The Architectural Heritage of Rhode Island
[The following essay was WHJ's draft, dated December 10, 1996, for the introduction to this volume. Given his personal style and his unique perception of what Alexander Pope called “the genius of the place” (a concept mentioned here and in WHJ's drafts for the preface), the editors felt that what is here speaks so perceptively and eloquently that we should not add to it or attempt to “complete” it. Instead, we present it as WHJ's thoughts on Rhode Island and its architecture eight months before his death.]
Rhode Island is the smallest state in the union. With an area of slightly more than 1,200 square miles, 14 percent of which is taken up by the waters of Narragansett Bay, it would fit into the state of Alaska 483 times. Yet this tiny enclave contains one of the richest concentrations of important historical architecture to be found anywhere in the United States.
One thinks of it first as a coastal state, its shoreline generally facing south to the sea, but angled overall along a southwest-northeast diagonal between Watch Hill, at the Connecticut border, and Little Compton, against Massachusetts. At least the southwestern half of its coastal length rather nicely hews to a ragged diagonal, with a string of magnificent beaches fronting marshes and inlets, backed by a score of freshwater glacial ponds. As the schematic diagonal continues northeastward, however, the shape of this half of the coast is immensely complicated by the massive indentation of Narragansett Bay. In the western portion of the state, the bulk of its land mass is mostly contained within a tall rectangle, though even here its seeming straight edge against Connecticut splays out slightly as it approaches the coast, then breaks out of its bounds to follow the curl of the Pawcatuck as this river border defines the promontory at Watch Hill, as though the state were meant to escape its cramped quarters by expanding on its approach to the sea. Toward the east the state's boundaries swell from this box with a vengeance, crossing inlets, peninsulas, and open stretches of water and in the process expanding like a hungry sponge, or like the cast of a net, to take in virtually the whole of Narragansett Bay. The bay is Rhode Island's single most defining feature.
In the search for the genius of this place, we should begin here. Ask the stranger with only the vaguest knowledge of the state what comes to mind with its mention. The response, if any, is likely to be one or some combination of Narragansett Bay, Providence, and Newport. Few questioned in these circumstances will realize that the cities named are the important founding settlements of the eventual state, as well as marking respectively the head and the mouth of the bay. The distance between waterfronts of a little more than twenty miles measured along a straight line approximates the inland reach of the bay from the coast. So the bay and this pair of founding towns establishes the generative core for building and settlement in Rhode Island. The persistent significance in subsequent developments of these three elements and their relationship give them almost emblematic intensity for those seeking the special qualities of this place.
Driven successively from Boston to Plymouth, then to exile beyond the Puritan pale, the heretical Reverend Roger Williams eventually arrived at the head of Narragansett Bay in 1636. He found there a “sweet spring” (the presumed spot now aggrandized and sanctified by a walled garden that piously engulfs the well, even as a temple now smothers Plymouth Rock). There Williams also met with friendly natives, who welcomed him to this place at the mouth of a river opening to a broad bay. In gratitude he named the place Providence. Two years later, other dissenters, sharing convictions akin to Williams's point of view, but some with differences (including, most famously, Anne Hutchinson), followed his lead to settle in what is now the town of Portsmouth at the northern end of the bay's largest island, which the natives called Aquidneck. Here dissenters of one conviction quickly broke with dissenters of another, members of one faction removing themselves as far as possible from their objectionable cohorts to the southern end of the elongated island. They settled there, at the mouth of the bay, where there was also a splendid harbor sheltered by headlands, calling their place Newport. Providence and Newport: what hope implicit in this combination! (And “Hope,” in fact, ribboned beneath an anchor, became the state seal and motto.) The settlers renamed the island. The full official name of the state from Williams's charter is Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, recognizing its independence as a colony from its neighbors around it. Hence the smallest state officially has the longest name. In its abbreviated form, the island tail wags the mainland dog.
So, from the first settlement in this sanctuary for freedom of religion and the liberty of conscience that went beyond religion, this colony-to-be staked out its two historic cities, the distance between them marking the inland reach of the bay.
Some Consequences on Building of Williams's Spirit of Toleration
For the visitor, the long histories of these founding towns are doubly fascinating because they present continuous differences in both aspect and circumstance. Newport took the early lead, not only as the most important colonial city in the state, but also as among the major colonial ports of the time. Many of its inhabitants (and some from outside the city as well) believed that its maritime trade might eventually surpass that of all other colonial competition. (And in this connection it is interesting that the islands of Aquidneck and Manhattan are roughly equivalent in size, both also elongated in shape, with Aquidneck the more irregular of the two. With respect to its island, however, Newport's extent remained close to that of New Amsterdam.) Its early success as the port in Rhode Island resulted in Newport's unique legacy of eighteenth-century residential and public buildings and its position as a notable center of colonial culture and craftsmanship. Its location within Roger Williams's sanctuary meant that a number of its public buildings make manifest his ideals of religious toleration.
For example, the early affluence of Newport makes it the place to see residential architecture dating from the first three quarters of the eighteenth century, at least 200 [buildings] surviving from this period (while four predate 1700). Notable among them are gambrel-roofed houses, fashionable only into the 1760s. Their double-pitched roofs, folded to broaden the attic, give them top-heavy prominence and plasticity among their gabled counterparts. They enliven the visual effect of the crowd of houses pressed against the narrow streets of the slope down to the harbor, the heart of the old colonial town which became known as the Hill. A particularly impressive row of large gambrels lines the waterfront of the Point (an area extending from the Hill section at the northern end of the harbor, where the point itself has been obliterated by subsequent filling). Private docks and counting houses once competed for space in family gardens. Providence has few gambrel-roofed houses. The lesser economic status of the place until after the middle of the eighteenth century meant that fewer were built than in Newport, and most of those disappeared to later building.
Wealth also brought a splendor of colonial public architecture to the town of Newport and two fine designers representing successive generations: Richard Munday, carpenter-turned-designer working in the colonial tag end of the English Baroque style of Sir Christopher Wren; then Peter Harrison, a gentleman designer who used his fine architecture library to bring the scholarship of Renaissance Palladianism to Newport, even as Thomas Jefferson used the same means to bring it to Virginia. The contrast of the two generations in Newport design is vividly evident in the architectural contrast at either end of the central square of the town (named for Washington after his death): the Colony House, almost surely by Munday (1736–1739), and, at the opposite end, Harrison's Brick Market (1762–1763), beside the Long Wharf. The regularity of the ground-floor arcade of the Market House, rhythmically matched by the correctly pedimented windows and cornice entablature above, betokens the transit to America of the lyric purity of Renaissance classicism. Meanwhile, at the top of the Hill and surrounded by farmland when built, Harrison also designed the Redwood Library (1748–1750) in one of the earliest temple fronts in the American colonies reasonably true to classical precedent. It was only the second private subscription library in the country, and it is the oldest still inhabiting its original building (though several times enlarged). It also contains a treasure trove of books, manuscripts, and portraits from its long history of collecting, though its holdings before the Revolution were, unfortunately, a casualty of the British occupation.
