College Hill, Providence, Rhode Island

Providence neighborhoods with College Hill in red
Halsey House at 140 Prospect Street, built in 1801 by Colonel Thomas Lloyd Halsey. This served as the Ward house in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

College Hill is a neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, and one of six neighborhoods comprising the East Side of Providence and part of the College Hill Historic District. It is roughly bounded by South and North Main Street to the west, Power Street to the south, Governor Street and Arlington Avenue to the east and Olney Street to the north. College Hill is also home to Thayer Street, a shopping strip frequented by students in the Providence area.

Benefit Street, the heart of College Hill

College Hill is the most affluent neighborhood in Providence, with a median family income of nearly three times that of the city as a whole.

College Hill has been designated as one of the Great Places in America[1] by the American Planning Association in 2011. College Hill became an example of Historic Preservation planning in 1959.

Governor Stephen Hopkins House, built 1708, home of Brown's first chancellor. The house is adjacent to the campus on colonial-era Benefit Street, and near Brown's School of Public Health, visible on the right of the photo


The name refers to various major educational institutions established in the neighborhood: Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, Pembroke College and the now relocated Bryant University. Prior to their development, the area was known as Prospect Hill.


The region was familiar to the local Wampanoag people when it was suggested that a refugee group recently expelled from the Plymouth Colony should settle upon a small hill on the right bank of the Seekonk River. Led by Roger Williams, after his 3-month winter encampment with Massasoit before escaping from Boston in Dec 1635, he and a small group of families bounded together by religious faith arrived on the west side of the hill. After friendly agreement with chief sachems of the Narragansett Canonicus and Miantonomi, and with providence aforethought, Williams and his group set camp.

By 1644, Williams along with Chad Brown and the ancient settlement of Providence had taken root at College Hill.

Town layout of Providence showing land plots of many of the earliest settlers

By the time of the American Revolution, the foot of the hill was densely populated with wharves, warehouses, shops, public buildings, and residential houses. Benefit Street was home to several hotels, including the Golden Ball Inn which hosted such guests as George Washington. In 1770, the college that became Brown University was moved to the old Brown farm and over the next century would gradually expand. In the nineteenth century, precious metals and jewellery trading drove much business on North Main Street, and RISD was established in 1877. By the 1900s, Brown had begun expanding more aggressively, demolishing nearly 100 houses in the 1950s for a residential quadrangle area.

This 1795 engraving is the first known image of University Hall, built 1770-71, one of seven surviving American college buildings that date from the colonial period. During the Revolutionary War, the "College Edifice" was converted to a hospital and barracks for the Comte de Rochambeau's French forces

In the post-war years, Providence went into a decline. Many of the neighborhood's more historic centers were in disrepair and were slated for demolition as part of urban renewal projects. The Providence Preservation Society[2] intervened and the area is now home to one of the country's largest restored collections of 18th and 19th century Victorians and colonials.

Architectural history and preservation

135 Benefit Street
The largest surviving Hutchings-Votey organ in the world is in Sayles Hall.[3] It has 3,355 pipes and weighs 25 tons. It is pictured here for Brown's traditional Halloween midnight concert.

College Hill boasts architectural styles from the 18th century forward, including residences and institutional structures located along tree-lined streets with sidewalks. Some of the elegant homes include the Georgian-style John Brown House built in 1786 and the Renaissance Revival Governor Henry Lippitt House built in 1865. Both are National Historic Landmarks and museums. College Hill also has numerous churches built in the Baroque, Romanesque, Gothic, Greek Revival, and Renaissance architectural styles. The Fleur De Lys Studio is also part of the collection of historic buildings on College Hill. This cultural institution is inspired by the half-timbered stucco houses of Chester, England. The Providence Athenaeum built in 1838 is one of the nation’s oldest libraries and is an example of Greek-Revival architecture.[1]

Wheeler 2011 nightshot

Benefit Street was formerly Back Street[4] in its colonial days. Coming into formation as a series of paths winding through backyards along the steep hillside, Back Street stretched across the land allotments of the original settlement parallel to the left bank Providence River, from Fox Point waterfront in the south to its terminus at North Main. As the area matured, the area was once home to both many wealthy business families in the 1700s, and black Americans in the 1900s.

