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West End


West End neighborhood, Providence, Rhode Island
Photo: Cranston Street Armory, Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS RI 4-Prove, 191-51] undated, photographer not listed; memory.loc.gov.

Beginnings [1]

The West End is a large, primarily residential neighborhood developed principally between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Housing in the neighborhood includes large, late nineteenth-century former single-family dwellings (now converted for apartment use), particularly along major thoroughfares, as well as two- and three-family houses on the side streets. Industry has played an important role in the area's development since the middle years of the nineteenth century, and one of the city's two new industrial districts, Huntington Industrial Park, is located here.

The West End remained an undeveloped hinterland throughout the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century. Several roads running south and west from the settled part of Providence first crossed the area soon after 1700: Westminster Street (1714), Cranston Street (1717), and Greenwich Street, now Elmwood Avenue (1731). In 1739, Obadiah Brown established a tavern in Hoyle Square at the intersection of Cranston and Westminster Streets. By 1783, a hamlet comprising eight houses near the tavern represented the area's most intensive development.

The population remained sparse until the middle of the nineteenth century; development was limited to farms and country retreats. Joseph Williams built a farmhouse on the south side of Potters Avenue just west of Elmwood Avenue about 1783; now heavily altered, the house stands at 43 Calder Street. Williams's neighbor to the north, Ebenezer Knight Dexter, likewise maintained a farm that supplied produce for Providence markets. Prominent citizens who built country retreats here included John Mawney, Captain Samuel Snow, Brown University president Asa Messer, Anson and Arthur Potter, and Christopher Ellery, whose altered dwelling still stands at 165-169 Peace Street.

Industry first came to the West End in the early years of the nineteenth century. In 1822, Earl Carpenter built an ice house on Benedict Pond, and by 1849 he had also established a similar operation on the north side of Mashapaug Pond; these facilities continued in operation into the twentieth century. The first factories came to the area around mid-century: the New England Butt Company established a small factory on Pearl at Perkins Street in 1849 and expanded production here in the 1880s; in the 1860s, Winsor & Brown built a gun manufactory at 63 Central Street, and this frame building became part of the Jones Warehouse complex in the 1890s. In the 1860s, the lowlands near Long Pond became a center for the West End's industrial activity. The Elmwood Cotton Mills began operation on Daboll Street in 1866. The north end of the pond was heavily industrialized between 1860 and 1875 with the erection of a Providence Gas Company gasometer at 42 Westfield Street and an A. & W. Sprague ironworks factory between Cromwell and Sprague Streets. Charles H. Perkins built several industrial buildings in the vicinity in the 1880s and 1890s. Though the pond has been filled, this area along Dexter and Bucklin Streets remains a commercial/industrial area, including operations of the gas company, jewelry manufacturers, and the American Standard Watch Case Co. The largest plant in the West End is the Gorham Manufacturing Co. facility completed in 1890 at 333 Adelaide Avenue, on the east side of Mashapaug Pond. The Huntington Industrial Park brought new light industry to the west side of the pond in the 1960s and 1970s.

Urbanization of the West End spread westward from the early settlement at Hoyle Square, along Westminster Street and to a lesser degree, along Cranston Street. By the mid-1820s several houses stood on Westminster Street between Downtown and Olneyville, including those at 1208 and 1228. Ebenezer Knight Dexter gave this incipient neighborhood a civic focus in 1824 when he left his farm to the city for use as a military training field. By mid-century, urban development had begun to fill the neighborhood with houses almost to Dexter Parade. Much of this housing has been replaced, but the small Greek Revival house at 14 Dexter Street is a typical structure.

Streetcar service encouraged residential development here on a much larger scale. The first streetcar line in Providence, opened in 1865, ran along Westminster Street between Downtown and Olneyville; additional lines on Cranston Street and Elmwood Avenue came later the same year. This post-Civil War residential development follows two divergent ethnic and economic paths. The area north of Cranston Street centering around the Dexter Parade developed as a middle-class neighborhood, populated primarily by Yankees. The area south of Cranston Street housed successive waves of lower- and middle-class immigrant groups.

The houses built around the Dexter Parade were primarily one- and two-family dwellings. Those on the Parade were the largest and most stylish, set on ample lots. The two Queen Anne houses at 77 and 81 Parade Street epitomize this development. The side streets west of Parade Street are typically two-family, mansard-roof dwellings, like that at 45 Chapin Avenue. To serve this population, the Cranston Street Baptist Church was established in 1869.

The southern portion of the West End has always been ethnically diverse. While the area just west of Trinity Square had a sizable upper-middle-class Yankee population — a link between similar areas around the Dexter Parade and northern Elmwood — the area became a heavily Irish neighborhood after about 1850, particularly the part just north of Mashapaug Pond. By 1870, the area south of Waldo Street to beyond Huntington Avenue on the west side of Mashapaug Pond between Cranston and Madison Streets was a predominantly Irish neighborhood, with a number of residents laborers at the Elmwood Cotton Mills. The West End Irish had no church of their own until 1871, when the large, clapboard Church of the Assumption opened on Potters Avenue; its presence reinforced and encouraged the growth of the Irish settlement. In 1878, French Canadians formed their own parish and built the present edifice, St. Charles Borromeo, on Dexter Street in 1915. Blacks had begun to settle in the southern part of the West End by the 1860s, establishing the Mount Zion Methodist Church on Wadsworth Street in 1861.

The military use of the Dexter Training Ground continued in 1907 with the construction of the Cranston Street Armory on the field's southern end. By the turn of the century, most of the West End was densely built, although Providence's continued population growth in these years encouraged filling every lot — and occasionally the backs of occupied house lots — with multiple-family dwellings, particularly triple deckers. The West End remained a relatively stable neighborhood during the first three decades of the twentieth century, but the citywide decline of inner-city neighborhoods included the West End: houses were divided into more and smaller units, and long-time residents abandoned the area for the suburbs.

The West End's history includes a sampling of almost every phase imaginable: rural hinterland, stylish streetcar suburb, ethnic melting pot, decayed inner-city neighborhood. In recent years, it has begun yet another phase as revitalization of its old houses by area residents has become increasingly common.

  1. Woodward, Wm. McKenzie and Sanderson, Edward F., Providence: A Citywide Survey of Historic Resources, 1986, Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, Providence

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Street Names: Cranston Street, Elmwood Avenue, Westminster Street

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