But Newport's public architecture also displays the beneficent and stimulating effects of Roger Williams's ideal of religious tolerance, which attracted both Quakers and Sephardic Jews to Newport as early as the 1650s, the latter group driven from Spain and Portugal, along with Muslims, by the fervor of the Inquisition. Members of both groups became leaders in Newport's commercial prosperity and drew other dissenters and free-spirited individuals to the town's affluence and tolerance. The Great Meeting House of the Society of Friends went up as early as 1699. Revamped several times and enlarged into something of the restored compound one sees today, it long accommodated the yearly meeting for members throughout southern New England until the gatherings withered away in the nineteenth century. It is one of a number of Quaker meeting houses remaining throughout the state, especially in northern Rhode Island. Some continue as places with active meetings; others, like the meeting in Jamestown, where Philadelphians represent a strong seasonal presence, open during the summer only; still others, like the gabled and shingled meeting house in Little Compton, are retired to museum (or near-museum) status. The Little Compton meeting house, with its double-doored entrance dividing the genders, framed in two stories of simple sash, sits in a double field of grass, with a mowed path straight to the gate of its generous stone-walled enclosure, also mowed close, by which the lovely structure is framed and carpeted.
Near the Newport Friends Meeting House rose the first building of architectural significance in the American colonies intended as a synagogue. Again to Harrison's design, Touro Synagogue (1763) is austerely reticent on the exterior and most exquisitely wrought within. Mingling with these also stands the diminutive Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House (1729, now preserved as an attachment to the Newport Historical Society), probably by Munday and certainly in his manner.
Meanwhile, the strong Tory faction in town had already ensured the most conspicuous position in Newport for its religious convictions—Anglican, not Puritan Congregationalist—by calling on Munday (unquestionably his work in this instance) both to design and to build Trinity Church (1726) as the centerpiece of the town and one of the great early carpentered churches of New England. Later, when it came Providence's turn to mark the center of its town with a great wooden church (1774–1775), it was Baptist. (In fact, when Roger Williams arrived in Providence in 1636, his convictions were close enough to those of Baptists so that he was forced at one point to deny that he fully agreed with their position.) As the first architectural achievement of consequence for the denomination in this country, it has come to be known as the First Baptist Church of America—in effect, as the Mother Church of the denomination in the New World. No wonder that this Rhode Island potpourri of heresy affronted Massachusetts Puritans, together with the thought that tolerance could elevate any denomination (heretical or not) to the central position in the community, as, indeed, the spire that dominated Newport was Anglican. Outside Roger Williams's sanctuary, opponents commonly disparaged it as Rogue's Island.
Yet other observations and issues suggested by Providence's First Baptist Church deserve comment in grasping its position within the colonial culture of Rhode Island. First it should be noted that it is among the largest of New England's colonial churches; those who saw to its building also dared to give it the capacity to seat the population of the town at the time it went up. Like Harrison, its designer, Joseph Brown, was a gentleman architect with a fine private architecture library to inform his taste and a grand house capped by a distinctive ogee-curved pediment built to his design on Main Street as partial testimony to his skill. It is the earliest extant house of consequence in America designed by an architect for his own use. (When it was completed, in 1774, another gentleman smitten by architecture, Thomas Jefferson, was at work on his first version of Monticello.) In his design for the church, Brown ingeniously combined the old meeting house tradition of entrance doors centered in the side walls of the building (originally connected inside by a cross aisle) with the newer, longitudinal model of the spire on the end of the church as both the commanding marker and entrance to an aisle running the length of the building to the sanctuary. For one of the more ambitious colonial spires erected anywhere in the colonies, Brown turned to his copy of James Gibbs's A Book of Architecture (1728), selecting from it an alternate design for the spire Gibbs built for St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which graces Trafalgar Square as among London's most familiar churches.
The First Baptist Church, however, played a dual role. It reinforced the presence of a newly founded college (then called Rhode Island College), moved from a nearby town to the summit of the hill where the houses of the leading families of Providence clustered. So the Baptist Church acquired a dual purpose, looking to both town and gown. In the resonant statement of the time, it was built “for the publick Worship of Almighty God; and also for holding Commencement in.” Topped by its college, the hill inevitably became College Hill. To honor contributions from the leading commercial family in town it was eventually, in 1804, renamed Brown College. So Baptists now joined Congregationalists, Anglicans, and Presbyterians in the sponsorship of one of the colonial colleges—seventh in line—that survive to the present, thereby in the process accounting for one of America's memorable urban images: the configuration of the spire thrusting from the commercial core of Providence, merging with the steep tiering of houses behind, up to the roomlike, rectangular Green at the heart of the campus.
To be sure, civic amenity paid a price for Williams's religious toleration. The dominating church overlooking the community domain of the common as the physical and spiritual core of the original New England town and as the essence of its eventual idealization was for Williams precisely the sign of hierarchical control and intolerance he meant to banish. So the early dissenters placed no emphasis on building churches, let alone setting aside a common. Meeting in private houses sufficed for those with such ardent conviction. As a matter of necessity, such is the case of all newly established settlements, but even sects preferring plain places of worship customarily anticipate early building for such purpose. For Williams, however, church building had low priority. Hence the architectural pilgrim who comes to Rhode Island to find here the expected “New England town” will be disappointed. Nevertheless, four of Rhode Island's thirty-nine towns do happen to have commons. All were former border towns in Massachusetts which jumped the state line as the result of a series of boundary adjustments (although one of the towns, Warren, did not set aside its common until long after it jumped to Rhode Island). The differing fates of these commons is another piece of the Rhode Island story.
There are also several instances of nostalgia for the missing common, as sentiment for this regional sign of the colonial past increased during the nineteenth century. Newport is the most evident. There, sentimental longing for the cachet of the common and the desire to “authenticate” Newport's New England character for the twentieth-century tourists streaming through it brought about the demolition, in the 1970s, of all the buildings between Trinity Church and the harbor and the moving of ancient houses to the perimeter of the space, to stimulate what Williams banned. The result, however, is not a space organic to the town, but a loss, in the void scraped out in the name of improvement, of part of what colonial Newport was.
Religious dissension combined with tolerance encouraged Williams's independence of thought in broader realms, which also had architectural consequences. His liberalism of spirit was also manifest in his organization of householders within Rhode Island towns in a manner which opposed Puritan reliance on hierarchical organization. It accounted for his success in obtaining a royal charter for his colony, one which in fact minimized British control. Rhode Island and Connecticut were the only two American colonies without royal governors. This meant more control of political and economic decisions by the colonists themselves, and it inevitably encouraged a degree of unruliness in reaching decisions that reinforced the sour, possibly partly envious conviction of certain outsiders that Rogue's Island was indeed the appropriate epithet for the place.
It was the first colony to strike an overt blow against the British, protesting what were considered unfair levies. In 1772, the year before British tea went overboard in Boston Harbor, a group of patriots rowed in darkness out to the British ship Gaspee, anchored off the coast of Warwick, and torched it to the waterline. Rhode Island was the first colony to declare its unilateral independence of Great Britain, on May 4, 1776. It was also the last to sign the Constitution, fearing its small size would make it vulnerable. Threats more than cajolery eventually made it the reluctant final star in the original flag. Indeed, the sculpture which crowns the present State House dome depicts the Independent Man, although the clunkish figure holding a spear in the manner of Roman emperors, but togaed in animal skins, hardly seems the messenger for the thought.
