Colonial Architecture Federalist Architecture Rhode Island Providence

Benefit Street is a must see when visiting Providence, Rhode Island, especially if you long to step back in time to the rebellious days of America’s founding. The magnificent buildings along the 1.2-mile stretch of tree-lined street gives viewers a chance to view  the stages of American architecture in a single location. Each building along Benefit Street bears a plaque detailing  its  historical significance.

You can amble along the The Mile of History and admire the fine details of the historic buildings on your own. If you prefer, sign-up for a 90-minute guided walking tour and let your guide share a mixture of history and tidbits of historical gossip about the people who lived and worked on Benefit Street in the 18th century.

Benefit Street, on the east side of Providence in the College Hill section of the city, is one of the top ten places to see when visiting the Rhode Island capital. Some of the nation’s wealthiest families built homes along Providence’s Benefit Street. These magnificant homes blend with more modest houses to create a slice of Colonial America in the midst of the 21st century .

Sandwiched between the restored homes are several public buildings and churches, including the Providence Athenaeum, the fourth oldest library in the United States. If you are quiet, you can step inside and enjoy the solitude of the building. The Meeting House of the First Baptist Church, the oldest Baptist church in the nation, and the First Unitarian Church, which was built in 1816, also contribute to the diversity of the neighborhood.

Today, most of the houses along Benefit Street are private residences, but visitors are welcome to join one of five daily tours conducted at the John Brown House at the corner of Powder and Benefit Streets. Here you can see the opulence of the house and learn about the family that gave its name to Brown University, an Ivy League school which opened its doors as the College of Rhode Island.

Benefit Street hasn’t always been on the city map. It wasn’t until 1758 that the street came into existence. The city of Providence expanded into a thriving merchant center teeming with people and deliveries that clogged Main Street with heavy traffic. City leaders decided to build a street running parallel to Main Street to ease some of the congestion.

Planning and building the street was no small undertaking. Hilltop graves had to be relocated in order to lay out the new street. Until 1772, Benefit Street was known as Back Street.

Today, Benefit Street stands as a prime example of American history, architecture and culture. But that wasn’t always the case. By the 1950s many of the buildings and homes along the historic street had fallen into disrepair. Government officials wanted to raze a section of the neighborhood and make way for an urban renewal project.

Two things kept the historic buildings from the wrecking ball. First, the city did not have the money to pay for the massive project, and secondly, a group of concerned citizens, calling themselves the Providence Preservation Society, campaigned to keep the buildings from being leveled.

Today, thanks to the Providence Preservation Society, Benefit Street is listed on the National Registry of Historic Landmarks. Each building has a plaque attached, thanks to the Society’s efforts, to inform visitors of the historic value of each of the 45 single-family homes along the street.

Winter or summer, spring or fall, come as you are and spend an afternoon on Benefit Street. To make your visit more enjoyable, start at the north end of the street and head south down the hill. Wrap up your visit on Wickenden Street and enjoy lunch or a snack at one of the many eateries in the area.

There is no telling what you can learn from a stroll down the historic thoroughfare.