IRA M. GOFF House, 62 John Street
I like the Goff House because it’s almost not one. It’s small and red and its ceilings are low, its staircases creaky. It’s a house for candles in its windows. You can barely see it past the long narrow lawn, the layer of trees, the picket fence that separates it from the street. The house is incidental; you miss it. A blacksmith named Ira Goff built it in 1842 after he moved to Providence with his new bride. They had two children there, in the small house, next to the other small houses. Ira died a few years later, far earlier than he was meant to, and left his wife to manage her home and her young children.
By 1868, James Goff and his sister Mary Borden still lived on their parents’ property together, taking care of their aging mother. They wanted to expand. James set to building a much larger house at the front of the lot, like most of his neighbors had done, hiding the modest half-story homes of their childhoods behind new tri-level manses with stone steps that led from the sidewalk. He gave his sister and her husband that luxurious house, left his mother in their home at the rear. Then he packed up and moved to Power Street. When his mother died the little house decayed, vacillating between renter transients and vacancy, until the next generation sold their grandparents’ whole plot in 1915.
From there, the two homes changed hands every few years—as Portuguese and Cape Verdean families moved into the neighborhood the names on the deeds shifted; Goff and Borden became Silva and Ferreira. In 1946, brothers named Frank and Amario Reis moved their families in. They lived there for 20 years, passed the houses down to their children, the stately front home and cozy rear one together, the 19th century Providence layout that all the lots surrounding 62 John once had.
But 62 John has a lawn, not an estate, between the little red house and the street when you walk past it today. That’s because in 1966 Brown University bought out the neighborhood—all the lots to the left, right, front, and back of the Goff house—and planned, rumor had it, to raze them and build a five-story parking lot. The Reis family would not sell. They held out as long as they could, until all their neighbors had emptied their homes, until the whole neighborhood waited on them, the pressure of the University weighing down. Eventually, Brown paid them $20,000 to physically move the front house and relinquish the lot. They complied, packed up, left the rear home behind. Now, the other Ira M. Goff house in Providence stands a half-block away on the corner of Brook and John; the yard of 62 John remains its crater.
Needless to say the parking lot never materialized. Brown sold the houses it had bought to a realty company which sold them to Brown professors who converted the homes to student housing—having effectively pushed the Cape Verdean community off the entire block. The Allens, who still rent the house out today, say the lawn makes the quaint late Victorian popular with kids. The absence of a home lends itself to excellent garden parties. — DD
ESEK DEXTER House, 364 Benefit Street
Pink houses, I find, are the best houses. They make you stop and say, “Look! A pink house.” They’re always somewhat unexpected, and thus always something of a gift. It’s an odd choice to paint a house pink. Would you? I’ve always imagined that the owners of pink houses are especially proud—that the pinkness of their houses is a light but essential part of their identity.
There are a handful of pink houses on College Hill. My favorite is the Esek Dexter House, 364 Benefit Street, at the corner of Planet. It’s on the peachier end of the pink spectrum and its doors are orange-red. The metal house numbers are below the front door instead of above it, which I like. The bronze knocker on the cellar door (a bit of a ways down Planet Street’s slope) is a small woman’s hand hung with bracelets, a large ring around her pointer finger.
Esek Dexter bought his plot of land in 1788, from a mariner’s widow named Ruth Brown, for 150 Spanish Milled Dollars (a coin minted in Mexico and Peru, popular because the British hadn’t allowed American colonists to mint their own money). Esek is a biblical name for both boys and girls, but this Esek was a man with a wife named Margaret. Unfortunately, the house probably wasn’t pink when Esek built it. It’s changed families and hands many time since then, even been through two fires. But it could have been pink: in 1790, when the house was built, Federal style architecture was just getting popular. Unlike the deep and earthy tones of the Colonial period, lightness was admired: pinks, creams, and yellows meant to compliment the clean lines of symmetrical Georgian and Federal homes. So, if you like, picture Esek leaving the center of town, making the steep walk up the long green hill to Benefit Street, arriving at his front door and—with an easy smile—opening the door of his pink house.