This independence of spirit characteristic of Rhode Islanders had its architectural consequence. The smallest state in the Union boasts no less than six state houses, all extant. This situation is sufficiently anomalous to warrant a short account. The proliferation of legislative chambers in such a tiny domain grew from the alternation of the original colonial legislative sessions between the colony houses at Newport and Providence, its legislature thereby literally embracing the colony's compound name of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The alternation proclaimed, in fact, that the colony had no existence apart from the act of its principal constituent towns and the sizable areas under their jurisdiction in voluntarily coming together to make it. As populations coalesced around other centers, and irritation at the time required to reach the centers, or at the neglect of local concerns from the center, increased, disgruntled settlers could appeal to the legislature as the source of ultimate power to establish full-fledged towns. Eventually the mainland state and the harbor islands became five counties, virtually nonexistent as governments, designed to serve merely as jurisdictions for the geographical rotation of the legislature, together with the governor and his staff, and also as districts for lower state courts. With occasional interruptions for short-term reasons, rotation continued through most of the nineteenth century. McKim, Mead and White provided the ultimate, or sixth, state house (1892–1904, and never officially called the capitol), the first in the line of those twentieth-century state capitol buildings to attempt a degree of Renaissance “correctness.” Demoted, the five earlier state houses nonetheless remain as focal civic buildings in their communities. How astonishing that the smallest state in the Union should think it necessary to trundle the people's representatives about in such an excessive display of participatory politics, when even the largest states were content with a single capitol! But it was not primarily the functional reason of bringing government closer to the people that led to the traveling colonial government (although this was surely a benefit). The arrangement was in essence symbolic and again stemmed from Williams's repugnance for hierarchical authority. Each Rhode Island town was ruled, not by a hierarchy, but by its free householders regularly coming together to choose their leaders. So the pendulum move of the state government between Providence and Newport reinforced the notion that its authority was not overarching, but devolved from the towns (hence from the townspeople). The symbolic importance of Providence and Newport is clear from the power given to the state legislature to subdivide their two plantations into more towns as populations coalesced around other centers.
The eventual location of the State House in Providence also represented a capstone of sorts to Providence's rise during the nineteenth century as the state's principal city. After such splendor and promise during the eighteenth century, three blows in rapid succession struck Newport. Britain did not forget the Gaspee, and its occupation of Newport during the Revolution proved to be harsher than that of any other American colonial city. Meanwhile, Providence went virtually unscathed. Even before the Revolution its maritime economy had begun to gain against Newport's. Although the end of the war brought both ports a brief revival of maritime prosperity, Providence now had the greater economic momentum. Grand as were some of the houses built of Newport's maritime wealth, none quite attain the luxury of the four great extant Providence mansions which fortunes from trade erected on College Hill—the John Brown and Joseph Nightingale houses, from the late eighteenth century, and the Ives and Corliss-Carrington houses, from the first two decades of the nineteenth—and especially their cumulative impact as a cluster.
But the brief revival of maritime trade after the Revolution ceased with Jefferson's Embargo Acts and the War of 1812. Restricting both American exports and British imports, they decimated maritime trade in both directions. By the same token, the embargo, by temporarily shutting out British goods and British competition, favored the venture of American capital into manufacturing. Factories, however, required rivers for power and, ideally, direct connections with adjacent hinterlands. Newport, already economically shaken by its enemy occupation, had neither rivers nor land connections. Providence was advantaged in all these respects. From the end of the Revolution into the 1830s Newport mostly languished, its eighteenth-century heritage of buildings and decorative arts perpetuating the memory of past grandeur with increasing dilapidation. Buildings in the Federal and Greek Revival styles are barely evident in Newport. Providence abounds in examples of both. The attention of its entrepreneurs rapidly shifted from ships to factories.
Coastal Themes: The Grand Newport Scene
The pursuit of Rhode Island industrialization draws the visitor from the coast a little inland to its rivers and especially to the concentrations of textile mills that lined the two largest of these, the Blackstone and the Pawtuxet, north and south of Providence. We shall, however, stay a while longer with the coast before moving inland. For the rise of industry along Rhode Island rivers also paralleled the only slightly later beginnings of the discovery of the coast as a summer paradise. Of these two worlds, Rhode Island's nineteenth-century industrial activity is mostly gone, although built legacy recalls its glory days. Meanwhile, its carefree, escapist counterpoint has boomed.
Begin again at Newport. Even the colonial city had a considerable summer contingent, dominated by wealthy families from the major Mid-Atlantic cities and from the South, attracted by the ocean climate and scenery, but as well by the city's expansive affluence. When Newport faded, however, during its post-Revolutionary period of decline, most of the summer influx also drifted away. Only in the 1830s did Newport begin to make a noticeable return as a summer destination. Then the most conspicuous attraction was the fashionable Atlantic House Hotel (1844; burned and rebuilt 1845, designed by Russell Warren; demolished 1898), which looked into Touro Park, as did (and still does) Redwood Library, with an oblique view of one of its corners. A typical big, boxy, clapboard affair, the hotel derived its style (in the double sense of the word) from an Ionic-columned porch rising to a central three-story portico, the most conspicuous Greek Revival edifice in a town which otherwise boasted little more than a few houses in the idiom. The earlier Ocean House on Bellevue Avenue (1841; burned, quickly replaced and later demolished) had more extravagant porches at two levels, sparely framed in a combination of posts and decorative bracketing that would probably be called Stick Style today but was then seen as a carpentered effort toward something “Gothic.” Both hotels gained in visibility by their location at the top of the slope known as the Hill, where the core of the old colonial town crowded against the harbor. Hotel life, however, turned out not to be in Newport's future.
Houses, or, in the Newport euphemism, “cottages,” became the accepted places in which both to live and to visit, as the evolving “summer season” for the steadily wealthier increasingly focused on a movable feast of privileged, extravagant, and competitive entertainment in opulent private settings, with admission only by wellguarded private invitations. In such affluent circumstances “cottages” were seldom modest. They more often approached the scale and comfort of small mansions, although the stiff propriety associated with their typical urban counterparts might here be somewhat relaxed by a carpentered look (if sufficiently suave) and, above all, by a generous veranda. In the end the use of the term “cottage,” for many vacationers, really amounted to a form of hauteur, as it came to mean “for summer occupancy only”—also implying, however opulent the cottage might be, that its owners' winter establishment was grander still.
The area in Newport initially favored for the construction of such houses was close to the hotels, behind Redwood Library and stretching away from the side of Bellevue Avenue opposite to the colonial town sloping down to the harbor. Recently the neighborhood, known as Kay-Catherine for two of its streets, has also come to be known as the Top of the Hill. Though without historical sanction, it appropriately indicates its position in Newport. Summer places could of course go up anywhere and did in scattered locations throughout Newport. But development at the Top of the Hill, especially toward the end of the 1840s, occurred in such a concentrated manner as to make the trend away from hotel life toward cottages conspicuous.
As early as the 1820s ancient farmland, descending in families like the Eastons and Kays whose lineage extended back to the founding of the city or nearly so, began to come on the market for development. The earliest investors in the area tended to buy such large pieces of land for such sizable houses that the overall effect was of estates rather than cottages, more so because [the properties were] still interspersed with fields. The gravel Old Beach Road crossed the flattish crown of the hill, then dropped precipitously down to coved Easton's Beach, which is now the favorite town beach. Only gradually did further subdivision fill in the Top of the Hill, especially from the 1850s through the 1880s, until the enclave attained an urban density of medium-sized to large houses. From the beginning, moreover, the Top of the Hill became an area in which the leading local merchants and professionals mingled in year-round residences with the summer people whose influx steadily increased the local affluence.
The Top of the Hill is of interest for several reasons. It offers an extensive array and variety of nineteenth-century houses, mostly sizable and mostly ranging in style from Gothic Revival to Queen Anne shingle, designed by the best local practitioners as well as by distinguished outsiders. It introduces the summer development that continues southward along the crown of this rise, the steep hill descending to Easton's Beach becoming an eroded cliff drop which falls abruptly to the sea. Between Bellevue and the drop is the domain of the great mansions—and eventually the châteaux and palaces. Finally, the architectural pilgrim comes to the Top of the Hill because a number of works by two important New York firms, with a half generation between them, were built here. Richard Morris Hunt and McKim, Mead and White began their connections to Newport when they designed a number of their early houses for this area. These architects significantly contributed to the city and left here some of the defining buildings of their time.
