University Hall was the first building on the property of Brown University in Providence in 1770. It was constructed by laborers, both free and enslaved, six years after the University’s founding in 1764.
Initial expansion of the campus was conducted at a slow pace, with the second building, Hope College dormitory, not added until 1822. By 1904, all the buildings on the Main Green were constructed, and by 1938 campus had expanded to encompass all the land bound by Waterman, Prospect, George and Thayer streets.
In 1920, the Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — saw the need to expand in a structured and comprehensive manner that would see campus development happening on all sides of its then relatively small footprint. A statement from the Corporation at that time read, "We need now a policy to guide our physical development for the next half century … We must have a comprehensive plan, not indeed as a straight-jacket, but as a ‘pattern in the mount.’”
Following nearly 170 years of slow development on College Hill, this newfound conviction caused new development of Brown’s campus to ramp up exponentially, with expansion occurring in all directions. To the south, the campus saw the opening of Wriston Quadrangle (1951), Keeney Quadrangle (1957) and Graduate Center (1968) to account for increasing residential needs. During this same time, new academic buildings began to populate north, east and west of the Green with the construction of such buildings as the Rockefeller Library (1964), Barus & Holley (1965), Biomedical Center (1969), List Art Center (1970) and Sciences Library (1971).
Today, rent and housing prices are comparatively much higher on the East Side than the rest of Providence, The Herald previously reported. In the context of several complex factors ranging from urban redevelopment to changing economies, the University has historically shaped College Hill and Fox Point since its founding.
In the last century, Brown has contributed to the displacement of low-income and non-white residents through its property expansion and dorm development as well as a surge in off-campus student housing that began in the 1970s. As the University grew in both size and enrollment, with the number of undergraduate students growing from 687 at the beginning of the century to 5,832 by the end, the campus required more space and resources to operate.
The expansion of Brown’s campus
The University began purchasing parcels of land for what would become Wriston Quad in 1922, The Herald previously reported. There hadn’t been extensive on-campus housing in the early 20th century, with most students instead living off campus, but one University administration sought to change this. Under the leadership of President Henry Wriston, whose tenure was from 1937 to 1955, the University significantly increased dormitories for students in an effort to compete with comparable, elite universities at the time.
On May 29, 1950, the Providence Journal reported that construction on Wriston Quad had begun, and that the quad would be “bounded by George, Thayer, Charlesfield and Brown Streets” and “house Brown’s 17 fraternities and also will contain nine freshman dormitories.”
The University got permission from the City to remove the segment of Benevolent Street between Brown and Thayer. Fifty-one historic homes would be demolished to make way for the dormitories, leading to conflict between the University and local residents.
Long-time Providence resident Ed Bishop ’54 P’86 P’91 told The Herald in 2009 that during property battles with the University at this time, College Hill residents could feel like "Brown (was) a 1,000-pound gorilla and (was) going to get what it wants in the long run."
Once completed in 1952, Wriston Quad comprised about a third of housing on the University’s campus. And the development continued, with the proposal for Keeney Quad and the demolition of several historic homes leading to the creation of the Providence Preservation Society, The Herald previously reported.
“We were founded …in 1956, in large response to some of the activity and expansion of Brown on College Hill,” said PPS Director of Preservation Rachel Robinson.
Two historic homes were moved to Benefit Street from the quad in a preservation effort, The Herald previously reported. “Decades ago, there were opportunities to move houses around, but that opportunity is gone,” said Executive Director of PPS Brent Runyon.
A 2006 report published by the University in collaboration with R. M. Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects outlined that of the 235 buildings on Brown’s campus, 31 of them were constructed by Brown before 1955. 60 buildings were built by the University or others after 1955. The remaining 144 buildings were built by others for various other purposes before 1955, mostly residential. Buildings such as Maddock Alumni House, the Faculty Club and Corliss-Brackett house were all houses of mostly wealthy Rhode Islanders which were bought by Brown between 1938 and 1955.
Under the presidency of Barnaby Keeney, beginning in 1955, expansion continued with the buying up of more residential properties to make way for new developments. To make way for Keeney Quad, the University offered up for sale eight houses that would have been destroyed otherwise. While the buildings were on sale for $1 each, the process of moving the houses would have cost the purchasers $30,000 to $40,000, The Herald previously reported.
The University also purchased the building for Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 193 Meeting St., a historically Black congregation, in 1961. The congregation relocated to a smaller site on Rochambeau Avenue that same year.
