Davis Park

by James Kabala

Thomas Davis, the namesake of Davis Park, was born in Dublin, Ireland, on December 18, 1806.  He came to the United States as a child in 1817.

Unlike most of the Irish immigrants who would come to Providence later in the century, Davis was not a Catholic.  He was a member of Westminster Unitarian Church (a now-defunct church located on Westminster Street).  He was also affiliated with the transcendentalist movement and lived for a time at Holly House, a transcendentalist community in North Providence.  He also embraced more worldly pursuits and prospered financially in the jewelry business.  As a wealthy Protestant, he was able to fairly easily move into the power elite of the state despite his foreign birth.  However, he remained a strong defender of the rights of Irish Catholic immigrants.  He was also known as an opponent of slavery and capital punishment.

Davis served as a member of the Rhode Island Senate from 1845 to 1853 and then a single term in the U.S. House from 1853 to 1855.  He began as a Democrat but became an early member of the new Republican Party in protest against Democratic support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act that would have permitted the expansion of slavery.  However, he spent most of the rest of his political career in conflict with Henry B. Anthony, the editor of the Providence Journal and later U.S. Senator who was more sympathetic to the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant factions in the party.  Later in life he returned to the Democrats in opposition to Anthony and the GOP machine.

His first wife was Eliza Jones Chace, who served as secretary of the Providence Female Anti-Slavery Society and in fact was a close friend of Helen Benson Garrison, the Providence-born wife of renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.  Eliza Davis died in 1840 at the age of just thirty-one.  In 1849 Thomas Davis married Paulina Kellogg Wright.  Originally from upstate New York, she was also a woman of passionate convictions and after the death of her first husband, Francis Wright, had taken a very controversial path for the period and became a lecturer on women’s rights and other topics.  In 1850 she was a major organizer of the National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, which at the time was often considered to be at least as important as the now-more-famous Seneca Falls Convention that had taken place two years before.  She was also the founder of The Una, a short-lived newspaper nonetheless notable one of the first periodicals in history edited by an entirely female staff.  The Davises had no biological children together but adopted two daughters.  (Thomas Davis had also had a son with his first wife who died at the age of eight months.)

The Davises built two houses in the Smith Hill area.  Their first house was built soon after their marriage.  Many years later (in the 1890s) it was divided into two smaller buildings.  Both halves of the divided house still stand and are still in use as private residences at 503 ½ and 507 ½ Chalkstone Avenue.  In 1869 the Davises moved to a larger house at the corner of Chalkstone Avenue and Raymond Street.  The extensive grounds of the mansion totaled thirty-four acres.  Walt Whitman, Horace Greeley, and Harriet Beecher Stowe are among those reported to have been visitors to the house.  Local poet and former Edgar Allan Poe love interest Sarah Helen Whitman (no relation to Walt Whitman) was also a friend of the Davises.

Providence in the nineteenth century was one of the centers of the Industrial Revolution and by 1880 was a city of over 100,000 people.  As in many other cities of this era, a movement arose for the preservation of green space and the creation of parks for recreation.  The Providence Parks Commission was founded in the 1880s with the original purpose of preserving the Cove Basin – the original tidal basin of the Providence River that the railroad companies wanted to pave over.  (The Commission was unsuccessful.  The Cove was paved over – but a century later Waterplace Park would be created in roughly the same area.)  The Commission unsurprisingly applauded the acquisition of Roger Williams Park in South Providence, but they believed that it was too remote from the more populated parts of Providence and that “a chain or system of smaller parks” should be created throughout the city.  Many particularly believed that a park was needed in the Tenth Ward, a populous and geographically large area that included part of Smith Hill and also the modern-day neighborhoods of Manton, Mount Pleasant, Olneyville, Elmhurst, Valley, Wanskuck, and Charles.

Meanwhile, Thomas Davis’s fortunes had taken an extreme turn for the worse.  His wife Paulina had died in 1876.  His jewelry business had ceased to prosper and eventually failed completely.  In 1880 he even lost his right to vote because he could no longer meet the requirement to own $134 of property that naturalized voters such as himself were required to possess.  He still lived in his mansion, but it was now officially owned by his creditors.  Davis had fought unsuccessfully against this requirement in the past – “I have been both a Republican and a Democrat, but always advocated the repeal of this restriction.”  (It would finally be repealed in 1888.)  He eventually regained control of his estate (and therefore his right to vote) and even was again elected to the state legislature in his eighties, but he was no longer a wealthy man.

In 1890 Davis decided to sell the mansion and grounds to the city for $75,000, a sum that was enough to restore his financial security but was considered a bargain price for the city.  This would become the Tenth Ward park that the Parks Commission had wanted to create.  The new park was named Davis Park in honor of the former owner.  Alfred Stone, a noted architect, praised the purchase of “the one spot to which a manufacturing population of 25,000 people could get for recreation and pleasure.”  Davis died on July 26, 1895, and was buried in Swan Point Cemetery beside both his wives and also his son who had died in infancy.