Hunt was fairly well established by the time he bought an 1840 Newport house from his brother, the painter William Morris Hunt. A summer place, with a summer office in the yard, it was located near the town end of Bellevue Avenue, where it angles into Touro Street on part of the site now occupied by the Viking Hotel and almost directly across Bellevue from the Top of the Hill enclave. For a group of wealthy summer colonists from New York and Boston, most of whom were interested in some aspect of the arts, Hunt completed no less than five major houses for this enclave, only one of which (along with several lesser works) remains. This house for J. N. A. Griswold (1861–1864), one of his earliest and not as adventurous as some of the later, nevertheless fortunately still exists as the core of the Newport Art Museum, with some of its principal interiors intact. Like the Griswold House, all Hunt's Top of the Hill houses employ exposed framing in the manner of medieval half timbering and such vernacular building as Swiss chalets and certain Scandinavian wooden structures, all of which he knew firsthand from European travel, as well as from observing the nineteenth-century revival of such forms abroad and, finally, from its eventual reinterpretation in American carpentry. The conspicuous framework appears as the organizing entity. Set into the wall, slightly projecting, it contains within its paneling a variegated mix of clapboarding, shingles sawn in ornamented patterns, or brick and terra-cotta worked into polychromatic embellishments. Or, set free of the wall as a structural entity, the scaffoldlike framework can make a decorative wheel or extravagant bracket to support a projecting gable, or, standing even more free of the walls, skirt them with the post-and-bracket, trellised and latticed glory of the Victorian veranda.
The twentieth-century use of the term Stick Style has the merit of reawakening the modern eye to the structural and material expressiveness of such design, to which the rationalistic side of Hunt's sensibilities was certainly drawn. But he and his clients surely responded more (or at least as much) to the picturesque, ornamental, and evocative aspects of forms that ultimately alluded to history and nature. The disappearance of several of these lively, luxurious cottages—their plans so incisively organized by axes, their spaces so intricately interlocked—is surely the greatest of Newport's architectural losses. One wishes that a more substantial sampling of the work at the Top of the Hill were immediately at hand to present the full measure of Hunt's Newport achievement, this close to its beginning and a few blocks away from the grand finale of châteaux and palaces by which he virtually embraced the Gilded Age.
As for the work of Hunt's younger competitors at Top of the Hill, first as McKim, Mead and Bigelow, then as McKim, Mead and White, they produced seven houses for this enclave alone. All exist incredibly intact within two blocks of one another—another reason to wish that more of Hunt's were at hand for comparison. Bigelow's parents had long summered at Newport. In 1874 Charles McKim married Bigelow's sister. This double attachment to Newport brought the young firm to the city. The marriage lasted only four years, however, ending in divorce. Bigelow quit the firm, leaving his place to Stanford White, whose capabilities Charles McKim knew well because both had worked in Henry Hobson Richardson's New York office before its move to the Boston suburb of Brookline.
The radical shift in approach to design from Hunt's work at the Top of the Hill to that embraced by McKim, Mead and White was a shift from “Gothic” to the Queen Anne style (in the terms of the period), or from Stick Style to Shingle Style (using later terminology). Hunt's tall, angular, eruptive compositions, their linear structure patterned with various materials, gave way to the greater spread of McKim, Mead and White's compositions, composed of larger sculptural elements, their amplitude enhanced by their homogeneous enclosure in a single material, usually by the flicker of light over wood shingling. Most of their houses of the period (as here at the Top of the Hill), however, employed a brick lower story as the quiet horizontal base from which to lift the climactic manipulation of the shingled surfaces of the upper story. These were almost topological in character, wrapping the gentle angles or rounded swellings of bay windows and rising to envelop the gable with its dormers and the conical caps of towers. The lithe, linear enframement of large, multi-paned windows, recessed only shallowly, and the combination of these into abutted pairings, or in bands of three or more, permit the openings to stay with their wall surfaces, even to bend and curve with them.
Allusion to historic styles is, in these houses and at this stage in the firm's career, at least, so generalized that style is almost solely identified with elemental shape rather than with elaborated detail, an approach to architectural form derived from Richardson's example. The houses in their Top of the Hill cluster display the gamut of stylistic reference employed in their early shingle work: the looming shingled gables and gambrels of seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century colonial houses, the latter especially prevalent in Newport; the mock conical towers and escutcheons of provincial French châteaux; hints of traditional Japanese houses and ornament, with screens and bracketing from India. It was, in sum, a mix of straightforward native vernacular with an elitist bow to European high culture on the one hand and, on the other, toward the romance of the exotic that gives such vitality and variety to the late-nineteenth-century Queen Anne Revival.
Meanwhile, somewhat earlier in the 1840s, Alfred Smith, a native Newporter who had already made a fortune in New York as a tailor, returned to his native city to make another in real estate by teaming with Joseph Bailey. They saw their golden opportunity in a mostly undeveloped site a little south of the area then being built upon in the immediate vicinity of the Top of the Hill. There, the steep pitch down to Easton's Beach below the Top of the Hill becomes a bluff with a long drop to the water due to wave action crossing the open mouth of the cove. The brink offers distant views across the water, up the Aquidneck shore, and out to sea. It long drew so many sightseers that they had worn a public pathway along the edge, captivated by the combined exhilaration of the coastal panorama and the sheer drop. Cliff Walk (what else could it be called?) gradually descends from its wind of the brink to end in a scramble over rock outcrop and surf, as the Aquidneck shore turns into its southern tip and directly confronts the full force of the open Atlantic. It was Smith and Bailey's idea to extend Bellevue Avenue southward, well back from the face of the bluff, while purchasing most of the land along its frontage and much between it and the precipice with its Cliff Walk. The walk now crosses the edges of the lawns of the great properties which bring them to public view—or loses sight of them where the path falls below the level of the brink. The developers terminated Bellevue at the ocean front.
Bellevue makes a sharp right angle and almost immediately feeds into Ocean Avenue, which winds along the outcrops and coves that face to the full the moods of the open Atlantic, from its crescendo splash on the outcrop and the swell and subsidence in its mini-coves on a calm day to its wild, thundering arcing of the roadway with water and cascades of mist. On the ledges rising behind are more houses scattered about (to which we shall immediately return). Upping the ante beyond the norm for the merely luxurious life at the Top of the Hill, Smith and Bailey envisioned a domain of greater extravagance, beyond the means of any but the wealthiest locals. They meant to cater to those who would command a grand summer “season.” Even they did not imagine how grand it would become. So the domain of the mansions and, beyond their economic range, that of the châteaux and palaces was born. The site is sufficiently protected within the bay to escape the harshest blasts from the open Atlantic across the tip of the island. Ocean mists and moderated temperatures make this area an arcadia of trees. Here beeches of all varieties reign over all other species (however grand in their own right) by their sheer size and stateliness, adding their natural splendor to what the roster of architects brought. From New York there were Hunt and McKim, Mead and White, plus Ogden Codman and Carrère and Hastings; from Boston, Peabody and Stearns; from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Horace Trumbauer—to name merely the most renowned and among the most frequently commissioned architects who built here and those also with the good fortune to have done important work that remains more or less intact.
