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Conanicut Park

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1873, Lucius D. Davis, concept; John H. Mullin, plan. East Shore Ave. and adjacent areas from 1.5 miles north of Carr Park, around the northern tip of the island to intersection with Summit Ave.

The plan of Conanicut Park, a development for modest cottages, is among the more ambitious failures of its time. It is a secular version of Methodist camp meeting grounds, most particularly inspired by Wesleyan Grove at Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. Lucius D. Davis, publisher of the Newport Daily News, part-time real estate entrepreneur, and former Methodist minister, combined all three professions in conceiving Conanicut Park. Before this venture he had laid out Cliff Cottage Association in Newport as a similar development of small cottages. In 1872, with financial help from Providence and Newport textile magnates, among whom Governor Henry Lippitt contributed most, he purchased two large farms totaling some 500 acres on the northeast tip of the island. John Mullin, a topographical engineer and surveyor, laid out the property in 1873. Schematically his plan used a considerable length of East Shore Road as a spine with building lots on either side extending out to the shore, where Mullin envisioned a parallel drive along the water (only vestigially realized). Toward the head of the island the property widened and swept around most of the point. Here the road network became more complex, organized around an oval residential enclave centered in a park—the oval analogous to the eye of a needle in relation to the rounded point. The plan included a commercial area (on Commercial Street) near a steamboat landing with a fancy waiting room encased within a Victorian scroll-cut exterior, and nearby, on the northwest corner of East Shore and North Main, the Conanicut Park Hotel, which had rooms for 100 guests. From its opening in 1873, it was a fashionable destination for two decades before it began its decline toward demolition in 1908.

Mullin's platting provided for 2,098 irregular lots averaging about 50 by 100 feet and priced at $150 each, to accommodate diminutive but ornamental cottages in the manner of those in Oak Bluffs. In fact, Worth and Brazier, a contracting firm based in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, built at least five Conanicut Park cottages around 1873, of which three survive (883, 887, and 900 East Shore Road (about 1.5 miles north of Carr Lane), all dating from the start of building in 1873–1874. (Number 887, which is missing its porch, has Gothic-arched windows in the manner of some of the firm's buildings on the Vineyard.) Over 30,000 trees were planted, many along more than 12 miles of streets (which form the basic road network for the area), others on several sites planned for miniparks. Sunnyside Park featured an old orchard as the heart of a residential oval, its elliptical street pattern still evident behind the northern point of the island. Island Park, emerging from a swamp abutting Conanicut Meadow, and the retention of Woodlawn Farm were intended as reminders of the area's past, along with a “common,” which belonged to New England's history if not to Jamestown's farms.

Based on the prospectus and the auspicious beginnings of Conanicut Park, Samuel Drake, in his Nooks and Corners of the New England Coast (1875), described it, with implied scorn for Newport showiness across the bay, as a place “accessible to people who do not keep footmen or carriages, or give champagne breakfasts.” The Reverend Frederick Denison concurred in his Narragansett Sea and Shore (1880), where he praised the still tenuous development: “designed for private residences—summer homes—and not for public parades, the flaunts of fashion and the confusion of excursion parties, it is a charming place for quiet and genteel family residences; the Elysium along the shore.”

But before they wrote, this Elysium was in trouble, despite widespread initial enthusiasm and the reported sale of over 1,000 lots. Conanicut Park opened to the public in 1873, the year of the panic. Later attempts to revive it never succeeded. In the 1880s, hot real estate shifted to the Highlands, at the southern end of the island. The failure of Conanicut Park could have stemmed from its vision of a teeming arcadia of tiny, close-packed houses, amalgamating in a genteel version as it did the tastes of the gospel camper, Sunday excursionist and populist entrepreneur. Although Jamestown residents generally preferred modest living to Newport's posh, even those who lived modestly appear to have sought more spacious conditions and greater decorum than Davis's tight plots and scroll-carpentered ornament offered. The Lippitt family eventually owned most of the real estate. It passed through other investors with large plans until, by 1932, the last of the bubbles had burst in the Great Depression. The holdings were then parceled out to individual purchasers.

Today, scattered about, fifteen of twenty cottages survive from the 1870s, as well as five of six from an effort to restart the project in the 1880s, plus two conversions from carriage houses. Most have been renovated. The best preserved are described here. In addition, the John B. Kilton Cottage (1873), 947 East Shore Road, merits notice, despite an altered porch replacement after a 1904 fire, later aluminum siding, and other changes, as the first cottage built in the development, for one of its original investors, a Providence merchant. More elaborately fitted inside than most, it served as the “open house” come-on at the start of promotion.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Conanicut Park", [Jamestown, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-JA5.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 586-587.

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