Various suggestions were made as to the place of the Davis mansion itself in the new park.  The earliest proposal was for the creation of an art museum in conscious imitation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  This never came to be.  (The Rhode Island School of Design Museum instead became the primary art museum in Providence.)  In 1911 Tenth Ward Councilman Frederick J. Berth called for conversion of the mansion into a branch of the public library, but this was also rejected.  For some time the main use of the house was as a polling place on election days.  Eventually (even before the entire property was taken over by the VA) it became the headquarters of the Rhode Island chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The rest of the park became a very popular place of recreation for the people of the neighborhood.  Baseball and other sports were played there.  Children’s pageants were frequently held there.  Some residents simply preferred to stroll through the beautiful grounds.  Davis Park even became the subject of a popular song written by local resident John Gavin.  The song was apparently never published or recorded but was sometimes played during intermissions at local theaters and was said to have been sung by local residents in both world wars and even at late as the Korean War.

In 1916 the park was slightly expanded by the purchase of adjoining land owned by two brothers named McNally.  The total size of the park increased from thirty-four acres to forty and a half acres.

After World War II a new and very different stage in Davis Park history began when the city government decided to donate the land to the federal government for use as a Veterans Administration hospital.  Although the plan was endorsed by the United Veterans’ Council of Rhode Island, it also incurred strong opposition.  The Providence Journal editorialized against the plan and also reported that letters to the editor were overwhelmingly against it – so much so that the paper did not have room to print them all.  Some said that “the fumes and factory odors” of the industrialized neighborhood would be unhealthful for the veterans or that a more centralized location would better serve veterans from all parts of the state.  Some were simply upset that the city intended to donate the land rather than sell it for its fair value.  But the primary reason for opposition was that construction of a hospital in Davis Park “means taking away from thousands of growing youngsters their only available recreational ground.”  How could Mayor Dennis Roberts “call for the curb of juvenile delinquency [but] take away the only recreational spot in one of the most crowded areas of Providence?”  Others noted that Davis Park was a place of recreation for adults as well.  As for the idea that part of the VA property could continue to be maintained as a playground, one letter writer considered that “absolutely untenable and opposed to all administrative principles of the Veterans’ Administration.”

However, that proved to be exactly what the city and the VA would attempt to do.  They decided that a small section of the old park would be set aside for a recreation area that would include a baseball diamond and tennis courts.  This plan immediately proved to be fraught with problems.  The VA was accused of neglecting the property and permitting vandals to dump trash on the grounds and wreck the interior of the Davis mansion (before it was torn down on purpose shortly afterwards to make way for the hospital building).  The government turned off all electricity and water at the park.  For a time the plan was completely abandoned and children were officially instructed to use nearby O’Brien Park (at the corner of River Avenue and Regent Avenue) instead.  The Davis Park merry-go-round was moved to O’Brien Park as a sort of symbolic end to Davis Park as a place of recreation.  (O’Brien Park still exists and has a slide and swings, but the merry-go-round is long gone from there as well.)

The VA soon reversed course once again and agreed to permit the existence of a very small playground – too small for a baseball diamond or any other kind of large field – that would be geared exclusively to very young children.  The VA would own the entire park but allow the neighborhood children to use this small space.  The VA hospital itself was successfully completed in 1949 and has remained an important part of the city landscape to this day.  But few were pleased with this compromise plan for the playground – it seemed to have indeed proved absolutely untenable.

Finally, in 1953, the VA agreed to a more generous compromise closer to the original plan – it ceded eight acres back to the city and thereby permitted the creation of a larger park with baseball and softball fields and a basketball court.  Davis Park had been preserved as a place of recreation for the people of Smith Hill and nearby neighborhoods.  (Present-day official neighborhood boundaries place the park adjacent to Smith Hill in the neighborhood of Valley.)  

The Journal nonetheless reported two years later that “Davis Park is a name less and less frequently applied to what are now the grounds of the U.S. Veterans Hospital.”  In a way this statement was correct – the Veterans Hospital had developed its own separate identity distinct from the park.  But the name Davis Park for the new smaller recreation field would live on.

Davis Park has remained a major center of recreation for the people of Providence.  As Valley and Smith Hill have changed once again to have a large Hispanic population, a statue of César Chávez has been added to the park.  The park has also been extensively renovated in recent years.  Among the changes have been the installation of wrought iron fencing, the creation of a walking track, and the planting of community gardens that have further beautified the park.  The baseball field is still in use not only for Babe Ruth League games but as the home field of the Classical High School baseball team (even though the campus of the high school is located far from Smith Hill).  Although most of those who use the park are probably not familiar with Thomas and Paulina Davis, their name and legacy live on at Davis Park.