If the “season” for this gilded domain centered in entertainment within its great houses, it of course also involved the institutions of recreation. Three of them have long standing within the Bellevue–Ocean Avenue precincts, and another recent arrival has joined their company. At the city end of Bellevue is McKim, Mead and White's famed Casino, devoted not to gambling (as its name might suggest and its bylaws specifically prohibit), but to lawn tennis—and where, in fact, the International Tennis Hall of Fame has been located since 1954. From the very beginning of the final quarter of the nineteenth century, therefore, Newport reflected the growing athleticism of American life for both sexes. The Casino draws on the full array of design strategies and features apparent in the shingled houses at the Top of the Hill, but in a joyously expanded version. A garden court with fountain provided the original vestibule and pivot for the arc of an exceptionally generous screened and latticed veranda from which spectators viewed the competition on the grass courts beyond. The spread of the shingling absorbs into it the shapes and stylistic allusions of the nearby houses, but in this expanded context in a more encyclopedic manner. Writing at the time (1886), William Sheldon, in Artistic Country Seats, emphasized the Casino's importance in the culture of American recreation: “As a source of aesthetic pleasure, the country clubhouse in the United States is scarcely more than eight years old. Its beginning may be traced to the Newport Casino.…” And to its other virtues add the row of luxury shops that line its face to the street, giving it an urban aspect as well as one of exclusivity. These shops extend an earlier shopping block of Hunt's, making dramatic the shift from stick to shingle by the end of the 1870s.
At Bellevue's opposite end the developers saw to it that immediately after that street makes a right-angled turn and continues in effect as Ocean Avenue, a coved beach (called Bailey's) was set aside for the exclusive use of “members” of their exclusive community. Later, next to it came another, called Hazard's. Both were neatly rebuilt in shingle during the twentieth century. Ocean Avenue winds along Newport's Atlantic front for ten miles. The ecology abruptly changes from verdant to sparse. Not that its botanical aspect was always so spartan. Trees once covered much of this terrain, even if only of species that could take punishment or stand behind others that could. It was the colonial settlers who scalped the landscape, mostly for sheep pasture. Instead, the topological tumult of this coastal outcrop rises to ridges behind, with ground-hugging, crevice-seeking foliage, except in sheltered pockets, two containing large ponds with a long inlet from one of many covelets. This landscape has its own rugged, sculptural beauty, made all the more stimulating by the immediate recall of those lush beeches on broad lawn just left behind. There are big houses here, too, scattered about on irregular sites with overviews of the ocean, connected by winding roads around barriers and up and down slopes. In two instances, spacious subdivisions laid out by the Olmsted firm in the early twentieth century are beautifully adjusted to the rugged terrain. Lifted up to a middle height at the center of this eruptive topography, the fields of a onetime farm became the Newport Country Club, the third in the triangle of the main summertime institutions inhabiting this double domain of privilege, where the Ocean Avenue area extends that around Bellevue. Whitney Warren, himself from one of Newport's social families, designed the clubhouse. This originally accommodated a nine-hole golf course on one side and a polo field on the other. (Eventually polo moved elsewhere, and golf expanded to an eighteen-hole course.) The clubhouse is a V-shaped structure in Warren's own chunky, heavily framed, mock-monumental brand of clapboard and shingle Chateauesque—and very different from McKim, Mead and White's version of the style. A spur to the rear of the Vonce made the building Y-shaped, with a caryatid-supported “sun porch” facing south as its terminus (lost to Hurricane Carol in 1954 and sadly never rebuilt), while all three wings originally came to a hub in an oval mirrored and balconied ballroom.
Finally, to these well-established recreational facilities set down in the territory traversed by Bellevue and Ocean avenues add a much more recent addition, also situated off streets that continue Ocean Avenue back to the center of town. Like the seasonal colonists themselves, the New York Yacht Club is an outsider to Newport, but with a proprietary summer presence there. In a resort so dominated by New York society, its premier yacht club long sponsored the America's Cup Races in waters off Newport, which, after so many unbroken wins, came to be regarded by its members, and of course by Newporters, as the only rightful waters for the contest, until defeat at last in 1983 moved it elsewhere. But the club was determined to get it back. In 1987, it obtained its own Newport summer headquarters off Ocean Avenue, following the deaths of both John Nicholas Brown and his wife, Anne. He was a member of the club and onetime assistant secretary of the navy. The Yacht Club purchased their house, also château-inspired, this more conventionally in masonry by Ralph Adams Cram, the Boston architect much better known as the leading American designer of his time in ecclesiastical Gothic. Atop a lawned slope pitched at nearly 45 degrees (or so it seems in the vertigo of standing on it), this green swathe falls nearly a quarter of a mile from a terrace off the front of the house straight down to the harbor and its seasonal flotilla of pleasure boats.
And any accounting of the activities originally envisioned as part of Newport's social season should not forget the stream of horses and carriages with liveried attendants, all burnished, for which Bellevue and Ocean avenues were intended. The quintessential parades, of what was effectively a daily parade, were coaching competitions in which spit-and-polish display was part of the score, the rest being the consummate skill of managing the “four-in-hands,” every horse matched and gaits coordinated, and the punctilious ceremonies of the liveried attendants in the various colors of their houses, showing their employers in and out of the vehicles. Stables from the past dot the Bellevue area (many converted to residences), although Cornelius Vanderbilt's barn and carriage house, with accompanying greenhouse, is open to visitors in a mews area a little removed from the Breakers. Except for revivals of the coaching tradition as occasional parades of antique carriages down Bellevue, the equestrian aspect of the gilded domain is no longer evident in Newport. It persists at a reduced scale in riding, horse shows, and polo on the remnants of former sizable model farms maintained in neighboring Middletown by a number of the wealthiest Newport residents to supply their tables. Two Vanderbilt families, for example, had such farms, both with large barns for indoor riding and competitions, one of which still exists.
So, to return to the phrase of the time, Newport before the end of the nineteenth century became widely acknowledged as the American “Queen of Resorts.” For Newport in the 1890s, however, the regal domination of lavish entertainment, meticulously exclusive but widely publicized, conducted within an acknowledged shifting hierarchy, really was controlled not so much by aqueen as by a bevy of competing near-queens, each struggling for acknowledgment as thequeen. The mix of decorousness and ostentation on courts, links, decks, and horseback also made a realm for queenliness in palaces where they reigned over the rituals of receiving and cutting and knowing when and how to do each—and those of plotting the overdo and out-do of extravagant entertainment. Newport's queens often reigned alone, holding court through the whole of the Newport summer, while many of their consorts (even the millionaires) intermittently rushed off back to the city on business.
But today? Although this privileged precinct can be viewed (and too often is) as a collection of buildings out of the past, those concerned with the history of resorts should also consider its transformation as a precinct. Like other splendid resort areas with a fine heritage of architecture, Newport's “summer season” is today a duality. Tourists arrive to live vicariously the gilded summer seasons of the mythical past. Meanwhile, the privileged return to the same area to prolong the glitter and whirl inherited from it into the summer seasons of a somewhat diminished, or at least transformed, queen. Newport events are not necessarily diminished in opulence, but they occur in greater privacy, in a less hierarchical situation, with preference for luxurious possessions that enhance activity rather than monumentalize position.
Meanwhile, another major interloper has invaded the precinct. To tourists, add Salve Regina University, established in 1947, with its presidential headquarters in one of Hunt's châteaux (the Ogden Goelet House, Ochre Court, 1892) and its considerable spread to other historic buildings over a broad swathe of the area. At first adding new buildings in a quasi-modern style in yellow brick (seemingly the material of choice for Roman Catholic institutions through the mid-twentieth century), the university appeared unsympathetic to the context. But it has turned out to be otherwise. Salve (as locally abbreviated) has respected the exteriors of the historic buildings it owns and the best parts of their interiors, although most of the latter are bound to seem irrelevant for the kind of furnishings and uses that educational institutions bring to them. It has also generally respected the scale and spacing of the area it occupies, even to the overall maintenance of the outdoor appearance of things as they approximately were, thereby minimizing its presence as an obtrusive entity in the area. In its own more recent additions to the campus, thought has been given to the fitting of the new to what already exists. Moreover, the students who come to it seem in part to choose the school because of their awareness (which the university actively encourages) of its special quality. And it helps that the school operates at full pitch out of season, bringing life to an area much of which is then shut down, leaving for summer occupancy the quieter summer institutes and conferences that come to its vacated quarters. However intrusive Salve's fit to the area, nevertheless it provides something of a model for institutional intervention into an area of historic building. So far, though, the toughest decisions with respect to expansion lie ahead.
