Early Creatives: Culture, Entrepreneurs, and the Arts on Benefit Street

Tour curated by: The Rhode Tour Team

Explore Benefit Street, Providence’s “mile of history” dating to the mid-eighteenth century. Benefit Street, at first known as Back Street, ran along the back of residences that were built on Towne Street, now South Main Street. Providence formally laid out Benefit Street between 1756 and 1758 for “the common benefit of all.” At the close of the 18th century, wealthy residents built homes along Benefit Street, which necessitated the removal of many family burial plots to make way for the new street. In the 19th century, Providence men and women worked toward creating an artistic and literary stronghold along Benefit Street, creating institutions like the Providence Athenaeum and the Rhode Island School of Design. The 20th century saw an influx of immigrants to Rhode Island, and the Benefit Street neighborhood followed this trend, as families from Portugal, Cape Verde, and Italy settled in the south end known as Fox Point. Benefit Street has become a microcosm of Rhode Island, home to individuals of different professions, faiths, and socio-economic statuses, all bound together geographically.

Locations for Tour

Today, needlepoint samplers that were done by students – many of them age 10 and under – at Mary Balch’s School can fetch over $100,000 at Sotheby’s auctions; they fill Pinterest pages and have had starring roles on PBS’ Antiques…

If we had to choose one person who had the most impact on the look and feel of Benefit Street and its environs, it would have to be John Holden Greene, architect of the First Unitarian Church (1816) and another 49 other public, commercial, religious…

The Providence Art Club is the oldest art club in the United States after the Salmagundi Club of New York. In 1880, a group of 16 men and women – all professional artists, amateurs and art collectors – founded the club. In 1887 the club moved to…

The Athenaeum has been called “the quirky pillar of Providence.” A beloved institution in the city, the building, built in 1838, resembles a funky mausoleum from the outside. Yes, one of its original members was Stephen Hopkins, a signatory to…

If anyone deserves a blockbuster biopic on this tour, it is Sissieretta Jones. Jones, a soprano, studied voice at the Providence Academy of Music, the New England Conservatory and the Boston Conservatory and in 1892 became the first…

Is it a stretch to see Benefit Street as a sweatshop for girls of the cultural elite? Probably; but it is interesting to note that in the years that Mary Balch’s School was teaching its young pupils the art of needlepoint, a young girl named Betsy…
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