edited form. We will use your name unless you tell us otherwise. We will not make your email public.

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