The alternative would have been the conversion of the larger buildings into apartment-sized units and the shift from space to higher density—of which the precinct shows ample evidence, though it has fortunately been checked by the spread of Salve and, more fortunately, by holdings that remain in private hands to perpetuate the glamorous season. And this is the more glamorous for the reverberation in it of echoes of its extravagant palatial past, as continually and brought to new luster through ongoing historical research and annual preservation campaigns by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Large houses of historic importance in the area are open to the public under its auspices and those of other organizations.
Of course, the balance of forces in the precinct is precarious. A challenge to the future of Newport, it has lessons to teach in all places where history, travel, changing uses, and new residents come together, each component potentially benefiting from respectful good will toward the others and ideally finding that just such reciprocity enhances rather than diminishes the experience that all take away from the “genius of the place.” And for the architectural pilgrim who has, in whatever order, made the rounds of Newport's buildings, this precinct culminates the experience of the almost zoned run of fine residential architecture within a relatively small compass, which extends from the last quarter of the seventeenth century (with some interruptions) into the early twentieth. Add to this array of buildings its parallel in Providence, starting later, bridging the Newport interruptions of the architectural past untouched by Newport, with each city (eventually, at least) inflected toward quite opposite destinies, and one has reason enough to visit Rhode Island. Besides, there is much more to see.
Coastal Themes: Forts and Lighthouses
Another presence in Newport, the long tenancy of the United States Navy, introduces yet another coastal theme in Rhode Island. Although the size of the fleet stationed there varies depending upon circumstances, Newport has always been a favored naval base, with permanent installations on Aquidneck Island but also on Coaster's Harbor Island, just off shore of downtown Newport and reached by a short causeway at the north end of the harbor. There one of the components is the Naval War College, founded in 1880 as the navy's school for advanced officer training in tactics and strategy. The original row of buildings (including a rare Newport example of the Federal style (1817), now a museum, which predates the school's founding), looks across the harbor at Fort Adams (1824).
This, the second largest masonry coastal fortification in the country, occupies a promontory projecting off the top of the toe of the Newport boot, at the end of the narrower of the two main channels. Three of its faces command ranges across the channel, up the bay, and into the harbor, while the fourth looks across the toe of the boot out into the Atlantic and into Narragansett Bay between Aquidneck (Rhode) and Conanicut (Jamestown) islands, as a main protective barrier at the entrance to Newport Harbor. All ships leaving the channel pivot around this promontory to enter the harbor. Hence the fort. The massive masonry enclosure provides a double wall with many vaulted spaces, between enclosing storage areas and barracks, around a large drill field. Today it serves for popular music concerts and other mammoth festivals.
Fort Adams is the most conspicuous of a sequence of forts and other devices that have, from the Revolution onward, guarded the channels to the bay. The Revolutionary fort exists today only as a site on a tall outcrop at the mouth of the East Passage, across the channel from Newport on Jamestown, although the ovular ruins of the fort still existed at the end of the nineteenth century. Below it is a nondescript installation from World War II for setting out minefields around the channel mouth. Also at the mouth of the East Passage, on Jamestown, but facing out to the Atlantic, is Fort Wetherill, begun during the Spanish-American War and successively rebuilt during both world wars as reinforced concrete sunken gun emplacements and living quarters under bombproof slabs. Scooped into a rock ledge for heavy artillery, batteries are aimed out to sea. Now a park, the pitted shapes remain covered with graffiti, but offering elevated platforms from which to watch pleasure craft heading through the East Passage in and out of Newport.
And across to the opposite shore of Jamestown, where a long point swelling to the shape of a beaver tail (hence Beavertail Point) projects out from Jamestown Island as a kind of bowsprit to the island. It provides the leading edge for the eastern shore of the West Passage, which is the wide passage into the bay used by most big ships. There on the tip of the point beside Beavertail Light, a very advanced radar installation (now dismantled) huddled under a low dome during World War II. At the same time, out in the middle of West Channel, Dutch Island (where the Dutch once came from New Amsterdam to trade with the Wampanoag) was a veritable fixed battleship, loaded with artillery pieces, more mine-laying facilities, and an installation for closing the mouth of the West Passage with a submarine net.
Across the passage on the mainland are two adjacent naval bases at Quonset, the Naval Air Station and a Seabee Battalion for training naval aviators and engineers. The architecture firm of Albert Kahn, famous for its Detroit factories, designed the principal administrative buildings and officers quarters for the air station, as well as its wide-span hangars, gawky but fascinating examples of adapting laminated wood arching partially suspended from cables off metal poles thrust through them, to save on scarce metals. Meanwhile, on their base the Seabees developed the ubiquitous Quonset hut, a few of which, semiderelict now, still exist. A museum to commemorate what occurred here now complements a quasi-museum at the air base, where antique planes are both repaired and displayed. And here and there along the coast a few beefy farmhouses or shingled summer cottages remain, which, on closer inspection, turn out to be more reinforced concrete bunkers in disguise.
Between wars the varied military installations that in Rhode Island cluster especially around the passages into the bay tend to molder, to be converted to parks, or to be sold off for commercial use. But threats of war have always reignited the beachhead syndrome here. And why not? If the opening engagement of the Revolution occurred with the Gaspeeincident in Narragansett Bay and the subsequent occupation of Newport by the enemy, so roughly a century and a half later during World War II, the final official naval engagement in the Atlantic occurred in Block Island Sound, between the mainland and its offshore island. An American mine sweeper sank a German submarine and its twenty-one-man crew prowling the sound outside the entrances to the bay. Unbeknownst to the combatants, their confrontation occurred only hours after Germany had declared final surrender.
Lighthouses, too, abound, as peaceful protectors of the coast to set beside its warrior equivalents. Of the many that light the Rhode Island coast—or rather lit it, since all their positions have been automated—Beavertail Light warrants special regard. It is special for what and where it is. Character rather than comeliness attracts the visitor to this square-shaped tower in rough-faced granite, as bluntly shaped as a carton for a gift of liquor. Pairs of long, rectangular blocks run the full length of its square shape, built up as crib construction. First a pair laid down to establish front and back walls, then a superimposed pair at right angles to begin the rise of the side walls. Pair on pair, as the square crib rises, the corners of the tower interlock, as in those log houses built of timbers, where the logs have been squared so that both walls and interlocked corners are flush. Other long blocks shortened in length only by the width of the interlocks either end fill in the voids left by the cribbing to complete the walls. The beacon in its cast iron and glass caging sits as a perfunctory knob on its granite carton, with tower elements assertively self contained.
A row of gabled living quarters and storehouses extends from one side of the tower, all attached, all facing the sea. Its surfaces, concrete over stone, give a breadth to the shifts in light and shadow from shapes within the abrupt picturesqueness of its silhouette. It is the sort of motif to which the painter Edward Hopper would have been attracted. Completing and animating the composition, a rounded whale of a promontory flanks one side of it, the water on a calm day swelling up the curved rock toward the tower, then sliding away. But even when lulled by the breathing legato of this rhythm, one senses the surge and the undertow that a gale could bring.
