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The Dexter Asylum served as an institution for the care of the poor, aged and mentally ill of Providence from 1828 to 1957. The Asylum began through a bequest in the will of Ebenezer Knight Dexter (1773-1824), a wealthy citizen who had served on a town committee for poor relief. Dexter's gift to the town, though much needed at the time, later was seen as an anachronism--a walled and isolated "poor farm" in the midst of Providence's residential east side. Beginning in the 1920's, city officials, developers and assorted heirs made several attempts to change the conditions of the will, and in 1957, they finally succeeded. The Dexter Asylum property was sold to Brown University.
Ebenezer Dexter's will of 1824 left a property known as Neck Farm to Providence to be used for "the accommodation and support of the poor of said town... and for no other use or purpose whatever." The bulk of his estate was left to the city (then town) for the construction and upkeep of the asylum and the care of the poor. Dexter's will further called for the town to erect a stone wall around the property, forbade the town to sell Neck Farm, and specified that a town meeting of no less than "forty freemen" should be required for any action concerning the property.
Before Dexter's bequest, Providence had no institution for the care of the poor. Those unable to support themselves due to age or illness were cared for at town expense in private homes by caretakers who bid for the job. A committee formed soon after Dexter's death to oversee the donation, and town meetings from 1824 until the original building's completion in 1828 discussed the construction, operation and rules of the asylum.
In the mid-nineteenth century, as Providence grew, crowding became a problem at the asylum. The opening of Butler Hospital provided a new resource for the mentally ill, and some inmates were transferred there in 1847. In 1849 Thomas M. Burgess, mayor of Providence, called for either a limit on inmates or the construction of new buildings to accommodate the asylum's 190 men and women. The next year, the Board of Aldermen voted to limit inmates to 180. In 1867, the city commissioned "alterations and improvements" costing $120,000, and later sketches show an enlarged main building, but new buildings were not added. By the late 1870's, the inmate population had stabilized at around 100, where it would remain until the asylum's closing.
Living conditions, as depicted in early lists of rules and punishments, work records and daily menus, were hardly desirable by present standards. Visitors were permitted only once every three weeks; male and female inmates were strictly separated; the evening meal consisted of white bread and tea; and those found guilty of drinking, "immoral conduct," "loud talking or disrespectful behavior" or faking illness to avoid work were subject to "confinement in bridewell (a jail cell) for a time not exceeding three days, and of being kept on short allowance of food." An 1843 observer reported one-quarter of the inmates insane, yet medical records reveal no attempt at treating mental illness beyond confinement in the "maniac cells."
Legal wrangles between the city and the asylum began as early as 1872, when part of the stone wall around the Dexter property was knocked down during the widening of Hope Street. The city solicitor finally determined that Providence was not legally required to rebuild the wall. The city did restore the wall, but more conflicts were to come. In the 1920's, with rising real estate values and open space at a premium, city officials first tried to break up the property and sell it for house lots, then suggested making the land a public park. In 1926, the Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld the provisions of Ebenezer Dexter's will, declaring that no part of the property could be sold--much to the disgust of city Alderman Sol S. Bromson, who declared that the city could board the inmates at the Biltmore Hotel for less than it cost to maintain the asylum. The will's stipulation that "forty freemen" be present for any meeting about the asylum was altered in 1940, when the state General Assembly allowed the city council to have all powers originally bestowed upon the freemen.
A 1941 article in the Providence Sunday Journal characterized the asylum as a "well-meaning legacy of a bygone day which has made time stand still." Vegetable farming had been abandoned in the late 1920's, and while dairy farming continued through the '40's, farm revenues were not enough to make the asylum self-supporting. In 1947, the battle to break the will resumed. Lawyers and genealogists searched through old records, trying to determine who had owned "Neck Farm" before Ebenezer Dexter. Could the heirs of this previous owner determine the fate of the property? Could Dexter's heirs? If the asylum was demolished, what would take its place--a housing development, a park? In 1956, Brown University President Barnaby Keeney proposed that the city sell or lease the property to the university for a gym and athletic complex: "If and when the Courts permit the City to dispose of this land, it must honor its obligation to the Dexter Trust by obtaining the best possible income for the support of the poor... the University is in a position to help."
Providence Mayor Walter H. Reynolds hesitated, noting that the land could provide space for as many as 150 new home sites. But in the end the Brown proposal proved the best offer; today the University's athletic complex stands on the former asylum site on Hope Street. In October, 1957, the Dexter Asylum submitted its final report to the city of Providence. Its 129-year history had come to an end.
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