If you're interested in experiencing Providence's history and architecture in an hour or less, look no further than Benefit Street.
Often referred to as "The Mile of History", its manageable length makes it ideal even if you're just in town for a day. Benefit Street is densely packed with beautifully maintained historic properties - some of the oldest in the city - that are sure to impress both historians and casual tourists.
Located on Providence's East Side, Benefit Street was not the original site of residential development in Providence. Until 1756, when it was paved and widened to accommodate more traffic and homes, it was barely more than a footpath behind Providence's first residences, which were built on the waterfront street along what is now North and South Main St.
Named Benefit Street to signify its "benefit for all", the newly established street soon contained both lavish and modest residences. Its first grand house was built from 1786-8 by John Brown at the intersection with Power Street. Next door is the largest surviving 18th century wood-frame house in the nation, the Nightingale-Brown house, now owned by Brown University. Smaller but equally charming are the many two-story Federal-style residences - small, rectangular, and built close to the street.
As you walk by the impeccably restored exteriors, it might be hard to believe that Benefit Street ever had a dark spell. However, in the late 1950s the street was in such disrepair that the City of Providence planned to raze many of its buildings. Luckily, the city lacked the funds to go through with the demolition, and the Providence Preservation Society formed to preserve the historically important structures. Today, almost all the homes on Benefit are restored and the street is often lauded as having the highest concentration of 18th and 19th century colonial homes in the nation.
If you have time for stops on your tour of Benefit Street, several buildings are worth a visit. The Providence Athenaeum at 251 Benefit St. is one of the oldest subscription libraries in the United States. Further north, the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum at 244 Benefit Street is home to a large and diverse collection.
As you continue to walk north, you won't be able to miss the First Baptist Church between Angell and Waterman Streets. Constructed in 1775, it is, unlike others that share its name, really the First Baptist church in America.
The Old State House at 150 Benefit is where Rhode Island declared its independence from England on May 6th, 1776, two months earlier than the other colonies. It served as the state capitol from 1762 to 1901, and now is home to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.
Benefit Street's literary history is another reason to visit. Edgar Allen Poe frequented The Athenaeum during his stays in Providence, and was said to have courted poet and Benefit Street resident Sarah Helen Whitman among the library's shelves. Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft also had strong ties to the street, including family at number 161 (now home to Geoff's, a good place to stop for a sandwich if all this walking gives you an appetite). Several of his stories take place in and around Benefit Street, such as “The Shunned House”, written about the then-dilapidated house at 135 Benefit Street.
If you'd like more guidance on your tour of Benefit Street, several tours showcase different aspects of the street's history. The Rhode Island Historical Society holds history- and architecture-focused tours at 11 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday from mid-June through mid-October, starting at the John Brown House.
Curious about the spookier side of Benefit Street? Saturdays and Sundays in October, Rory Raven leads Ghost Walk tours starting at 3 p.m. outside the Athenaeum (a second ghost tour, The Providence Ghost Tour, is profiled in this podcast). Benefit Street is also host to the occasional Lovecraft tour, showcasing the locations featured in the writer's life and works.
Benefit Street is a fairly easy and level walk, but since it lies halfway up a steep hill, you might want to park nearby if you're not ready for a hike. If you can't find parking on the street itself, try the south end just above its intersection with Wickenden Street, where side streets feature plenty of non-metered spots. From its brick sidewalks to its multi-colored houses, Benefit Street is quite photogenic, so don't forget your camera!