Obviously, however, Beavertail owes its legendary status among the lights on this shore to its position as the marker between the two passages into the bay. To the mariner coming in from the sea, Beavertail proclaims as no other light, “You have arrived.” Not only has one reached the protection of the grand bay, but the maritime entrance that, in this small state, opens directly to the very heart of its territory. More than this, it is also positioned close enough to the midpoint of the imagined diagonal of the Rhode Island coast as plotted between the boundaries of Connecticut and Massachusetts to seem centered.
For two other particularly favored lighthouses, different in character from Beavertail, go to those at opposite ends of Block Island, some fifteen miles out to sea from its nearest mainland ferry dock at Point Judith. Neither features the conventional tower lifting its light. Both employ what is usually the less expressive formula of emphasizing the keeper's quarters onto which or into which a squat tower hoists the light no more than it has to, leaving it a mere cupola to the house. Yet these are fascinating lighthouses, made more so by their locations on two sites of spectacular beauty, both differing dramatically in character.
Rising from what has become a wildlife sanctuary in the dunes, Sandy Point (now North) Light (1867) faces the sound between the island and the shore. It is a box of a building in rock-faced granite ashlar, gabled, with the light treated as a ridge-top cupola set on a sculptured pedestal, which is both bracketed off the seafront wall and fused with a heavy gable cornice, all cast iron and of such oppressive scale as even to overwhelm the overbearing stone box below.
Across the island, high on a sandstone bluff, South East Light (1873–1875) faces the Atlantic in all its furies. Of all Rhode Island lighthouses, it is farthest asea. Due east, across its longitude is open water clear to Portugal and Spain. A tall, steeply gabled, two-and-one- half-story house sets its flank toward the ocean. Smaller houselike ells, parallel to one another with equally steep gabling, butt its rear elevation. The smaller ells behind provide quarters for the first and second assistant keepers; the big house belongs to the keeper, except that he shares it with the light tower. The squat tower half protrudes from the ocean front of the main house, barely lifting its glass and iron lantern above the ridgepole; the bluff provides the altitude. A dowager composition this: bustle, body, corseted stance, with (shall we say it?) a glance flashing to meet the most formidable circumstances (with one exception: she did not anticipate the erosion). Her masonry body is clad in hard, cherry-colored brick, boldly trimmed with bluestone, flush with the walls as in the slightly arched and cornered lintels over the windows, or projecting in simple profiles to accent gables. The walls come down onto a rough granite base. Her style is functional Gothic of a bristling angularity, but with a Victorian feeling of what no-nonsense Gothic could be. Of all Rhode Island lighthouses based on house shapes, with an incorporated tower, this is both the most integrated and most compelling. Though it is rigidly symmetrical in composition, movement around reveals its picturesque possibilities. Terrifyingly dramatic when it sat on the brink of disaster, the lighthouse, geologists warned, could be saved from the sea only by moving it back from this edge. The warning became dire when the engineers estimated that were it not moved back within two years of their estimates, it might be too vulnerable to move at all. Thanks to heroic and frantic efforts of a committee of friends, in a campaign led by Gerald Abbott, a New York doctor so enamored of Block Island that he shifted his practice to Providence, South East Light was hauled on rails back from the abyss during the summer of 1990.
Grateful for such dedication to a landmark lighthouse, the Coast Guard returned to South East a Fresnel lens, like the one that was callously scrapped. The replacement, from a destroyed Connecticut lighthouse, came out of storage because the Coast Guard reasoned that no such lens should stay boxed. Among the great optical inventions of the nineteenth century, these structures of cast iron and glass are both handsome as objects and effective in intensifying the lighthouse beam. South East's Fresnel focused the beam to a visible range of forty miles in a clear sky. So the light again circles its traditional signal into the night. If to the mariner on his way to Rhode Island, Beavertail says, “You have arrived,” South East says, “You are near.” Committees of friends of the respective lighthouses have made museums of all three of these lights. Other lights have also found their friends. Lighthouses seem to attract them by the power of their human symbolism.
If the most important light to the mariner is the one immediately needed, to those living along the coast it is likely to be the local light as an abiding marker in their landscape. Forts, another protector of shores, must also be built to be abiding. But Rhode Island's have fared less well than the lighthouses. Even Fort Adams was ill used until recently. Yet what a fascinating story an open-air museum of them gathered around the passages could make on the sites they once commanded, in the parks they now occupy. But (except for Fort Adams) they are presently considered dispensable—until in the event of another dire emergency they may be recommandeered by the military and outfitted with the weaponry of some future war.
Coastal Themes: Other Coastal Towns
Newport as the coastal center and the nearby passage into the bay have thus far provided a core from which to examine certain coastal themes that have brought us elsewhere. Of course, there are other coastal towns remarkable for architecture; not on the coast, however, but gathered where most coastal towns and villages are found in Rhode Island, that is, within the protection of the bay. Again three, remarkably different in character, deserve special notice—Wickford, on the west shore of the bay located where the West Passage opens to the spread of the interior waters, and Warren and Bristol, adjacent towns well up toward Providence on its east shore. Wickford (originally Wickford Landing) presents itself at first encounter as a village street of mostly late-eighteenth-century and Federal houses extending into Greek Revival. Just enough modest Victorian commercial structures at one end to enliven, without disturbing the rows of earlier houses that characterize the place. The street terminates in a cove full of small craft in summer, covelets and marshlands extending from it as part of the scene. Short spurs of more old houses line a few side lands, and a walkway leads back to one of the most elegant of Rhode Island's small eighteenth-century meeting houses.
Warren is a bigger place. It fronts on a narrow channel off the bay worn by two small tributaries as their cumulative waters spread to the bay. Views from the opposite shore show Warren as a dense picturesque cluster of colonial and early nineteenth-century buildings, pierced by spires and mixed with later additions, presenting perhaps the most compactly picturesque silhouette of any small Rhode Island town. The historic approach to the town over a pair of bridges in succession leads into its congestion, then divides immediately into Water Street, with Main Street behind it. No other coastal town more clearly typifies (despite the regrettable loss of fabric on both streets) the division within the small seaport town of waterfront and commercial activities. During the early nineteenth century Warren was a bustling port and center for boat building. It was also Rhode Island's principal whaling port, while Warren ships (many built there) were especially active in coastal trade. Wealth from its ships accounts for the extraordinary quality and interest of the houses packed into this town. Then, as maritime activity dwindled, the cotton industry appeared. It unmistakably announces its onetime presence as soon as one crosses the double bridging into town with the long, rhythmic stretch of one mill's handsome piered wall with three stories of very large windows inset between piers. Set directly on the water, it spreads over sites formerly given to marine enterprises. On the narrow neck of land into which Warren is squeezed (before being interrupted by yet a third small river), the houses of sailors mingled with those of sea captains and shipowners, giving Warren a democratic mix of elegance and grit, which the coming of mill workers with mill officers to the town continued. This, too, typifies the mingling in close proximity here of buildings indicating differing status of occupancy and use, which accounts for the lively aspect of the town, as though the picturesqueness in the variety and meld of its physical fabric repeatedly made and adapted were overlaid by a similar social picturesqueness.
Bristol, Warren's immediate neighbor, presents an altogether different aspect. Bristol is among the bevy of smaller queens of New England towns. It has almost always been wealthy. If Newport reigns at the mouth of the bay, Bristol's realm is its interior. At the very center of the bay, it sits on a double peninsula, shaped like an open lobster claw, even to one digit being shorter than the other. The harbor is between, and, like Newport, it commands a choice of passages. Sailing to starboard of the town brings one to Providence; sailing to port heads to Fall River, which was the home berth of the once famed Fall River Line with its deluxe overnight accommodations to New York. Having stopped at Newport, the boats steamed on to the bustling City of Spindles, once one of the important textile towns just over the Rhode Island border.
