Built in 1828, Dexter Asylum was a "poor farm," an institution housing the indigent, elderly, and chronically unemployed. Poor farms were common before the introduction of Social Security and welfare benefits in the United States, considered a progressive method for dealing with poverty. Their residents followed strict rules and worked for communal benefit, usually in farming, cooking, and other "industrious" endeavors.
The parcel on which the Asylum sat was formerly owned by Ebenezer Knight Dexter. Upon his death, Dexter bequeathed his land to the City of Providence, stipulating that a poor farm must be built upon it within 5 years and that it could not be sold or used for any other purpose.
Dexter's will also described the stone wall that was to surround the property: "a good permanent stone wall, at least three feet thick at the bottom, and at least eight feet high, and to be placed upon a foundation made of small stones, and as thick as the bottom of the wall and sunk two feet deep in the ground." This massive wall ended up taking eight years and more than $12,000 to construct; a report at an 1840 Town Meeting noted that the completed wall was 6,220 ½ feet long and contained 7840 cords of stone!
The Dexter Asylum's residents worked extensive vegetable fields and cared for pigs and a herd of dairy cows; they lived in a large building, strictly segregated by sex. Residents were essentially inmates, indentured for periods of six to twelve months, and could not leave the property without a ticket of permission. Their schedules and activities were determined by a committee and meticulously enforced. Bells signaled work times, meal times, and wake and sleep times. Residents could be put into solitary confinement for up to two days for swearing, and up to a week for refusing to work. Morning and evening meals centered around white bread, with the midday supper consisting of, for example, "stewed beans or peas and pork, brown bread, boiled rice and molasses."
By the early 1900s, the poor farm model was falling out of favor. The city began seeking to sell the Asylum around 1919, but due to the specific wording of Dexter's will, had to jump through decades of legal hoops to clear the land for sale. During the course of the legal proceedings, the main barn and another building burned; an Asylum employee later admitted to setting the fires.
The Dexter Asylum was sold to Brown University in 1957 for $1,000,777. The last inmate moved out that year, and a massive sale dispersed the Asylum's fixtures and furnishings. The land now houses Brown's athletic complex, with a baseball stadium's neat green grass where rows of corn and pasture once stood.