The East Side's Untold Story

The East Side's Untold Story

By: Sophia Li
Posted: 2/27/09

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION

The rough face of the stone wall bordering the Olney-Margolies Athletic Complex and surrounding facilities has endured more than 150 years of chilling Providence rain, of Brown's intermittent expansion, of the curious eyes of the neighborhood's residents.

Since its construction in the 1820s, it has witnessed change, from the abolition of slavery to the admission of women to the University, and has even resisted attempts to tear it down.

But buried in time, along with its history, is what formerly stood inside the eight-foot wall's perimeter. The Dexter Asylum, completed in 1828 and named for the philanthropist Ebenezer Knight Dexter, whose will stipulated its creation, was a testament to its time. A working farm, it housed and fed the poor, elderly and ill of the city of Providence until its sale to the University in 1957.

Poor farms "were the humane, up-to-date, progressive thing to do in the 18th and 19th century," said Robert Emlen, University curator and senior lecturer in American civilization. "The idea was to not force people to beg in the streets."

Because of its proximity to campus and the imposing stone barrier that enclosed it, the Asylum captured the imaginations of many students, faculty and staff.

"Kids used to sneak in there once in a while and see what was going on," said Peter Mackie '59. "It was a mysterious place for people."

The Asylum finally shut its doors in 1957, its gardens replaced by playing fields. In the following 50 years, Brown's construction projects transformed the area bounded by Hope Street, Stimson Avenue, Angell Street, Arlington Avenue and Lloyd Avenue. A hockey rink, intramural soccer fields, baseball diamonds and other recreational and athletic arenas now crowd what was once farmland.

And it may become home to the Nelson Fitness Center and the University's new swim center once Brown is able to raise the funds it needs.

The future of the property that once housed Providence's impoverished remains unknown. But the story of the Dexter Asylum's past endures, its wall a lasting testimony to the busy, productive institution it once encircled.

Life on the other side

From the Asylum's records, life within its tall, granite wall appears to have been quiet, if restrictive. Records of the institution's rules and regulations established in 1857 describe the residents' tightly controlled days.

The inhabitants were allotted half an hour for breakfast and supper and an hour for dinner. Male and female nurses had to be present at meals to maintain order.

Meals were taken away from residents who were late - not that the Asylum's menu was tempting or even varied. A diet table adopted in March of 1869 lists "white bread and butter and tea" as supper fare five days a week.

At the height of its occupancy, the Asylum's 39 acres housed about 150 inhabitants who raised cows for their milk and farmed fruits and vegetables to sell.

"The place was essentially self-sustaining," said Mackie, a sports archivist at the John Hay Library. "It was a little city in there."

But residents could be forced to leave for violating the Asylum's rules, he said.

"Men and women couldn't fraternize," Mackie said. "They couldn't leave without permission."

The stories of the men, women and children who lived in the Dexter Asylum remain shrouded in the past, obscured by gaps in the historical record.

The Asylum's records "had more information about their farm animals than the people there," said Kathryn Kulpa '86, who processed the Rhode Island Historical Society's materials on the Asylum as a student intern in 1991.

There were genealogies of cows, Kulpa said, but the records about the residents' medical care were "pretty spotty."

Many photographs of the Asylum left today only show its staff members. "They were trying to protect the privacy and the dignity of the people who live there," Emlen said.

While the purpose of the wall surrounding the Asylum's grounds is unknown, Emlen said there were two possible explanations.

"If you have a farm, you don't need an eight-feet tall wall," he said. "It's clear that the wall was a social barrier, a visual barrier."

According to Emlen, the wall may have been built "to protect the people from the outside from having to look at a bunch of wretched inmates."

Another possibility, he said, "is that it protected the people on the inside from having the indignity of having people stare at them."

"I think it's sort of a matter of how you view the poor farm," he said, "as a benefit or as a great embarrassment to the city of Providence."

Willing the Asylum's creation

Ebenezer Knight Dexter certainly intended the Asylum to benefit his native city. He donated the land, including his own Neck Farm, "to ameliorate the condition of the poor, and to contribute to their comfort and relief," he wrote in his will before he passed away in 1824.

His will stipulated that the city construct buildings on the property to accommodate and support Providence's poor within five years of his death.

But in his will Dexter also insisted that the city build "a good permanent stone wall" around the property within 20 years of his death. The wall was to be at least three feet thick at its base, two feet deep into the ground and at least eight feet tall, the will stated. Ultimately, it took eight years and over $23,000 in stone and labor to complete it.

Tales as tall as the wall itself sprouted over the years. There were stories about people who climbed the wall and walked the Asylum's entire perimeter on top, Mackie said.

Others recalled taking a ladder and lunch to picnic on the wall, one alum wrote in the April 1963 issue of the Brown Alumni Monthly. According to the article's author, one professor's daughter even rode her bicycle on top of the wall.

