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Cranston Print Works Village

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Bounded by Cranston St., Dyer Ave., Queen St., and the Pocasset River; offices in the mill, 1381 Cranston St.

Despite the later development which now engulfs it, the Greek Revival core of this important textile village, situated around the intersection of Cranston Street and Dyer Avenue, is still evident. The close juxtaposition of mill, mill owner's house, workers' housing, and church invokes the tightly knit, paternalistic organization of early industry, and suggests the orderliness of the best-planned mill villages. Although the complex appears somewhat quaint today, it was once the heart of one of the world's largest nineteenth-century textile empires. The Sprague family, creators of both company and village, were pioneers in cotton manufacturing and printing from 1807, until their company's financial collapse in 1873.

The village was known locally as the White City: factories, houses, and public buildings were uniformly white. Although so much whiteness was hardly exceptional during the Greek Revival, it became a mark of distinction in Victorian America. Yet one does not know how many New England factories and villages might have persisted in painting their buildings white throughout the Victorian period—until the architecture of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 made it clear that whiteness and the brightness of floral pastels had to be reckoned with by even the most hidebound adherents of the shadow and glitter of the “brown decades.”

From the east on Cranston Street, first is an end-gable Greek Revival supervisor's house, at 1230 Cranston ( CR3.1; 1840), one of what was a row of five, now aluminum sided and merely a token of what was there. Next is the Governor Sprague Mansion, formerly the Sprague House ( CR3.2; c. 1790; additions early nineteenth century, early twentieth century, stable probably 1864), 1351 Cranston Street (near Dyer Avenue). The Sprague family seat began in 1790 as a five-bay Federal dwelling, commissioned by the company founder, William Sprague. The next generation extended it three bays to the east; then, in 1864, the third generation much enlarged the house to the west, in the Italianate manner, giving it an addition higher than the original, with a glazed octagonal cupola and a second, larger porch—paired clusters of three columns rather than two, and a Victorian aggrandizement of the initial side- and fanlighted door. The 1864 addition is more public than private in character—more innlike than houselike—and suggests that the house had by then assumed a ceremonial and symbolic role for the family, several of whom by then owned substantial houses in Providence, Warwick, and Narragansett. Set behind a picket fence amid ample gardens but close to the road, the Sprague mansion provided an appropriate recall of first- and second-generation entrepreneurship, while expanding to accommodate important visitors to the plant and others on business and civic missions (William Sprague served as state governor from 1860 to 1863).

All the other principal Sprague mansions, some of the grandest of the mid-nineteenth century, have disappeared, leaving only the ancestral, somewhat rustic manse to celebrate the family's restrained prosperity toward the start of undertakings, as opposed to the spectacular display in dispersed settings which surrounded the Spragues' desperation and humiliation at the end. It, too, might have been demolished had it not become the headquarters of the Cranston Historical Society. It is now open to the public.

Ranged along Dyer Avenue, which bounds one end of the factory property, stands a long row of some of the best-preserved Greek Revival mill housing in the state, all duplexes with small trapdoor dormers and end chimneys ( CR3.3; 1844, 1864). At the south end of Dyer Street (crossing Cranston Street) approximately one hundred more workers' houses, identical to their predecessors, went up in 1864 along an enclave of four streets named for trees. Much more altered than the Dyer Street row, the later workers' houses nevertheless preserve the sense of what was there.

Beyond Dyer Street, at 1381 Cranston, is the mill ( CR3.4; 1844, 1852, 1864, 1921). The earliest buildings were replaced by the stuccoed rubblestone mill complex, erected along the Pocasset River, in a plain style with segmental-arched windows, all painted over in white except for red granite corner quoining. Its most striking component is the U-plan printing and engraving building, with a prominent bell tower, at its eastern outside corner. The tower is simple, but gracefully shaped by stepped, chamfered corners. These steadily widen, whittling the tower down to its culminating stage with bull's-eye windows, at least one of which may once have contained the company clock. The roof picks up the chamfering, absorbing it into a low pyramidal cap, its tentlike concave planes extended to flaring eaves. Following the collapse of the Sprague fortunes, the plant was idled for a decade and a half—the only such time in its history—before B. B. and R. Knight reopened it. Under different ownership, the plant continues to print and dye textiles.

Opposite, moved from a site nearby to 1390 Cranston, is the simple Greek Revival Sprague Meeting House (formerly St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church) ( CR3.5; 1825, burned in 1924, rebuilt in 1927, when the present cupola cap was added). Erected for workers on company-donated land, it was later used by the historical society and is now devoted to commercial use. (Incongruously adjacent, for aficionados of roadside pop modernism, is a vintage Mobil “Flying Horse” gas station in enameled metal [c. 1955]).

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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