Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States

By Max Page; Randall Mason | Go to book overview

6

MARKETING THE PAST

Historic Preservation in Providence, Rhode Island

Briann Greenfield

FROM THE 1940s THROUGH the 1950s, architectural photographer Samuel Chamberlain recorded the historic homes of Providence, Rhode Island, in his popular New England picture book series. 1 Both the photos Chamberlain took and those he didn't spoke volumes about the state of Providence's historic buildings. Chamberlain recorded many homes on Providence's College Hill district, but he failed to publish images of buildings along northern Benefit Street, an area dense in colonial architecture. Chamberlain's careful editing of the historical landscape reflected his desire to portray the past as both elegant and refined-qualities northern Benefit Street severely lacked. Connected culturally and geographically to the poor African American community of nearby Lippitt Hill, northern Benefit Street was a slum. Many of its historic houses were tenements, often lacking sufficient heat, plumbing, and sanitary facilities. 2 Indeed, houses were in such disrepair that the Providence Redevelopment Agency considered the area for an urban renewal clearance project. 3 While many northern Benefit Street residents took pride in their community and their churches, their neighborhood was not the stuff of picture books.

Beginning in the late 1950s, historic preservationists rebuilt northern Benefit Street in the image of an idealized past. Middle-class white families remodeled and restored tarpapered colonials previously occupied by black families. They removed cheap siding, repointed chimneys, replaced windows, and turned junk-filled yards into urban

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