Agriculture to Urbanization
The area north of Rochambeau was one of Providence’s “Street Car suburbs.” The area was mostly farmland until the 1920s, when street cars made it possible for the working and middle class to commute to workplaces in and around downtown. 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.
Most of the buildings here were built between 1920 and 1950. By 1956, the neighborhoods between North Main Street and Hope were built out. As a result, any future development would necessarily displace existing uses. Here are some detailed insurance maps showing most buildings in Summit and in neighboring Mt. Hope as of 1956, prior to three developments: University Heights, Route 95 and Miriam Hospital expansion. (Sanborn Map Co., courtesy of RI Historical Society).
- Olney to Doyle: maps 57-60
- Doyle to Duncan-Locust Ave: maps 68-72
- Duncan-Cypress to Grand View-Elgin: maps 78-80
- Rochambeau to Fourth: maps 88-90
- Fourth to Ninth-Eighth: maps 91-94
- Frost to Pawtucket east of NMS: maps 95-96
- Ninth-Eighth to Pawtucket: maps 97-98
- East of Hope – Lorimer, Blackstone: map 99
The Summit area is loved for the 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.
Builders used common patterns and designs to build many of the bungalows and multi-family apartment houses here, but they used detailing to create many variations on the 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.
Summit was and remains a neighborhood based on a pedestrian scale. 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.
Because much of the neighborhood was preserved in its 1920s form and has not been redeveloped, residents today can access schools, restaurants, entertainment, healthcare, parks, and other amenities without the need for a car.
As the area between North Main Street and Hope Street filled up with houses, the two commercial streets developed in very different ways.
North Main Street was major transportation thoroughfare. A street car barn at the northern end of the street served the key commuter route from downtown. North Main also 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. Today, the streetcars are gone, but North Main Street is served by the RIPTA R-Line, which offers frequent and accessible express transit service to downtown and beyond.
In the 1950s, Sears built a large store on North Main with lots of free parking. This development was a first blow to traditional, downtown department stores like The Outlet and Shepard’s. Sears attracted suburban shoppers to Providence until the 1970s, when large malls in Warwick finished off both Sears and its former downtown competitors.
Hope Street, by contrast, developed as a neighborhood commercial center that relyied on local residents for much of its business. The Rochambeau branch library, firehouse, and the Hope Street Theater (now replaced by CVS) anchored the ends of the four-block commercial area.
We can clearly see the history of these two corridors in today’s North Main Street and Hope Street. Hope Street is anchored by small, locally-owned businesses and restaurants, while North Main continues to carry a more substantial amount of through traffic, with larger and more industrial stores adopting a suburban model of free parking and auto-centric development. SNA is working to support the vitality of both of these corridors, including efforts to improve the safety and neighborhood access to North Main.
Summit as a Sports Hub
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.
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.