Queer Possibility on Hope Street

Published in People in Preservation.

Queer Possibility on Hope Street

A Celebration of the Relationship of Esther Hinckley Baker and Elizabeth Dorrance Bugbee

On the corner of Hope and Manning Streets sits one of Providence’s most distinct Queen Anne-style buildings — the Esther Hinckley Baker House, commissioned in 1882 and designed by the firm of Stone & Carpenter. Much has been written about the notable architectural features of this stately mansion, but less attention has been given to Esther, the well-to-do, independent woman who made her home there for 40 years alongside her “dear friend” and companion Elizabeth Dorrance Bugbee.

Elizabeth Dorrance Bugbee

Esther Hinckley Baker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Born in Massachusetts in 1838 into the family of a wealthy merchant, as a teen Esther attended the Oread Institute, one of the nation’s first women’s colleges, located in Worcester. There she met the woman who would become her lifelong companion, Elizabeth Dorrance Bugbee of Rhode Island. After their formative time at the Institute, both women returned to their families, with Esther becoming the housekeeper for her widowed father.

179 Hope Street

After her father’s death in 1876, the unmarried Esther decided to move to Providence to live with Elizabeth, beginning a partnership that would last until Elizabeth’s death in 1920. Although Esther legally owned their home at 179 Hope Street, Elizabeth was always listed as head of household on all census records, with Esther listed as a “friend,” “cousin,” or “partner.” The women did everything together, supporting charities like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, participating actively in the Oread alumnae association, becoming members of the Rhode Island Historical Society, and travelling to New Hampshire and abroad during the summers. Their steadfast relationship was even celebrated as “undimmed by the slightest cloud” in a 1905 retrospective of Oread alumnae, which also included portraits of both women (pictured above).

Both women made generous provisions to support the people of Rhode Island in their wills, with Elizabeth endowing a “free bed” at Rhode Island Hospital, and Esther dividing the proceeds of her estate between local homes for the elderly, including the Home for Aged Colored Women. After her death in 1923, a posthumous profile of Esther described her as “fond of music and books, kindly in all her relations, generous, and endowed with a lot of common sense…an example of the best type of New England gentlewoman.”

The fact that Esther and Elizabeth’s likely romantic partnership escaped censure, and was even lauded by their contemporaries, was almost certainly due to the social status and wealth that they both enjoyed. By maintaining a low profile as “respectable,” charitable ladies of independent means, they safeguarded their relationship from the outside scrutiny that might have otherwise jeopardized women from less privileged backgrounds. Because of the necessarily covert nature of same-sex relationships during this time period, they often leave little trace on the historical record. But by digging just a bit deeper and bringing contemporary insights to bear on the data that is available, we can try to paint a richer picture of queer history in Rhode Island.


Written and researched by Kate Blankenship

Editor’s Note: The text for the Esther Hinkley Baker House on the Guide to Providence Architecture dates to 2003 and reflects historical blindspots. PPS is working to update the entry. 

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