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Woonsocket Manufacturing Company Mill Buildings (Bernon Mills)

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Bernon Mills
1827–1828 (No. 1 Mill), 1833 (No. 2 Mill). 110–115 Front St.

These two mills are the best extant examples in Woonsocket of early nineteenth-century stone mills. Owners who very shortly went bankrupt built the first mill, begun just a little before the Jenckes No. 2 Mill ( WO5). It is the less imposing of the Bernon pair in its masonry construction, with uncoursed granite walls, rough stone headers, and corner quoins. But the profile of its slit monitor roof is handsome. Moreover, it is the first known mill in the United States (if present scholarship holds) to have been built to “slow-burning” structural specifications: that is, with floors and beams thick enough to char without burning through, thus sparing the machinery from a destructive crash into the basement in the event of fire. It became the standard for American mill construction into the first decades of the twentieth century, thereby hampering the development of iron and steel framing for American factories, because conservative fire insurance companies preferred to stay with what had been tested.

If the Bernon No. 1 Mill was straightforwardly committed to function, No. 2 had overt architectural pretensions. Sullivan Dorr and Crawford Allen, Providence entrepreneurs who were brothers-in-law, acquired the bankrupt mill and surrounding property as a result of the depression of 1829. The new owners rejected the functionally useful projecting tower, just then emerging as a typological feature for factory design (and visible at the Jenckes Mills, where the first mill was also rudely wrought, the second built with more refinement). They retreated to the traditional warehouse and barn placement of loading doors directly into the working floors. They also sacrificed the more useful top story of the monitored earlier mill in order to dignify their factory with the low pitch of a Greek pediment, even to attic blocks over the pediments at either end. Regularized quoining frames the handsome random-cut masonry walls. Most revealing, however, of the classical pretensions of this mill, because most subtle, may be the granite uprights for the loading doors. They appear with shadow capitals supporting entablatures, which are expressed as such by the decisive extension of the lintels beyond their supports, whereas most such supports are plain and part of a flush frame.

The image of this mill must be related to the vision that Dorr and Allen had for their mill village as a model community. It was they who named the village Bernon, after Huguenot Gabriel Bernon, a much admired ancestor of the Allen family. Not only was their mill yard (now a parking lot) once planted with trees and grass all the way to Front Street, but the cottages they provided up on the hillside, only one of which remains (208 Park Street), were reputed to be of above-average quality. Most remarkable, Dorr and Allen's vision of their model mill village was somewhat less paternalistic than that of most mill owners. They provided the opportunity for certifiably sober workers to purchase house lots in the village. How many of their employees took this temperance carrot for the apparent security of home ownership is unknown. As early as 1887 these mills ceased to be used for textile production. Even earlier, the ideal village had passed into oblivion, leaving scant evidence today of its appearance.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Woonsocket Manufacturing Company Mill Buildings (Bernon Mills)", [Woonsocket, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-WO15.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 228-229.

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