"Other persons recall the smells of Dexter Asylum: the pervading aroma of spring plowing and spring manure, and the later scent of celery," he wrote. "The pigs were fragrant, too, and many a child was taken in on a walk to see the piggery."

Within the aging walls

Even as the Asylum's legends accumulated and its stone wall endured, the institution itself became more and more outdated.

The idea of a working farm to support the poor was receding by the end of the 19th century, according to Emlen. "By the 1920s I don't know that anyone was doing their own farming there," he said.

While the land once produced tomatoes, cucumbers and milk, freight trains from the South "undercut the vegetable market," the Providence Sunday Journal reported in October of 1946.

"Thirty-nine acres of uncommonly valuable land on the residential East Side goes virtually unused at Dexter Asylum," said the caption of the photograph that accompanied the 1946 article.

The city of Providence expanded, and residential neighborhoods eventually surrounded the Asylum's grounds.

"By the 50s, the whole concept of a poor farm was an anachronism," Mackie said, partly because the state government had assumed the responsibility of providing social programs for the poor.

The Asylum lingered because the city was not permitted to sell it under the conditions of Dexter's will, Emlen said. Toward the end, about 20 people were running it for the benefit of six or seven residents, he said.

But Brown was unwilling to let the land languish. In 1956, nine years after the city of Providence began its legal battle to obtain permission to sell the land, President Barnaby Keeney made the University's interest in buying or renting the property public.

The summer of 1957 brought triumph. Judge Patrick Curran of Rhode Island's Superior Court 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.

But Curran ruled that Providence's obligation to support the city's poor as Dexter had intended did not end with the property's sale.

"The question is, 'How do you do it in the 21st century?'" Emlen said.

The city created the Dexter Donation, Emlen said, a fund whose money is distributed to assist the needy in Providence.

"It's not the old-fashioned way, which is to give someone a bed or a meal," Emlen said. Instead, the fund provides economic stimulus to revitalize neighborhoods and "help people get back on their feet."

Building Brown

The stage was finally set for an event that would transform the face of College Hill. The University had been struggling to find a location for its athletic facilities closer than Aldrich Field, situated two miles from campus.

Bidding began in the morning. Of the five offers, Brown's was the highest, by about $250,000. The University paid $25,643 per acre of land - a grand total of $1,000,777.

That afternoon, University Hall's bell - at the time reserved for momentous occasions - rang loudly, resounding with the campus's jubilation.

"It was a very, very exciting time," said Mackie, who was a junior at the time of the property's purchase. "It was the best money we ever invested."

University officials began dreaming up plans for its momentous acquisition almost immediately.

"We'll Be in by Next Autumn," announced the headline of an article in the November 1957 issue of the Brown Alumni Monthly. At the time, the layout of the future athletic facilities and the cost of developing the land were still unknown, according to the article.

The athletic director at the time, Paul Mackesey '32, presented the blueprints for the property's development the following February. The University's grand plans prioritized the building of fields for sports other than baseball and the construction of a hockey rink, according to March 1958's Brown Alumni Monthly. They also envisioned the rest of the new Aldrich-Dexter Field: an athletic complex that would include a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a field house, soccer and lacrosse fields, tennis courts and a track.

But the fruition of the University's dreams was limited by the size of its wallet.

Each of the buildings that were eventually constructed was connected to a capital campaign, Mackie said. For example, Meehan Auditorium was part of Brown's bicentennial celebration, he said.

"They've done the whole thing piecemeal," Mackie said, "in my view, without a coherent plan."

Meehan was supposed to be faced in brick, and the OMAC still lacks the space for stands for track meets, Mackie said. The Pizzitola Center's basketball arena was also scaled down, according to Mackie.

"The history of all of these buildings is that we're a day late and a dollar short," Mackie said.

A shaky future

Brown's struggle to realize its ambitious building plans in the face of hard economic times continues. Construction on the Nelson Fitness Center, a project first announced in 2004, was originally slated to begin last summer, and the fate of the swim center was put on hold while the University worked to raise the necessary funds.

But last weekend, the situation changed. The Corporation accepted $14.75 million - more than half of the $25 million swim center's cost - from the estate of Raymond Moran '41 in the name of his late sister.

Though the bequest will allow the University to begin more detailed planning of the project, it is uncertain when an architect will be selected because of the swim center's connection to the Nelson Fitness Center, said Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior adviser to the president.

"Since those programs will be in the same complex, we don't want to move too quickly with one without knowing what's going to happen to the other," Spies said.

Conversations with the $50-million fitness center's donors are currently going on, Spies said. In the past, the University has compromised on how to utilize Dexter's property, modifying and scaling down projects to complete new buildings. But now, Brown is trying not to think of its decision as a choice between the two projects, according to Spies.

"We need a terrific fitness center and we need a pool, and the athletic department needs a lot of other things," Mackie said. "The wish list is endless."

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