“He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
Excerpted from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” one of his most beloved poems published in 1914
Stretching around the heart of some of the most valuable real estate on the East Side of Providence is an exquisitely built stone wall that stretches for over a mile, is three feet thick, and stands high enough to discourage climbing or visual intrusion. If you live on the East Side, you’ve probably driven by it hundreds of times.
It encircles the area that starts at Hope Street, across from Moses Brown, runs down a big block to Arlington Avenue, makes a right turn, and continues to Angell Street, where it turns right again and continues toward downtown before ending at Stimson Avenue. But the relatively unknown story of how it was built is one of the more fascinating tales of old Providence, yet one that continues to dramatically exert its impact on our city to this very day.
The story begins with the passing of Ebenezer Knight Dexter (1773-1824), one of Providence’s wealthiest residents. He amassed considerable personal wealth in business and real estate but never lost sight of the plight of those less fortunate. He donated his huge 39-acre Neck Farm to the city, along with funds to build the Dexter Asylum, a “poor farm” to house the “indigent, elderly, and chronically unemployed.” Poor farms were common before Social Security and welfare and were, at the time, considered a progressive method for dealing with poverty. Residents had to follow strict rules and work for communal benefit, usually in farming or cooking.
Dexter’s will was very specific, requiring “a stone wall three feet thick and eight feet high with a foundation made of small stones sunk two feet deep into the ground” to be constructed when the asylum was built in 1835. This massive wall took over eight years to build, cost a small fortune, stretches over 6,220 feet long, and contains 7,840 cords of stone (over 94,000,000 pounds!). Call it the Great Wall of Providence.
By the early 1900s, the “poor farm” model had fallen out of favor; the city started looking for alternatives and in 1919 began an almost 50-year legal process to sell the property. With rising real estate values and open space at a premium, city officials tried to break up the property and sell it for house lots. When that didn’t work, they suggested making it a public park. In 1926, the Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld the provisions of Dexter’s will, declaring that no part of the property could be sold. In 1956, the last residents left and the asylum was closed.
Brown had been eyeing the property for decades and president Barnaby Keeney proposed that the city sell or lease it for a gym or athletic complex and the university would indemnify the city if the courts ruled against the plan.
Efforts to break the will had gone on for decades. A lawsuit filed in 1947 was finally resolved in 1957 when a Rhode Island Superior Court judge ruled that the “city could sell the property it had inherited under the pretext that the Asylum had ceased to fulfill its stated purpose of benefiting the poor.”
One can imagine the exhilaration of the city with this news. The mayor at the time was Walter Reynolds, who served seven terms and is remembered as a smart forward-thinking leader with a great track record of rebuilding the city’s infrastructure, but unfortunately allowed this important tract of land in the heart of the city’s most expensive real estate to be auctioned off rather than developed into a neighborhood.
Brown’s bid of $1,000,777 was the highest by $250,000, an early demonstration that price is perhaps a lesser concern when you’re not paying taxes. Brown paid $25,643 per acre – perhaps not as good a deal as the Dutch buying Manhattan for $24, but still very favorable. Today, the area would easily represent over $150 million in taxable real estate if it had become a neighborhood.
So where are we now? The Aldrich-Dexter fields have become athletic grounds, with a skating rink, aquatic center, tennis and squash courts, gymnasium fitness
center, both competitive and practice fields for football, baseball, lacrosse, and more – the list goes on. It also houses the school’s massive “facilities” operation and central heating plant.
The next addition will be an enormous new indoor sports facility. Once again, Aldrich-Dexter parking, which was once plentiful and a key metric in Brown’s ability to meet the institutional zone’s parking requirement, has been dramatically reduced as each new building was built.
When the Aldrich-Dexter wall was built it was the impoverished who were on the inside, the rich outside. With Brown’s billions of dollars in endowment and tax avoidance protections, we wonder if the situation hasn’t become reversed. But rather than debate the issue, we just hope the school remembers the words of Robert Frost: that good fences can make good neighbors – but only if both parties work together collaboratively. May the history of the Aldrich-Dexter relationship guide Brown as they begin to revisit their community responsibilities to the city that hosts them.
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