A few weeks ago, I found myself in the College Hill section of Providence, RI.
I was going to an evening talk, but I was predictably far too early. So, I parked my car, ready to see what I could see in the twenty minutes I needed to use somewhat productively before still arriving fashionably early. During this brief walk (a frequently deployed solution to my chronic state of earliness) I saw many beautiful homes. Yet of all the neatly preserved gems of College Hill, one large, brick home caught my eye and gave me pause. I did not fully realize what an impression this structure, 154 Hope Street, had made on me until I saw it again, this morning.
For those unfamiliar with this area, it is important to first really understand the distinctiveness of College Hill. Walking through College Hill can be a rather surreal experience, for a few reasons. Providence is a vibrant, almost throbbing city–but it is also a deeply divided, and some would say, segregated place.
As with biology, landscape is not destiny. But natural systems can serve as convenient dividing lines for humans. When I drive into the city, I am often struck by the worlds that have been formed on either side of the Providence River. On one side, businessmen and downtown workers hustle on crowded, still-too-small paved roads. On the other, striking historic churches and homes almost immediately come into view. This is an area of well maintained estates, charming and often quiet side streets, and small eateries. For those who admire large colonial buildings, this vista can be almost breathtaking in the right light. I’m thinking especially of the First Baptist Church, an imposing, crisp, and amazingly white structure that commands attention even today, a feat for a city where religious and “soul” freedom have been in place for nearly 400 years.
On this side of the city, a drive on College Street (which includes a bridge over the river) leads to long and almost impossibly steep hills, some of which seem to stretch and wind endlessly into the city. It was at the end of one of these drives that I gladly got out of my vehicle and soon saw 154 Hope. Since this walk, I’ve learned that this property is called King Hall by the Brown University and the Robert W. Taft house by architectural historians.
As one of the many College Hill homes studied under the Historic American Buildings Survey, we can say confidently that this property is more than just an aesthetically pleasing home. Now, those who are so inclined may read about the architectural aspects of the house here. Yet without seeing this house–in its place, its context, you’re really missing something. Historians (and particularly architectural historians) do not always explain this in depth to the public. There is something about seeing an old home–in the place it has been for over a hundred years, surrounded by a similar landscape–that cannot be replicated. There are no HABs or National Register files that will ever come close to really showing you what the “real thing” can, in person. These endless reports are merely one way of trying, so hard, to explain to others why it is vital to keep the fabric of communities together, or to at least do some documenting when they are torn apart.
In that vein, I have often told friends and visitors that in lieu of visiting a living history museum that depicts colonial life, one should walk the hilly streets of Providence instead. This isn’t because College Hill on the whole, or even the particularly well preserved streets, (i.e. Benefit) are perfect snapshots of the past. It’s because they are living, breathing communities that have changed and evolved, just with more continuity than your average. As for the house I first mentioned, while many of the bones presumably haven’t changed, it is obvious that the Providence of today is not precisely the same as the Providence of 1895, the year this home was built. Therefore, it is not a perfect representation of the past–but what is? Preservation is not a contained experiment, and what better place to learn that than in a predominantly preserved neighborhood.
For some people, whether they are walking in an old neighborhood or a living history museum, these types of buildings serve as conduits to marvel at what has changed. Yet I think we need old buildings not to feel superior and set apart from the past, but as markers that force us to wonder what remains the same. I daresay that some disturbing aspects of the Providence of the Gilded Age still linger from the year this house was constructed. MOST Of College Hill is populated with white residents (over 70%) yet the city on the whole is tremendously diverse. Nearly 1/3 of the city lives under the poverty line and YET this community is the picture of wealth and prosperity. This is a place that has been set apart, where some clocks have seemingly been stopped, perhaps indefinitely, to ward off “modern” changes of many kinds.
What is not immediately evident when we focus just on the balustrades and the cupolas and all the other fancy terms we can deploy is that these signs of architectural distinctiveness are also signals of a lack of social change. These symbols of wealth are also relics of other periods of profound unfairness and injustice for many Americans. With this considered, the careful curation of the styles of both the colonial period (when wealth was often made in RI through world trade, including the slave trade) and the Gilded Age takes on new meaning during my evening walk. Then, I remember that I am standing on Hope St. I look at the banners on 154 Hope and I pause. Improbably, a protest banner against the Dakota Pipeline, a banner in support of Black Lives Matter, and a sign urging passersby to RESIST all hang on the historic iron works. This alone makes me reconsider the value of this area, this city of providence. Sometimes, when we are looking for ways to immerse and lose ourselves in the past, we find a most pressing message that demands, in no uncertain terms, a clarity of purpose in the present.