Bristol's stateliness depends in part on its regularized plan, a grid laid out by Massachusetts proprietors in 1680 on the larger of the two peninsulas against the harbor: four major streets running north and south intersected with nine cross streets. No other such regular planned community exists in the state. And, in the Puritan manner, an eight-acre public common appeared, roughly centered, between the third and fourth north-south streets back from the harborfront. The two in front of it (now called Thames and Hope) correspond to Warren's Water and Main. In fact the center of town life is focused toward the harbor, not the common, which seems bypassed, doubly so because the three buildings it contains fit on the harbor side of the common facing away from it. Moreover, if the Congregational Church is one of them, the place of honor goes to its charming Federal state house, with a Victorian public school beside it. So the common became with time more of a governmental than a theocratic precinct. It typifies the problems theocratic domination had in Rhode Island.
Bristol's Hope Street is everything that one imagines the ideal town center of the past to be—late-eighteenth-century and, even more, Federal houses, and some Italianate, with an Italianate customhouse (1857). These all blend with a fine Victorian Gothic church and a mix of Victorian and early-twentieth-century commercial buildings. Moreover, no other town is quite so centered in so large and lavish a Federal house as Linden Place, built for George DeWolf.
The smaller digit of the lobster claw is gated as a precinct for privilege. The road to the tip of the larger one rises to an escarpment on one side, where more large estate houses than now once looked down the bay and where the Roger Williams University campus occupies the other side of the road, to cross John Steinman's epoch engineering feat in the placement of the Mount Hope Suspension Bridge high above the fast-moving current of Mount Hope passage to Fall River below, the first major bridge (1929) to connect the mainland to Aquidneck Island.
All three of these bay towns were involved in shipbuilding. Warren and Bristol still are: Warren constructing such craft as ferries and excursion boats, Bristol sailboats and yachts. Bristol continues the grand tradition of pleasure boat building, both sailboats and yachts, associated with generations of the Herreschoff family.
[The rest of WHJ's introduction was not completed. What remains are tantalizing notes to himself, some virtually complete, others but notes and queries. Again, rather than elaborating on them or attempting to answer them, the editors have chosen to present them here as written—as suggestions of how WHJ might have continued the introduction.]
The Vacation Enclave
Whether catering to vacationists or retirees (often former vacationists grown old), resort areas are prone to enclaves. A vacation enclave is a semi-, often part-time, community within an established community, dependent upon the larger community for many of its needs but deliberately separating itself, the better to focus on recreational aims informally organized by social grouping. Insofar as enclaves have government, it is not more than necessary: an “association” which establishes community “rules” as needed and perhaps assesses “dues” for the use of community property or “assessments” for major improvements to improve the lot of the group. Except insofar as the enclave may approach the status of a mini-village with a convenience store, gas station, or such, it depends on the larger community for basic needs and on the surrounding area for certain recreational lacks (golf course), cultural institutions (summer theater, museum), and sightseeing. But its Rhode Island is essentially the piece of the coastal rim it inhabits. Rhode Island as Eden: a season and a euphoric state of mind.
The typical structure of coastal enclaves in the topological and road layouts that favor them: major interconnecting highway set back from the shore; the single road off it to the cluster of cottages; the cottage cluster on a U siding; the cottage cluster on a point, promontory, or other coastal feature which substantially bounds it.
The alternate vacation enclave clustered not necessarily within a structured enclave but gathering as an identifiable group within the larger community.
Geography and vacationers:Southerners to Newport view it as a summer colony within colonial Newport. Rhode Island captains active in slave trade until banned (1774 but continued by rogue traders until the 1820s). One-fifth of the population of colonial Newport were slavers. Large Narragansett colonial “plantations” in southern Rhode Island used slaves, as did Providence and Bristol wealthy (all three towns important in the slave trade). (Check on colonial Rhode Island and slaves vis-à-vis other New England states; believe Rhode Island had largest number of traders and largest slave population. But also very active abolition movement from the beginning.) Their return to Newport in the nineteenth century through contacts with the textile mills. The exceptionally close contact Rhode Island seemed to have had with Charleston and Savannah: easy coastal communication; contacts between manufacturers' representatives and southern brokers and factors; records of Rhode Island builders in both southern cities, especially Savannah (John Holden Greene provided design for one of Savannah's largest nineteenth-century churches). Similarities in scale, antiquity, and sophistication between these southern cities and Newport must have made Newport especially congenial (and for Charleston, the harbor setting (check on dates for forts in each). Southern settlement in Newport up to the Civil War.
Middle Atlantic metropole:New York most important, especially because wealthy New Yorkers brought most architects in the state and the most of the best ones. Newport and Watch Hill as enclaves (to what extent is nineteenth-century Newport a manifestation of New York?). Philadelphians attracted by the strong Quaker tradition in Rhode Island from Roger Williams's tradition of religious tolerance.
Paucity of Bostonians:On the East Coast it is north to Rhode Island more than south. Massachusetts has its own shore and probably moves “down east” to Maine when it vacations farther afield. But Boston architects were sometimes called to Rhode Island by the wealthy (in preference to local firms, probably for a “name” regional practitioner).
Scattered mid-western sources:The postcard syndrome: “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here”—and the wish fulfilled. A Minneapolis example. St. Louis wealthy families replicating the private street enclaves in their city in the remarkable shingled enclave of Shoreby Hill on Jamestown. A New York residential enclave in Narragansett Pier.
Small house developments: (When does a development become an enclave?) The rows of enlarged “bathhouses” (about the size of the largest shipping containers) at Carpenter's Beach … East Providence.
Special-interest enclave:Shelter Harbor as a c. 1900 musical enclave with studios attached to all early houses. Down Wagner Road with a composer for every address (except those on Caruso road, which helps in dating). Portsmouth religious campground.
Naval officers' enclave on Jamestown:Large number of naval officer retirees on Jamestown. Fairly cheap; Shingle Style in its most vernacular manner, even for large houses, predominates—from bungalows to large houses wrapped in extravagant verandas. Close to navy activities, yet (until recent bridge), enclaved by the ferry trip. Lack of showiness and uniformity in Jamestown houses and the bounded quality of the place has comfortable quality of a military base.
Wealthy family enclave:Large acreages of cheap waterfront land (and other areas) available in late nineteenth century–early twentieth century. Many enclaves of wealthy local families. Examples of vacation enclaves are the large Beavertail and Highlands holdings of the intermarried Philadelphia families of Whartons (Bethlehem Steel) and Lippincotts (publishing). [On the other hand,] the Philadelphia Wideners chose to vacation with New Yorkers in Newport in a Trumbauer palace.
“Winterization” and the death of the vacation enclave?:Retiree “winterization.” The growth of suburbanization in southern Rhode Island and the tendency for the “winterized” house to complicate the enclave by its necessary attachment to the larger community.
Rhode Island smallness and the enclaved nature of the state
Variations on the Shingled Cottage as a Paradigm: Rhode Island Vacation Habitation
Jamestown's rebuke to Newport: Piazzas, wicker, the roughstone fireplace, and the mostly ungardened landscape. The large luxury house in Jamestown versus its counterpoint (even when shingled) in Newport. The related vernacular Shingle Style. Weekapaug's row of overblown shingled colonials. Watch Hill's shingled “formalism.” Little Compton: the vacationist as preservationist. Little Compton's conversion of small eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century farmhouses and outbuildings as the quest for the old agricultural coastal setting. Block Island: its preserved portion (one of Nature Conservancy's nominations as the “Last Great Places”).