History of the Summit area

The Summit area at the northern end of Providence’s East Side is an historic early 20th century neighborhood, one of the first so recognized by the US National Park Service. Most of the buildings here were built between 1920 and 1950. By 1956, the neighborhoods between North Main Street and Hope were built out so that any future development would necessarily displace existing uses. Here are some very detailed insurance maps showing every building in Summit and in neighboring Mt. Hope as of 1956, prior to three very important and disruptive developments: University Heights, Route 95 and Miriam Hospital expansion. (Sanborn Map Co., courtesy of RI Historical Society).

Olney to Doyle maps-57-58-60

Doyle to Duncan-Locust Ave -maps 68-69-70-71-72

Duncan-Cypress to Grand View-Elgin maps-78-79-80

Grandview-Elgin to Rochambeau to follow

Rochambeau to Fourth maps-88-89-90

Fouth to Nighth-Eighth maps-91-92-93-94

Frost to Pawtucket east of NMS maps-95-961

Ninth-Eighth to Pawtucket maps-97-98

East of Hope Lorimer Blackstone map-99

The Summit neighborhood north of Rochambeau was one of Providence’s “Street Car suburbs.” Until the 1920s, when street cars made it possible for the working and middle class to commute to workplaces in and around downtown, the area was mostly farmland. You can still see the Dexter family’s homestead, the Jeremiah Dexter house, now the headquarters of Preserve Rhode Island, at the corner of Rochambeau and North Main.

Other Providence neighborhoods are valued for grand public buildings and imposing Federalist or Victorian homes. Our area is loved for the way most of the buildings and streets contibute to a cohesive look, feel and experience of an urban middle-class neighborhood of the early to middle twentieth century. The streets from Rochambeau north to Pawtucket were laid out on small lots, generally 50′ X 100′ and filled up with houses between 1900 and 1950. The Summit Avenue School at Summit and Fifth Streets, provided primary school within walking distance for young families. Across Fifth Street on Summit was the Jewish Orphanage. In 1953, the orphanage building became the new home of Miriam Hospital, relocated from Parade Street

Builders obviously used patterns and common designs to build many of the very similar bungalows and two-apartment houses here, but they used detailing to create many variations on the few common themes. That fabric and the fact that homeowners had largely preserved the original look of their houses was the main reason that certain blocks in our neighborhood were among the first 20th century neighborhoods to be recognized as National Historic Districts by the U.S. Parks Department.

As the middle of the area filled up with houses, the two commercial streets, North Main to the west, and Hope to the east, developed in very different ways. A major street car barn  located at the northern end of the street, served the key commuter route that . North Main hosted many of Providence’s first car dealerships and auto related businesses from the 1920s.  As a part of U.S. Route 1, North Main was one of Rhode Island’s busiest auto routes as well as one of its most-traveled public transit corridors.

The Rhode Island Auditorium (aka The Arena) at Third Street became a major sports and entertainment venue as home of the Rhode Island Reds Hockey Team. The Reds and the Auditorium are long gone, but the Penalty Box tavern on the corner of Third Street is a business artifact of their former importance.

In the 1920s, our neighborhood hosted the Providence Steam Roller, a National Football League team which one the NFL championship in 1928. They played in the infield of the Providence Cyclodrome, a bicycle racing track located at the bottom of the hill west of North Main where the now-abandoned Shaws grocery store stands today. In the 1950s, a large Sears built a large store with lots of free parking, a first blow to traditional downtown department stores like The Outlet and Shepard’s. Sears attracted suburban shoppers to Providence until the 1970s, when the large Warwick malls finished off both Sears and it’s former downtown competitors.

Hope Street, by contrast, developed as a neighborhood commercial center relying on local residents  for much of its business. The branch library, the firehouse and the Hope Street Theater (now replaced by CVS Drugstore) anchored the ends of the four-block commercial area.