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Summit district recognized for its history

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Summit district recognized for its history

Most of the buildings in the new historic district are single-family homes built between 1916 and 1951, a time that straddled the era of streetcars and the early phases of suburban development once automobiles came into wider use.

09:23 AM EST on Friday, March 26, 2004


Journal Staff Writer


Journal photo / Steve Szydlowski

Summit Street and the surrounding neighborhood is noted for its mix of architecture, including Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival and bungalow styles.

PROVIDENCE -- The five-block area bounded by Summit Avenue, Rochambeau Avenue, Camp Street and Memorial Road recently received national recognition for historical and architectural significance.

The Summit Historic District has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, according to Frederick C. Williamson, chairman of the Rhode Island Historical & Heritage Commission.

The "well-preserved" residential neighborhood, established before World War II, was honored for its contributions to the history of architecture and community development and planning, Williamson said.

Administered by the National Park Service, the National Register is the federal government's official list of properties deemed as having the historical and architectural significance that warrants preservation.

State historians have dubbed the Summit neighborhood a "suburb in the city," because of the planned and practical way it was developed, Williamson said.

While most of the 157 structures within the district are single-family homes built between 1916 and 1951, the area "straddles the streetcar and early automobile phases of suburban development," Williamson noteed.

The history of the East Side neighborhood is closely intertwined with the Dexter, Emerson and Morris families, who owned and farmed the land for almost 200 years, he said.

The land north of Rochambeau Avenue and east of North Main Street was primarily undeveloped until the late 1800s.

Jeremiah Dexter built his house in 1754 near the corner of North Main and Rochambeau and tended an 80-acre farm that extended north to Fifth Street and east to Hope Street.

Historians note that the Dexter property was among a plot of land transfered to the Town of North Providence in 1754, only to be annexed by the City of Providence in 1874.

By the late 1800s, new forms of public transportation began changing the landscape and the local way of life: a Providence-Pawtucket horse-car line was established along North Main Street by 1864, and electric streetcars ran on Camp Street by 1895 and Hope Street by 1908.

Landowners began converting open lands to residential subdivisions, in anticipation of a demand for new house lots, Williamson said.

In 1874, the Dexter farm was inherited by three of Jeremiah Dexter's grandchildren -- Anna Emerson Morris, Edward Dexter Emerson and Ezekiel Emerson Jr.

While her brothers sold some of their land, Anna and her husband John Morris kept their land undeveloped as open space as long as they lived.

Even as other areas of the old farm where divided, sold and used for new homes, the 1.7-million square foot Emerson/Morris parcel contained only six family homes by 1909.

By then, city sewer lines and water lines joined public transportation as modern conveniences that continued affecting the neighborhood.

Within two years of Anna Morris' death, her five daughters had begun developing the family property, establishing Colonial, Dexterdale, Edgehill and Memorial Roads and Creston Way in 1911.

Only a dozen houses had joined the six family houses by 1911, but 100 homes were built between 1911 and 1951, Williamson said.

The new homes were primarily 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-story, wood frame and masonry houses designed with a mixture of Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival and bungalow styles.

Williamson said the linear street plan and small lot sizes suggest that the land was developed with public streetcars in mind. However, many of the homes have "period garages" behind them, typical of the automobile era of the 1920s and 1930s.

Many of the garages were designed with materials and features that coordinated with materials and features of the house, historians note.

Since 1951, only three new buildings -- two houses and Temple Beth Shalom -- have been built in the area.

Amazingly, the district has retained all but one of its original buildings in the decades since World War II.

"History doesn't stand still," said Edward F. Sanderson, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. "Summit is a well-preserved example of the architecture and settlement pattern that shaped neighborhoods throughout the United States in the early and mid-20th century."

The commission provided the funding for nominating the Summit District to the National Register. The nomination documents were prepared by Kathryn Cavanaugh, a preservation consultant, and Mary Kate Harrington, an administrator at the Providence Preservation Society.

Besides recognizing the local, state or national history of a place, being listed on the National Register also results in special consideration during the planning of federally assisted projects, Williamson said. It also makes properties eligible for federal and state tax benefits for rehabilitation projects.

From The Providence Journal

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