By Carla Charter at Chairside New England History
The importance of College Hill Historic District, the oldest in Rhode Island, is clear in its architecture and street layout, with the district being made up of a mix of Colonial, Federal revival and Victorian homes, according to Ray Rickman, a College Hill resident and preservationist.
It’s history too is part of its preservation story. Many who resided there over the years, have names which now echo through history. These residents included Samuel Slater of the Slater Mills where the Industrial Revolution began, as well as the Brown family, four brothers who created Brown University. The Brown family were slave and opium dealers, he stated, with one of the brothers, Moses Brown, later becoming a Quaker and creating the Moses Brown Friends School and becoming a famous abolitionist, according to Rickman. The four brothers also owned eight slaves jointly. When Moses Brown became a Quaker, he bought his brothers out and freed the slaves. Joseph Brown, another brother was one of the first architects in America and designed the first Baptist Church in America in 1775. William J Brown, the son of one of these freed slaves, was a resident who wrote his autobiography The Life of William J. Brown of Providence Rhode Island, which Rickman said,,is the most important biography of any free black person in America. Other neighborhood residents included Sarah Helen Whitman, poet and romantic interest of Edgar Alan Poe, who also lived in the College Hill District for a year, Christina Banner the richest black woman in New England during her time, who made her wealth through hair salons, Edward Bannister the first famous black artist in America and Sisseretta Jones the first famous black singer in America, he said.
Currently there is a question looming over the fate of four houses and a carriage house in this district. . The carriage house currently houses the University’s Environmental Studies Program. “It also has “a fabulous community garden “Rickman said.
Brown University is proposing to use the land the buildings sit on, to build a performing arts center. “One additional note that may not be entirely clear is that the proposed performing arts center is an academic building that is intended to serve a range of students in the performing arts,” according to Brian E. Clark, Director of News and Editorial Development, Brown University
The houses in question are in the geographical center of the College Hill District on Angel and Waterman Streets which is the Main street going East and West, Rickman said. There is a plan for one home to be moved to the Northwest corner of Olive Street, he added.
Currently Brown has a number of smaller theaters and Rickman said of the new proposed theater, “There is no compelling reason, absolutely no need for it. It is, totally redundant…it is something totally unnecessary.”
He continued, by adding, that he believes the University is an asset to the community. “Brown University adds so much life and vitality to the community. I can’t tell you how valuable it is as a resource to us. It doesn’t matter how good the institution is though, you should not be tearing down irreplaceable historic buildings.”
Clark stated “Consideration of Brown’s Institutional Master Plan has been continued until March, and the University is assessing ways to be responsive to community concerns in the plans we ultimately submit for a commission vote.”