In the mid-1800s, “it is thought that Bethel served as a final destination for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad,” according to the church’s website. Today, the original location — now a walkway to the Grimshaw-Gudewicz Building — is commemorated by a plaque.
Ray Rickman, executive director for Stages of Freedom, told The Herald that he believed the University should pay $1 million in reparations to Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church to recognize the reduction of their capacities after moving to a smaller facility.
The University declined to comment on the topic of granting reparations to the church after multiple requests from The Herald.
Brown didn’t often lose property battles, Rickman added, saying that typically plans to construct dorms went through despite pushback from the community.
In a 1986 issue of the Brown Alumni Magazine, it was reported that $11 million had been set aside for the construction of a new dorm on the block bounded by Thayer, Brook, Benevolent and Power streets — what would eventually be named Vartan Gregorian Quadrangle. At this point the land — which was owned by the Alfred Ringuette family, operators of a car garage and Mobil station — had yet to be officially acquired by the University, but negotiations were in progress.
The University had wanted this land since the early 1970s and after a year of negotiations, The Brown Alumni Magazine reported in November 1986 that the land had officially been purchased for $1 million.
Due to the high prices of construction, the University pivoted its plans from building a dormitory only to constructing a dorm that incorporated commercial space on the ground floor for retailers to move into. This prompted concern from the site’s neighbors, with one resident, Thomas C. Piatt ’75, MD ’78, chairman of the East Side Historic Residential Association, saying to BAM, "We didn't choose to be neighbors of a commercial district. We're frightened about the future of Brook Street."
Robert A. Reichley, the vice president for university relations at the time, responded to neighborhood concerns by stating, "Brown has felt a strong obligation to let its neighbors know what the plans are when the neighborhood is affected. We've brought the neighbors in on our projects whether or not we've had to go to the zoning board about them. We've often profited by this, and frequently we've changed our plans as we have moved forward."
After a veto from the city zoning board that blocked the University from constructing the proposed commercial space, Brown initially scaled back its plans, moving to build just a residential dormitory.
But two years later, the University announced the purchase of a separate commercial space for $1.75 million, to be operated by Brown with the intention of offsetting the steep construction and operating costs of the new development.
The University is currently constructing another dorm on Brook Street which will house 353 students, The Herald previously reported. This dorm will stand on the former location of this commercial plot, which was demolished in the fall of 2021, and its sister dorm will be directly across this plot, on the other side of Brook Street.
“In the current era, planning for an evolving Brown campus happens continually, with opportunities for community input built into master planning and for specific projects as Brown partners with city leaders, community organizations and local stakeholders to consider its relationship to adjacent neighborhoods,” wrote University Spokesperson Brian Clark in an email to The Herald.
“To understand the approach taken to campus development projects from prior centuries, it's important to look back to archival materials, records and news coverage from the time and statements from University leaders and local stakeholders alike,” Clark explained. “Original materials like those can best offer facts and perspective on projects and decisions from those particular moments in time.”
“Studentification” and the impact of off-campus housing
Besides physical property expansion and construction, off-campus student rentals also impacted displacement and gentrification on College Hill and in Fox Point, The Herald previously reported.
Fox Point had previously been a neighborhood composed of Irish, Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrants for many years, according to Ward 1 Councilman John Goncalves ’13 MA’15, a long-time Fox Point resident. “Most of those people have been completely (priced out) of the neighborhood,” he said. “That is partly due to unbounded University expansion.”
The University was a “catalyst for a lot of larger forces” driving changes in housing for the surrounding community, said Marijoan Bull, Westfield State University associate professor emerita of geography and regional planning. She was previously an adjunct professor at the University.
“Over time, you had increases in enrollment that were not matched to increases in on-campus student housing,” Bull said. “Then students were looking farther and farther afield from directly around campus for housing, and Fox Point became a central area,” Bull added, describing the slow increase in students renting homes as “encroachment” into the neighborhood.
Nathaniel Pettit ’20, working with Bull, engaged with the phenomena of “studentification,” or student-driven gentrification, in his 2020 honors thesis. Some University students impacted the rental market because they could afford to pay higher rents than working-class families, he explained.
Not all, but “many students in a place like Brown can pay a little bit more,” Pettit said. “But also, landlords are incentivized to take in students because our standards (for housing quality) are a lot lower.”
“A lot of people have kind of argued historically” that without the necessary amount of housing for students on campus, students have entered the rental market and “helped to drive up the costs in those areas,” said Peter Asen ’04, deputy director of development and governmental affairs for the Providence Housing Authority.
