Filed Under Providence

Elmhurst Academy of the Sacred Heart

The large plot of land bordered by Smith Street, Wyndham Avenue, and Pleasant Valley Parkway has been built up heavily over the past 45 years, the rolling green lawns and forested glades replaced with siding-sheathed condominiums and a sprawling senior living community. The density of the remaining trees, a swath behind a stone wall bordering Smith Street, belies their relative youth, and the site provides an intriguing window into how open space itself can change over time.

In the mid-19th century, the Elmhurst neighborhood was a rural area, with roads such as Chalkstone Avenue and Smith Street connecting far-flung farms. The area was a popular retreat for wealthy families wanting a peaceful respite from the bustling city, such as Dr. William Grosvenor, who built a house on this site in 1849. Grosvenor's estate included a distinctive Gothic Revival building on nearly 30 acres of land, surrounded by tall elm trees that cast their shade across the lawns and drives. He called the place "Elmhurst," a name which was later adopted by the surrounding neighborhood.

In 1872, the Diocese of Providence purchased Dr. Grosvenor's estate, whereupon the buildings became the home of the Elmhurst Academy of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic school educating young women from elementary through high school. Residential development in surrounding Elmhurst boomed when public transportation reached the neighborhood in the late 19th century, but the grounds of the convent and academy remained a quiet, green space.

The school remained in this location until 1961, at which point, with the buildings in need of extensive (and expensive) repairs, it relocated to Glen Farm in Portsmouth, RI. A newspaper article about the final graduation ceremony held on the Providence campus noted teary-eyed students posing for photos on "the soft green campus lawn in the shade of old brick and stucco buildings."

The property changed hands several times before Providence College purchased it in 1966, planning to turn it into athletic fields or parking. After the college began demolishing the buildings, a "roaring fire" completed the work, engulfing the structure in flames so high and bright that they were visible from downtown Providence. Providence College eventually sold the property in 1975; a portion of the land was then developed into 49 stylish, two-unit condominiums with "a host of luxury extras" in a complex called Elmhurst Arboretum, stretching along Wyndham Ave where the chapel bells once rang. The formerly open, eastern portion of the parcel was turned into a senior living and care community in 1996, with rambling yellow buildings along a curved drive, and tidy lawns replacing the wilder open portions of Grosvenor's estate.

Images

Academy of the Sacred Heart Postcard William Grosvenor's country retreat featured distinctive Gothic Revival architecture. This postcard shows the buildings after they were converted for use as a Catholic girls' school. Date: 1907
Elmhurst Arboretum Advertisement After the buildings from William Grosvenor's estate were demolished, a developer built the Elmhurst Arboretum condominiums. The 98 units sold for between $49,900 and $62,900 and were in high demand. Date: July 15, 1979
Elmhurst Academy Gatehouse and Convent The Elmhurst Academy buildings sat vacant for several years after the school relocated. Author George Popkin mused in a Providence Journal article: "Here in Providence the deserted buildings look lonely and sad, as though they know their span is run. What of the future? House lots may be staked out, construction of homes begun and a new cycle of life born. Meanwhile, strange noises seem to stir at night. In the general stillness imagination becomes triumphant. And occasionally someone will insist that he hears still the sound of voices as he passes the place, waiting, not for decay--but for rebirth." Date: Between 1925-1965
Capitol Ridge and Grounds A portion of the former Grosvenor Estate is now occupied by a senior living facility. Their tidy lawns abut a dense patch of trees along Smith Street. Date: 2019

Location

700 Smith St, Providence, RI 02908

Metadata

Angela DiVegilia, “Elmhurst Academy of the Sacred Heart,” Rhode Tour, accessed December 2, 2022, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/352.