Spirit of Benefit Street

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The Providence Athenaeum on Benefit Street, circa 1880. (Athenaeum)

By happenstance, much of my yesterday was spent on or near Benefit Street, long known as Providence’s Mile of History. The intersection of Benefit and College streets must be among the most beautiful in the history of the world, to channel A.J. of the “My Weird School” series of children’s books (Miss Daisy is Crazy and 21 others) by Dan Gutman.

A while back I received an invitation to the Providence Athenaeum from the Mile of History Association to hear master storyteller Robb Dimmick read from Margaret Bingham Stillwell’s book While Benefit Street Was Young (1943). It is her account of the street circa 1900 from her memories as a little girl. In anticipation, I channeled instead Florence Parker Simister’s Streets of the City (1968), which I know so well, taken from 17 years of her radio-show anecdotes on WEAN. In fact, I had confused Simister’s book with Stillwell’s book. The latter, it turned out, was read from last night at the Athenaeum. Much as I revere Simister’s book, Stillwell’s book was a smash hit.

And what a setting! Downstairs at the Ath, a late sun filtering through budding trees and into its windows, a view of students climbing College Street against the backdrop of the dear old Handicraft Club, headquartered at the Truman Beckwith House (circa 1826), overlooking Benefit Street.

I spent a glorious 14 years living on Benefit. Between 1984 and 1999, I lived in three apartments, on the third, first and third floors, respectively, of Nos. 283, 395 and 372. I walked to the Journal down College Street, through the magnificent gateway to downtown framed by Superior Court and RISD’s College Building, both of red brick, designed in the Georgian style between 1924 and 1936 by Jackson, Robertson & Adams. Then across the river and up Westminster, hooking right at Union and over to the Journal on Fountain, a 20-minute walk either way for 14 years until I actually moved downtown. Then for 11 years I lived in the Smith Building, looking down on the Plunder Dome from my large windows looking east, past the Financial District and back up College Hill. My commute from the Smith to the Journal was four minutes, a block and a half down Union, cross Fountain and in like Flint. In 2010, I moved with my wee family to Overhill Road on the East Side, where we live, as they say, off Hope.

I love it, but I also regret leaving downtown, and regret having left Benefit Street before that. Now I regret that my dear mother-in-law will soon be moving out of Cat Swamp, about halfway between Benefit and Overhill.

Cat Swamp? That’s what the Freeman Plat neighborhood was called before it was developed between 1916 and 1929. I’ll miss hanging a left from Morris Avenue onto Freeman Parkway, the loveliest residential street in the history of the world (except for Benefit!), past Barberry Hill (a short street with a crook, or let’s say an elbow), and right onto Taber Avenue. Simister has a thing or two to say about Barberry Hill in her Chapter 28, “Barberry Hill”:

There can only be one reason for the name of this street. It must once have been covered with barberry bushes. These shrubs, with spiny-toothed leaves and orange-red berries, grow in great profusion in Rhode Island and in Providence. In Middletown, as early as 1766, a special act was passed for the destruction of barberry bushes which were supposed to injure grain. … Six years later, in 1772, the General Assembly extended this act to apply to the whole colony of Rhode Island.

She continues: “In addition to inclusion in the laws of the colony, barberry bushes played a feature role in a murder once committed in Providence.”

I cut off the quote here to express my regret about the “Cat Swamp” exhibit at the John Hay Library, a beautiful 1910 classical edifice at Prospect and College streets. I had yearned to see the exhibit because my mother-in-law lives in the neighborhood, now known as the Freeman Plat. And I finally did see the exhibit just before I attended the reading at the Ath. But the exhibit was all about the plants of Cat Swamp, not about its development, though there were some maps and a painting of the Seekonk River by E.L. Peckham, who once lived at 395 Benefit St., where I had a condo in 1990-97. His most famous paintings were views from his roof.

Well, okay. I will continue the barberry quote anyway, since I don’t want to be a twit only to regret it later.

One night in April or May of 1681, a man by the name of Clawson was attacked near the North Burial Ground by an Indian who jumped him from behind a thicket of barberry bushes. The murder was supposed to have been instigated and the Indian hired for the job by a man named Herenden. Clawson’s chin was split open by the first blow of the Indian’s axe and he died of the injury. Before he died, however, he pronounced a strange curse upon the enemy who had hired his murderer, “that he and his posterity might be marked with split chins” – what, like Cary Grant? Strange curse indeed! – “A century after the murder someone tracked down all of Herenden’s descendants and it was found that they all had furrowed chins and that ‘many a quarrel was excited among them at the huskings and frolics by the mention of the word barberry bushes.'”

Being a dedicated city guy, I did not read all the material about plants at the exhibit, so I don’t know whether there was anything about barberry bushes. Yet – with apologies to Fred Thurber, my friend the naturalist, who has until April 30 to view the exhibit – if any of it was as interesting as the passages from Florence Parker Simister on the barberry bush, I shall eat my hat. Not much flora from Florence, I’ll warrant. As for Stillwell and her While Benefit Street Was Young, I’ll be hoping for more buildings than bushes when I finally get to it, and to judge by last night’s reading I won’t be disappointed. (Not that I don’t love plants. Am I a monster or what?)

And my mother-in-law’s impending departure from Cat Swamp? Halfway between Overhill and Benefit, her house on Taber Avenue has been mightily convenient. But soon she will be moving, putting down stakes right next to the IGA, or rather the Eastside (sic) Marketplace. I’m sure this will be no cause for regret. The location of Agnes, wherever it may be, will always be the farthest thing from any cause for regret.

Regret would follow the erection of a modernist house on Benefit Street – not in the cards, at least not for now, thank goodness, and not (I presume) with our committee of correspondence, the Mile of History Association, on the lookout. MoHA is not MoMA. The reading at the Ath glowed with the spirit of Benefit Street. MoHA is about singing its legend, its poetry of place, but it’s also about trash collection, parking vexations, and the smooth flow of brick on sidewalk: keeping Benefit trig – “neat and smart in appearance,” as defined by the OED, and one of Margaret Bingham Stillwell’s concerns. It means keeping Benefit’s homeowners on their toes, looking about for their own and the street’s interests, and keeping a sharp eye on sharp absentee landlords to keep their houses, yards, sidewalks and even their tenants trig.

Trig is also short for trigonometry, right? To be sure – as in “my A+ in trig” (ha!) – but on Benefit it’s trig all the way.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Spirit of Benefit Street

  1. Mr. Downturn says:

    No doubt you’re over-the-hill but my mother (1919-2016), who worked at the Athenaeum as a librarian before she had a better offer, would savor this history. –Mr. Downturn


    • Gee, D.A., you never told me your ma was a librarian at the Ath. When I first came to Providence I joined. I was deeded, by the “Spy in the Sky” (the late Tony DiBiasio), “Share No. 41” that originally belonged to Resolved Waterman. It was the equivalent, for someone like me, of a low-number license plate. What joy it game me to own it! But the Ath has not had shares for, I think, 20 years or more. Another great old tradition bites the dust. Now you take out a membership. I’d like to write a post about Poe and Whitman.


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