One of the epicenters of the historic preservation movement in the United States, the east side of Providence is also home to Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design. Preservation leaders and institutional leaders--sometimes adversaries, sometimes partners--took a meandering path toward the expansive notion of Historic Providence that we see today. This article will explore the changing notions of cities, preservation, and institutional development on what is aptly called College Hill. It is a story of mutual support, conflicting values, and an extraordinary act of planning: the College Hill Study.
Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, who was fleeing the constraints of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Located about an hour south of Boston and about three hours northeast of New York City, it serves as the political, business, medical, cultural, and educational center of what is essentially a city-state. Its colleges and hospitals are its largest employers and some of its largest landowners. (They do not, however, pay property taxes.) It is home to four independent colleges and universities--Brown University, Providence College, Johnson & Wales University, and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)--that in total enroll over 20,000 students, most of them from outside the state.
The most well-known, of course, is Brown University, located at the top of College Hill. In the 18th century, the college--then Rhode Island College--grew what was then a significant distance, about a quarter mile, from the residential and commercial center of Providence near the river. The original buildings sit on the Green; the open lawns and 18th- and early 19th-century buildings make a perfect vision of the Ivy League (see figure 1.) Outside of the wrought-iron gates of the Green--and before the university's post-World War II expansion--a residential neighborhood grew up, mostly 19th- and early 20th-century houses and a small commercial center.
RISD (pronounced riz-dee) came later, established by prominent women who were inspired by the new technology showcased at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. By 1877 they had formed a museum and a school of art and design, and by the early 20th century RISD had a block of buildings near the river along the side of the hill between the downtown area and Brown, as shown in the aerial photograph (see figure 2). RISD tore down some existing buildings and built new, but mostly it grew by accretion--buying and re-using existing buildings, such as Carr House at the corner of Benefit and Waterman streets (see figure 3). In the "older part of town," the residences around RISD were often colonial and federal houses of the 18th and 19th century.
As the U.S. population grew after World War II, the suburbs became the ideal of the modern environment. Cities were dirty, the buildings old. Urban renewal was by no means a new concept--do New Yorkers bemoan the loss of the neighborhoods that became Central Park? Title One of the Housing Act of 1949 kick-started the program that would reshape American cities. The act provided federal...