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Sockanosset School for Boys Administration Building, Cottages, and Chapel

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1881–1895, Stone, Carpenter and Willson (Stone probable designer for cottages, Willson for chapel); Allen and Browne, masons; French and MacKenzie, carpenters. Sockanosset Cross Rd. (at New London Ave. intersection of Routes 37 and 2)

In this area in which the state has concentrated its penal and mental institutions, the setting is now substantially spoiled by major traffic arteries bordering it, and the buildings are abandoned and so much deteriorated (as this is written) that their future is doubtful. In the nineteenth century the site was a removed, quite pretty plateau commanding a long slope toward Narragansett Bay. In accord with nineteenth-century views of the power of nature to heal both illness and what was then usually termed “wayward” conduct, the Providence Reform School changed both its name and something of its barrackslike image on moving here. Ranged around an elliptical drive is a “village” of three double-cross-gabled and dormered buildings (remaining from five) in stucco-covered rubble with corners and window edges quoined in red granite, which gives a bristling effect. The administration building stands at one end of the ellipse, with a combined chapel-hospital downhill and a bit removed from the rest. Although still formidable, the “cottages” vainly attempt to disguise the institutional scale of the operation by their medium size, with the barest domestic gestures of gabled and dormered roofs and gabled entrance porches embellished with a lattice of cross bracing. Even in village dress, however, Victorian agencies for reform and charity usually manage an assertive image of authority.

The most exceptional building in the complex is the combined chapel and hospital (1891), the chapel in front, hospital wing to the rear. It is a low-slung, cross-gabled granite structure, nominally Neo-Romanesque in style and cruciform in plan, with a squat crossing tower capped by a polygonal cone with flaring eaves. Like St. Colomba's in Middletown ( MI5), it evokes the English parish church as strained through 1880s sensibilities. Edmund Willson here seems to have attempted to blend a somewhat severe aspect appropriate for a Victorian institution of incarceration with the redemptive promise implicit in allusion to solace and charm. How to justify this mishmash of contradictory reaction?

The chapel front is no more than a granite gable, brought low to the ground, punched only by a pair of small, arched windows with a tiny wheel between them and the porch. All three openings pull tensely apart from one another. A cozy porch, firmly framed by timbers at the corners and sparely braced, projects from the wall, prettily roofed as a shingled, gabled shelter curved out to flaring eaves. More shingling pulled down the front of the gable increases the sense of shelter. It is pierced by an arch with spoked timbering. The masonry is powerfully but awkwardly handled: in part squared and neat, in part random and rough. Inmates with varying degrees of building skill may have been responsible for the execution of the building from the architect's drawings. Although also deteriorated, the plain wooden interior retains Arts and Crafts touches, including exposed roof bracing, some faded painted stenciling, and elaborate wrought-iron chandeliers (all perhaps products of the institution's shop). One senses an effort to balance severe Romanesque with healing Arts and Crafts, as though the combined styles were meant to convey a subliminal admonition to the inmates: “Choose your path.” Unique, with decided character and even touching aspects were it shown some care, of all the buildings it at least merits conservation, which may be hard to come by.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.

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