Through the middle of the 20th century, the area nearer to the waterfront and Statehouse experienced a decline that remained until a 1970s rediscovery of historic structures along Benefit Street and on Aquidneck Island. These aged houses were occupied mostly by Providence's early minority population and were often subdivided into tenements. These units were often dilapidated and without adequate facilities and were targets for demolition under one of the city's proposed urban renewal projects.

In part, due to the Providence Preservation Society's efforts, plans were changed and the area became one of the first urban renewal projects in the US' modern Urban Planning history, to encompass rehabilitation of vital historic fabric as opposed to demolition and new construction. As so many other historic buildings were lost such as the Roger Mowry Tavern, many structures from around the Providence area were relocated to Benefit street. Today, they form one of the best examples of Colonial and Federal period Architecture on the Continent. Nearly all of the buildings situated near historic Benefit Street have been rehabilitated in some form. Preservation guidelines ensure that period specific new construction can be weaved into the existing collection of buildings. As the area is home to one of the finest cohesive collections of restored 18th- and 19th-century architecture in the United States[5] the College Hill neighborhood experiences significant infrastructure and building reinvestment dollars compared to other regions throughout the state.

Historic designation

An urban renewal and revitalization project was demonstrated by the Providence Preservation Society in 1959. The society's report, authored by preservationist Antoinette Downing and titled College Hill: A Demonstration Study of Historic Area Renewal, contained an inventory of properties and developed a historic area zoning ordinance and methods for integrating historic areas into future redevelopment. This report led to the neighborhood becoming a historic district and the project was noted as a national landmark and example for preservation as a means of community renewal. This preservation and reuse has allowed for the historic houses to become museums. Adaptive reuse has given new life to historic houses as museums. Sustainability is exemplified in the recently renovated Brown Street Park. The neighborhood is also connected to the downtown by the Riverwalk and many modes of transportation including bus, trolley, car, bike or walking.


College Hill is divided along Angell Street between Ward One to the south and Ward Two to the north.[6][7]

As of the 2006 elections, Ward One is represented in the Providence City Council by Seth Yurdin and Ward Two by Cliff Wood. Both are Democrats. Major public buildings include the Providence County Courthouse and the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General. Both are located on South Main Street, at the bottom of College Hill. The Rhode Island Supreme Court is located along Benefit Street.


75.6% of College Hill residents are white while 13.6% are Asian, both well-above the city-wide averages of 54.5% and 6.2% respectively. African-Americans and Hispanics each comprise about 5% of the population.[8] A sizable portion of the population are seasonal students attending the local academic institutions and residing in collegiate housing or leases.

Median family income on College Hill is $121,521, well above the city-wide average. About 5% of households live below the poverty line. Fewer than 1% of households receive any public assistance.[8]

Universities and schools

College Hill is home to Brown University's main campus, and most of Rhode Island School of Design, whose buildings are adjacent to Brown, along the western slope of College Hill along South Main.

Carrie Tower, built 1904 in English Baroque style, is a memorial to Caroline Mathilde Brown, granddaughter of Nicholas Brown, class of 1786, for whom the University is named

The Moses Brown School, on Lloyd Avenue (the summit of College Hill) and the Wheeler School, on Hope Street, are notable private schools in the neighborhood. Hope High School is located at the corner of Hope and Olney Streets, is one of Providence's major public high schools.[9]

Shopping and restaurants

Numerous cafes, restaurants, and shops are located along Thayer Street, adjoining Brown University at Soldier's Arch. Both streets are home to numerous small and independent shops, though Thayer Street has a few chain stores. Brown University's bookstore is located on Thayer.[10] Thayer Street's Avon Cinema, dating back to the early twentieth century, is a noted College Hill landmark.[11]



Drawing of a man leaving an open door in a house, inset into a drawing of a naked man cowering among plants, apparently recoiling from the inset picture.
Original illustration by Virgil Finlay accompanying the publication in Weird Tales (October 1937, volume 30, issue 4).

The base of College Hill is the oldest area of the city. The College Hill Historic District includes much of the area and has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark District by the Department of the Interior. The Providence Preservation Society[12] and the Rhode Island Historical Society have preserved numerous historic buildings in the College Hill area. Landmarks include:

College Hill in popular culture

Notable people


Further reading

Coordinates: 41°50′N 71°24′W / 41.83°N 71.4°W / 41.83; -71.4

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