A 1970 article from the Providence Journal entitled “Fox Point residents fear displacement” discussed how residents felt the threat of being pushed out because of the development of luxury apartments, citing a “great housing shortage” at the time.
The University recognized that this displacement was in part driven by students renting off-campus housing, and the Acting President Merton Stoltz encouraged students to avoid living in Fox Point in a Feb. 16, 1970 letter to the student body.
“The demand for housing in the area surrounding the University now exceeds the supply, and the increasing number of students from Brown and other institutions has created pressures in nearby communities, particularly Fox Point,” the letter read.
According to a 1969 Ad Hoc Committee on Housing and Expansion report, the total number of students (including graduate students) not living in University housing went from 1,189 in 1961 to 2,183 in 1969 — an 83% increase over the decade. The report also states that for undergraduates specifically, there was a 287% increase in students living off campus in that time frame.
The University acquired a property, formerly the Bond Bread Company, at the corner of Brook and John streets in Fox Point in 1965. Initially, it had planned to build a parking garage on one of those spaces, according to a Sept. 1, 1966 article in the Evening Bulletin. The article described that this plan was met with opposition from Fox Point residents. The plan was ultimately blocked by the city council in 1966, and then the University came up with a new plan for the parcel of land.
“There was a lot of controversy over its future,” Pettit said. “And a lot of Fox Point residents were really concerned Brown was making this southward push around 1970.”
There was a moment in the early 1970s, Pettit explained, when the University wanted to address the impact of student rentals by building affordable housing for the Fox Point community on the Bond Bread site.
But, the University did not show plans for the apartments to Fox Point residents for a year after this announcement, according to a flier handed out at a meeting with community members at Fox Point elementary school auditorium December 4, 1971.
“Brown has already EXPANDED TOO FAR into Fox Point. We must make sure it doesn’t EXPAND ANY FURTHER!” read the flier, written in English on one side and Portuguese on the other. The writers demanded that the site be turned into affordable homes rather than apartments, which was the preference of 87% of Fox Point residents, according to the flier.
Edward Sulzberger ’29 was a developer and Corporation member that the University put in charge of the project. The University would sell him the land once he presented a plan that was supported by Fox Pointers, the Providence Journal reported November 18, 1971.
He was not trusted by the residents to ensure that Fox Point residents, rather than those affiliated with the University, would be housed in this development, according to the 1969 Ad Hoc Committee on Housing and Expansion report.
Sulzberger told The Herald Dec. 7, 1970 that he hoped the space would be “rented to faculty and married grad students.”
The Herald reported Dec. 6, 1971, that a “vocal and often emotional gathering of Fox Point residents voiced overwhelming opposition to (Sultzberger’s) plan to build apartments there,” effectively blocking the plan. The site, the article continued, would likely be condemned. Brown would ultimately abandon the project, despite a brief failed attempt to build housing on that site again in 1978.
“It was a really disastrous event, and I think it really left deep wounds between Brown and Fox Point,” Pettit said about the Bond Bread saga.
In a University housing committee recommendation report for the 1971-72 school year, plans were enacted to try and curb pressures put on the East Side housing market by student oversaturation in the area. The main policy created by this report was the limiting of approved off-campus residents to no more than 500 students. Along with that measure, it was decreed that, with the exception of extenuating circumstances, no student could live in Fox Point.
But, students continued to live off campus. According to an article from The Herald published December 1, 1987, of the undergraduate body of around 5,500 students, approximately 1,500 were living off campus.
The reasons mentioned in decisions to live off campus included some pull but mostly push factors. Many students were unhappy with the state of on-campus housing, citing concerns of cleanliness and general maintenance. Richard Spahr, manager of Residential Facilities at the time stated, “Eight (dorm buildings) are in good to excellent condition, twenty meet the minimum standards and eleven have serious cosmetic, structural or functional problems.”
Living off campus also provided students with more freedom in many aspects of their lives, from throwing parties to having better and cheaper meals to being able to study without having constant noise in their hallways, The Herald reported.
Many upperclassmen today continue to live off campus, with some community members having concerns about their impact on rental markets, The Herald previously reported.
“Admittedly, most of the damage has been done,” Pettit said. He explained that it’s unlikely that Fox Point will become “a vibrant immigrant community” or a community for the working class again. “Maybe that piece can't be reversed.”
But, Pettit added, “Brown students have a responsibility to know the history that our University played in shaping the East Side.”