A couple hundred years later, in 1983, John Cougar Mellencamp—driving along an Indiana interstate—saw an old man sitting in the front yard of his pink shotgun house, holding a cat and calmly staring at the traffic. The release of “Pink Houses” followed soon after:
Oh but ain’t that America for you and me
Ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby
Ain’t that America home of the free
Little pink houses for you and me…
THOMAS P. IVES House, 66 Power street
There is not much back there on the corner of Brown and Power. There are fences and facades and occasionally someone taking the long way somewhere. You might never even walk by 66 Power. Thomas P. Ives’s home is a brick and mortar manifestation of the economic propulsion that made sea captains and merchants out of men newly acquainted with capitalism. We look back at this history fondly; we imagine the cannons and tattered flags of a people free from a foreign crown. We forget the disease and the discontent. But all I want is the brick home on the hill, the silence that ensues from the roof’s white balustrades, and the views down to the docks on the Providence River. It’s not about forgetting history; it’s about anachronisms. It’s about the fan visible through one of the first floor windows. It’s about the quasi-modernist simplicity of the home’s Federal lines.
Ives, an orphan pulled from school in Boston to work in Nicholas Brown’s office, married his former boss’s daughter Hope in the spring of 1792. As a new member of the prominent Brown family, Ives had ensured his business pursuits with Hope’s brother Nicholas Jr. The brothers-in-law parlayed their success in the maritime trade with Europe and the Far East into a textile manufacturing enterprise. They marked the hill with their power distinctly, funding Nicholas’ namesake university, William Strickland’s Greek Revival temple on Benefit Street, and their stately homes on the East Side. The July 1969 nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places notes that, “The residence has remained in the possession of the Ives heirs to this day and will eventually go to Brown University.” The BMWs parked on the cobbled drive in front of the stable and coach house are probably theirs, the carriages of a new generation of Ives elite. — KP
BENJAMIN CUSHING SR. House, 38 North Court Street
38 North Court Street is also 117 North Main Street. It has stood 87 feet further east from the corner where these two streets intersect. It has been confused in records with 38 ½ North Court Street, which is 35 years older and is now known as 40 North Court Street, was almost known as some number Cady Street, and which was certainly once known as some number North Main Street, being originally built about 87 feet west from where it now stands next to the current location of number 38.
There are faded business signs above the bamboo-blinded windows of 117 North Main Street. One sign is missing: Benjamin Cushing Jr. House, 1772. Son of Benjamin Cushing, Sr., whose name appears on a neighboring plaque: BENJAMIN CUSHING SR. HOUSE 1738. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-second-cousin-once-removed, if my counting backwards is correct.
In 1737, Benjamin Cushing, Sr. moves from Scituate, MA—leaving behind a brother who would move to Maine and father the branch to eventually beget me—to build along North Main the oldest surviving house in Providence. Benjamin Cushing Sr. dies (d. 1785 Plain, honest, and always consistent, Go thy ways Traveller! And convinc’d of the infalibility of human life, Meditate upon eternity). His son, Benjamin Cushing Jr. dies (d. 1786 In him his children have lost a tender parent; his wife, an affectionate husband, and society at large a truly honest man). The bodies remain in North Burial Ground but the houses are moved, lifted off their foundations onto oak beams, dragged by horses up the hill so that the younger is directly in front of the older, to make room for the Furlong Building and its warehouse for spirits.
In photographs taken of the corner of North Main and North Court: top-hatted men loiter outside the store, Cheapside, built into the foundations of the son’s house (1870, or maybe 1860); a many-storied brick building houses a shoe store and apartments (1952); a cement foundation lies empty, behind it looms a house hauntingly similar to one once frequented by top hats (1982). At some point, a third story was added to the son’s house, blocking its father.
In 1961, in an effort to uncover and restore the Benjamin Cushing, Sr. House, a proposal is made to demolish the Benjamin Cushing Jr. House. Instead, twenty years later, a power winch shifts the son’s house back downhill, to its former corner. A caption from a Providence Journal photograph of the scene projects what will follow: “Eventually the ties will be removed and the house will lower to the foundation.” As for the older house, once grand mansion now squat colonial, today it is hidden from street view by trees.
To enter the apartments and office buildings of the Benjamin Cushing Jr. House, I need to input a personal identification number on a screen visible through the front window. I don’t know it, so I begin to walk back up the hill. On the steps of the Old State House across the street, where the time is always 3:01, a woman in a white wig, a blue scrunchie, and a black poly-blend coat gives a speech to a man with a camera. She speaks of the intelligence of the people, the only sure reliance to be had. She finishes her speech. The cameraman gives edits. She begins again.
