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Smithville Seminary (Former)

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1839–1840, Russell Warren. End of Institute Ln.

Whereas the adjacency of church and academy represents a utilitarian conjunction of the two institutions, the spatial relationship which once existed between the church and Russell Warren's Smithfield Seminary was more dramatic. The institutional confrontation was the more resonant because Warren's composition, across the green from the church and up on a rise beyond it, when built probably represented the most scenographic array of Greek temple forms in the state.

Converted to “luxury apartments” today, the central block, and its flanking wings represent a very diminished version of what was once here. The flat-roofed, recessed hyphens which flank the centerpiece with its three-story portico have lost their original square-piered colonnades. The terminal pavilions are gone, along with all three crowning cupolas which once topped the principal blocks. The present cross gabling of the central temple block is a 1920s alteration, after a fire which also destroyed both of the outermost wings. But it is astonishing that anything at all remains, given the succession of occupants (including educational institutions and a hotel) which led handto-mouth existences behind its noble, and increasingly dilapidated, front.

The Rhode Island Association of Freewill Baptists opened the seminary in September 1840 to serve as a middle academy between common school and college, with a curriculum based on literature and science. Warren's fivepart massing of the building may owe something to Thomas U. Walter's analogous linear array of Greek temple forms for Girard College in Philadelphia (1833). In any event, it elegantly recorded the functional program of the school. At the center, marked by an Ionic portico derived from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesis (a model which Warren frequently used), were community and ceremonial spaces above a first-floor reception room, office, and living quarters for faculty: on the second floor, classrooms, library, “apparatus” and “specimen” rooms (the latter for minerals, shells, and other natural history collections); on the third floor, a combined auditorium and chapel, with folding doors to halve it for less grand occasions. The hyphens housed recitation classrooms. Strangely, for such a pure Greek Revival front, the classrooms to the rear projected in half octagons with twin entrances into each of the angled walls. At either end were dormitories, one for boys, the other for girls. This was an exceptional example of private school coeducation for its time, although the two sexes met only for meals, worship, and recitation. (As an old engraving shows, even the front lawn was informally divided into gender territories.)

The school attracted both day and boarding students, the latter from all over New England and, thanks to contacts between textile manufacturers and plantation owners, from the South as well. The first Rhode Island “teachers' institute” was held here in 1845 by Henry Barnard, the nationally famous educator whose reform efforts included school buildings as well as curricula. Its glory years were brief, however. In 1850 financial difficulties forced the sale of the seminary. Thereafter, from 1850 until 1974, a series of religious and vocational schools (one of the latter for “Indians”), a hotel (very briefly), and a summer camp occupied the premises. All were poorly funded; all eventually failed; each (along with fires and a hurricane) took its toll on the building. Eventually, abandoned and derelict, its remains received a last-minute reprieve for conversion to housing. Although the building is sadly reduced, at least it still boasts its portico by Rhode Island's greatest Greek Revival designer. (A footnote, lest one believe that the Ionic scroll which prettily tops the window in the central pediment is an exceptional treatment within the Greek Revival: this was a fragment from a fallen portico column which was converted to its present use in the twentieth century.)

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


What's Nearby


William H. Jordy et al., "Smithville Seminary (Former)", [Scituate, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 266-267.

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