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Harrisville Civic Buildings

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1933–1937, 1950, Jackson, Robertson and Adams. 1990–1991, addition to library, Providence Partnership. East Ave. at Main St. (The Assembly); all others on Main St. from East Ave. to the corner of Chapel St.

Austin Levy's civic complex serves as the administrative core for the whole of Burrillville. For his own project, Levy had the site cleared of several commercial buildings. The buildings that replaced them are all in brick, all in the Colonial Revival style (the post office of 1950 only nominally so). As was often the case at the time, the colonial sources were more typical of the mid-Atlantic states than of New England. The underlying appeal of mid-Atlantic colonial seems to have been its greater emphasis on picturesque compositional detail and mellow surface texture, as compared to the more austere emphasis on geometry, plainness, and harder surfaces typical of colonial building in New England. In the attempt to achieve a genial village colonial, the exteriors of The Assembly and the library are the most successful, dignified yet with a demureness appropriate to the idyll which Harrisville was meant to become. The library's enlargement has altered its impact on the village; so The Assembly best characterizes the intent of Levy and his architects, and with the more original design.

The Assembly ( BU25.1; c. 1933), at 116 Main Street, not only served the usual civic function of a meeting hall, but also housed regional drama and chamber music groups. (Levy was himself a fine violinist who frequently participated in chamber music activities.) Its simple brick mass is an architectural blank against which doors, and windows, and a portico occur in rudimentary but pretty versions, which are also exploded or reduced beyond the scale expected for the extent of the wall they occupy and in relation to one another. One thinks of the endearing images of village architecture in children's books of the period, where just such an archaized, overblown portico as this becomes the immediately grasped “sign” for the building's function. “Here the village gathers,” it proclaims—its rude quality identifying with the folkish life of the village, while its puffed-up allusion to historic grandeur asserts that even villagers need civic dignity. Six tall, bulky, square pillars capped with only the narrowest of moldings support a simple beam as the “entablature” for a shed roof in slate. The portico is not so much integrated into the brick wall behind as set against it. Its disconnected quality reinforces the emblematic quality inherent in its archaic and bloated aspects. Centered in three of the portico's five openings are a pair of overblown doors, between them an overblown window, excessively paned, all topped with overblown transom lights fretted in diamond-shaped trelliswork. Then, between the outermost pillars, the scale plummets to domestic-sized windows, with a row of itsy-bitsy windows up in the gable sitting on the upper edge of the portico roof like three birds on a wire, and a tiny, round-capped cupola over all. So the mock pomp of the portico yields to the sweetness of the village. Postmodernist designers at the end of the twentieth century, addicted to the use of historic allusion to create just such ironic shifts in architectural meaning, might well pause before this unpretentious anticipation of effects they seek.

The Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library ( BU25.2; 1937, enlarged 1990–1991), 144 Main Street, is another of those tiny, village-sized gabled boxes for books of the period, with shuttered windows subtly enlarged beyond their domestic aspect against the grander Neo-Colonial door they flank while its scale is subtly diminished. The stage-set quality of the facade also appears in the paneling of its entrance, which is not inset, but made of moldings tacked onto what would otherwise be a flush door. From the side elevation a bow window marks the original children's room. Extensively paned, the bow derives not from colonial shop windows (and certainly not at all from colonial houses), but from the late nineteenth-century quest for colonial charm. The early 1990s enlargement swells behind and down-slope of the original building, which fortunately retains its frontispiece. The addition, however, is overassertive on the exterior and makes an awkward angled connection with the axial symmetry of the old plan inside. In moving from village to suburban scale, moreover, the interiors have lost much of their intimacy, even though original elements: plain plastered walls and barrel vaulting in the reading rooms flanking the circulation desk, with fireplaces and the spare adornment of wrought iron fixtures from the village smithy. The Assembly now shows the effect of the original interiors to better advantage.

The Universalist Church ( BU25.3; c. 1886, remodeled 1933), 134 Main Street, began as a tall, shingled Queen Anne building, regarded by Levy (and most of his generation would have agreed) as a serpent in his colonial Eden. Following a fire, which only partially destroyed the church, Levy offered to donate a colonial renovation. Too much of what was then generally regarded as the “ugly” Victorian past disappeared in such reform. Yet sometimes such renovation did produce a building of character. Here, Neo-Colonial detail stretches and multiplies itself in swollen elements to cover the Victorian mass. Panes accumulate in large openings until they appear almost as latticing. Such colonial elements as pilasters, panels and fans over the windows are mobilized and enlarged to “fill” the space left over. (The fans which top the windows of the side elevations were probably inspired by the similar exterior treatment of the Congregational church in nearby North Scituate; see SC1.) The pediment strives to assure us that it is really what it pretends to be; but the humiliated Queen Anne gable, with its tall proportions, takes its revenge on Levy's masquerade, and certainly on the too stubby, but quite elaborate, spire as well. It is the joust of the styles—one meant to triumph, the other resisting defeat—and the quality of workmanship that accounts for the interest of this building, and behind it of course the poignant sense of what a “colonial” Harrisville meant to Levy.

The interior is reached from an entrance porch added to a corner of one of the side elevations, which cuts through the ungainly height of the raised basement. Stairs mount to a simply plastered box of space spanned by plaster barrel vault and straightforwardly fitted in light-stained furnishings. This spareness provides the ideal setting for relics of the old church. At the head of the stairs is a pretty Queen Anne stained glass window; on the platform, the ornate black furniture which always adorned it. Best of all is what may be the finest Queen Anne chandelier in the state suspended at the center of the space. A polished brass structure of hoops with punched ornament shapes the undulations and curlicues of bent brass tubing into a cage to catch and concentrate the light. Unelectrified, it is lighted once a year for an evening candlelight service at Christmas.

The government buildings, including the Harrisville Town Hall ( BU25.4; 1934 and the North District Courthouse ( BU25.5; 1934), both at 105 Main, are less interesting individually, and, in any event, depend on variants of the sort of design already seen, except that the post office ( BU25.6; 1950), 131 Main Street, built roughly a decade and a half after the other buildings, modestly modernizes the Neo-Colonial idiom. (Exceptionally, Levy paid for this building and donated it to the federal government.) The Council Chamber in the town hall provides a sense of the cheerful, understated Neo-Colonial functionalism of the interiors of all the public buildings, with their repertoire of wavy plaster, wrought iron fittings, fireplaces, and simple vaulting.

Notwithstanding the considerable accomplishment of this civic center for a mill village, it has a scattered quality. The individual buildings do not cohere as a group. To this deficit, add the shattering intrusion of the plate glass, metal, and brick modern high school immediately behind the post office—shattering not for its modernity (Levy favored modest modernity, as witness his late model housing and the post office), but for its scale and lack of sympathy for what surrounds it. One serpent slain, another appears, ironically bearing Levy's name.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.

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