Later, I click on a google link for genealogical information about BENJAMIN CUSHING. I expect to be shown information about his father and his father’s father—our common forbearer who came from Hingham, England to found Hingham, Massachusetts. Instead, the name that appears on the next page is my own. Anne Cushing. b. 1738 d. 1756.
SOPHIA A. BROWN House,185 Williams Street
According to historical record, the house that now stands at 185 Williams Street, an inauspicious two-family home, with a red door and a little columned stoop and a roof made of worn-out cedar shakes, was built between 1868 and 1871 for Sophia Brown, wife of the philanthropist and book-collector John Carter Brown.
In 1859, Sophia Augusta Browne dropped the ‘e’ from her surname and moved into the cavernous, Brown ancestral home at 357 Benefit Street. She was 34; her groom, 62. Since inheriting his father’s estate in 1842, John had spent his time and formidable wealth meticulously collecting rare books and Americana, compiling a documentary history of the American continent, a life’s work which he termed “The Great Subject.” Sophia described herself as a ‘bibliophile.’ When they married, she would spend months at a time touring private libraries and booksellers, scouring the shelves and musty basements of strangers for the volumes John requested. She probably loved him.
In the first eight years of their marriage, Sophia gave birth to three children, two boys and a girl. John was four months shy of 70 when his daughter was born. Sometime around 1868, Sophia’s mother Harriet died and left her a plot of land on the south side of Williams Street near Hope. And maybe because it was good for the estate, or because someday their daughter would marry and want a home for her family, and maybe because Sophia could envision a day when the ornate Georgian fortress where the Providence Browns had lived for a generation (and would for three more), where her husband’s books lined the walls and his smell clung to the fabrics, when that home would feel less like a home and more like a prison, or maybe she just liked the little plot of land on Williams, which catches sun in the early morning and shade in the afternoon, and anyway, for whatever reason, Sophia had a house built there: an inauspicious two-story home, with a little columned stoop and pristine cedar shake roof.
And I lived there, in the summer of 2009. My first house in Providence, shared with a friend who drank malt liquor on the little stoop and a girl I probably loved. We climbed the fire escape to the roof and splintered our hands on the cedar shingles. We read out loud to each other on the second floor, on sunny mornings. We put books on the shelves, but not very many. — SAB
ROBERT MORROW House, 66 JOHN Street
I lived in 66 John with nine other boys last year. People would call us the “John Street Boys” or refer to the house only as “Sixty-six.” Sometimes we would joke about getting “66” tattoos.
In 1893, Robert Morrow, the director of the Providence Opera House, bought the lot and demolished the dwelling house and two other buildings on the property to erect 66, a three-story Victorian mansion. Our landlords, Peter and Susan Allen, are the fourteenth owners since 1842. When they bought the house from Brown University nearly a century later, it was derelict.
“We cleaned out piles of shit in the basement,” Peter tells me. Heavyset, pushing 70, professorial in a tweed jacket and Red Sox cap, he sinks into the ancient floral sofa in my dark living room. He speaks of the house in the weary and studied tone of a man who has told this story many times before, but he stumbles upon a juicy tidbit now and then. “I cleaned out one file, there were pictures of this girl in a bubble bath with her boobs hanging out. Her boyfriend had taken these in the ’60s. We end up with what we call ‘house treasure.’ My whole wardrobe is house treasure.”
When the Allens bought 66, the entire façade was green with asbestos shingles. The house was lopsided, drooping down into its northeast corner. Though they served as the primary contractors, painting and refurbishing the inside themselves, they had to outsource the foundation work. Peter tells me, “Buddy Cianci, before he went to jail for racketing, he lost his office when he basically kidnapped his former wife’s lover and tortured him. I mean, he threatened him with a poker and then he put a cigarette out in his eye. Well, the guy we hired to fix the foundation was the guy who had the cigarette put out in his eye. Didn’t realize until after I’d hired him. But he did a good job.” The Allens lived in the house for a few years, occupying the top two floors. They used two extra rooms as their studies and left empty many of the rooms that would become our bedrooms.
This year I live two doors down. I see the new kids coming in and out and hear their parties. Walking by feels like running into an ex-lover. I miss it but know that I can’t have again what I once did, and that’s okay. — AH