Ebenzer Knight Dexter was a wealthy Providence merchant and a United States marshal
who became Providence’s leading benefactor of the poor. In 1824, by the terms of his will, he bequeathed more than 2,275,000 square feet, or over 52 acres, of land to the town. The largest tract, located off Hope Street, was given for use as a poor farm. An almshouse for paupers, called Dexter Asylum, was built there in 1830 from the designs of architect John Holden Greene. The asylum was altered and enlarged in 1870, and its architectural style changed from classical to French Empire. In accordance with Dexter’s wishes, the thirty-eight-acre estate upon which the building stood was enclosed by a long stone wall, 8 feet high and 6,220 feet in length.
The property was purchased from the city by Brown University in 1957 for $1,000,777, a sum that was earmarked by the city for poor relief as the Ebenezer Knight Dexter Trust Fund. Brown subsequently erected George V. Meehan Auditorium and a modern athletic complex on the asylum grounds. The Dexter Asylum building was demolished in 1958.
Another tract in this great philanthropist’s donation is the Dexter Training Grounds, a ten-acre parcel adjacent to the Cranston Street Armory. This land was designated by its grantor as a site for the training of militia. Smaller parcels in Dexter’s bequest bring the total land currently in his donation to 584,414 square feet. Both the land and the financial proceeds from Dexter’s bequest are managed by the Commissioners of the Dexter Donation, a permanent five-man agency chaired by the mayor of Providence, allowing Dexter’s benign influence to live on into the twenty-first century.
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