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Elm Street Houses

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c. 1840–1930

What Benefit Street is to Providence, Elm Street is to Westerly. Both are lined with historic houses. Both are upscale residential streets, with some mix of more modest houses. Both relate residential living intimately to their respective business districts (in Westerly partly by the seeming continuation of Elm Street to the north of Broad Street as Grove Avenue). In fact, Elm Street boasts one of the most important collections of large nineteenth-century houses in the state, but—and here's the tragedy—aluminum and plastic siding have devastated the street. It is understandable that low maintenance costs (in the short term at least) are bound to take precedence over architectural quality in modest housing. It is incomprehensible, however, that owners of such large houses as these should have sought the gains of a few thousand dollars in maintenance at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars in architectural value, magnified by the cumulative glory of what Elm Street might be were it returned to its nineteenth-century splendor. Given the will to do so, this would largely mean undoing what has recently been done.

Just north of John Street, at 66 Elm Street, is the Georgian Revival Cottrell House ( WE11.1; early twentieth century; now condominiums), set down in ample grounds now filled, like saplings from a big tree, with smaller simulacra of the house itself, once occupied by owners of a handsome masonry factory, still standing on Beach Street, which manufactured Cottrell printing presses. Mansions of other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century leaders in the Westerly economy range the length of the street. At number 54 is a Queen Anne house ( WE11.2; c. 1880) with spindle and panel porch, fishscale shingling on the second floor, clapboard on the first, all dominated by a corner octagonal tower with bulbous dome. At 34 Elm Street (southeast corner of Elm and School streets) is a fine (though modified at the ground floor), relatively modest Gothic Revival house ( WE11.3; c. 1865). Between School and Broad streets, the east side of the street shows a group of large, mansarded houses (note especially numbers 22 and 24–26) ( WE11.4; c. 1870–1875), mostly re-sided, but with detail intact. Across from these, at number 25, is a later, more “colonialized” Queen Anne gambrel-roofed cottage ( WE11.5; c. 1895), which represents something of a re-siding tour de force in the effort to retain the high quality of what was there. Finally, relief, at number 8, a Greek Revival house ( WE11.6) mercifully undesecrated. With its dominating entablature and corner pilasters, it possesses the formidable presence of mid-nineteenth-century mansions derived from Renaissance palaces. The deep porch across the front is more Victorian than Greek Revival in spirit. Its original picket fence, the delightful “Gothic” window in the weather door, and the generous windows opening down to the floor of the porch—incongruously for a Greek temple, but delightfully for a house—mitigate the severity of the initial impression. It was the home of the Babcock family, who willed it to Christ Church, across the street, for use as a rectory.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Elm Street Houses", [Westerly, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-WE11.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 409-410.

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