Thursday, October 7, 2010

On College Hill

Benefit Street @ Bowen, 2010

I read somewhere that the median income of residents of College Hill in Providence is three times that of the Providence area as a whole. That’s not hard to imagine when you see some of the homes on the Hill. But it’s doubly amazing when you figure that many of the college students and young downtown workers renting apartments and rooms there are probably far from affluent.

I beg your indulgence if I’ve worn out your patience with stories of my recent trip to Providence. But I couldn’t finish without showing you a little more of College Hill.

Somewhere along the path of your study of American history I’m sure you picked up something about how the Yankee merchants, bankers and ship captains were known for their fundamental religiosity and their attendant thrift. The homes they built after they’d made their money, especially the early ones, were models of simplicity; little Greek temples, as it were, fashioned from the abundant timber of the New England colonies. Here and there scattered among them are a few undoubtedly over-the-top “wedding cakes” such as the one shown above at the corner of Benefit and Bowen streets. More common, though, are plain timber salt box designs built right up to the street with little or no cover for their front doors.

Looking at some of these houses, you get the impression that the rich who built them—theirs are the names on public buildings all over Rhode Island—had had just enough of Yankee restraint and wanted to find some way to show off their wealth. They couldn’t apparently do it with the main bulk of the house, so they focused all their exuberant attention on the woodwork surrounding their entrances. Look at these:

Transit Street, 2010

Benefit Street - Red Door, 2010

Owning a home like this, no matter how pedigreed your family history, is a real labor of love. I can’t imagine these houses are anything if not money pits. All that wood. All that moisture from the sea. All that painting, scraping and maintenance. Do you suppose there’s any insulation in those walls? History has been kinder to some of these residences than others. For every two or three you see lovingly maintained like the ones shown above, you see one or two that have been chopped up into apartments and rooming houses.

Even the houses that appear to have been cared for through the ages have complications. They obviously weren’t built with modern plumbing and electricity in mind, much less modern appliances, giant flat-screen televisions, oversized furniture and automobiles. Most have settled significantly over the centuries, warping once strict right angles into soft curves. Several have exterior walls bowed way out like timber aneurysms.

I don’t expect some of the bright colors you see on doors in this neighborhood are original. Colonial-era paint technology was pretty heavy on dark and dull shades. Perhaps these bright colors are how modern ancestors of the builders are showing off their stylishness?

Benefit Street - Yellow Door, 2010

Who cares? Let’s just enjoy the color!

Transit Street @ Thayer, 2010


  1. Wow--these are wonderful, Chris. I'm in Providence now, but will be really busy, and I'm not sure I'm going to get to see much. I'll have to make sure I'm here over a weekend some year so I can go exploring. I love the colors in these photos--and the doors are great!

  2. You've inspired me again, Chris. Our youngest daughter moved into an apartment in town in what was once a private residence built in the mid 19th century. While helping her move in I noticed a couple of signs of settling; a closet door that hangs askew when closed, her porch deck that runs a little lower on one side. The next time I'm over there I'll take my camera in with me and see what I can capture.