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Narragansett Pier

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Bathing came to Narragansett Pier in the 1840s, when local farmers took in boarders. The first hotel appeared in 1856. Between 1880 and 1890 the village boasted almost fifteen of them—the most impressive concentration in Rhode Island. Large wooden structures, most of them three and one-half stories, they were rather plain for the most part, but typically enlivened by extensive porches (ideally two stories), with sufficient mansards, turrets, dormers, and flags to present a festive image. After 1872, a railroad spur from the main New York–Boston line, built by the Hazard family, woolen manufacturers in nearby Peace Dale (see under South Kingstown), swelled the crowds. Substantial cottages were built on the streets behind the hotels, especially after 1870. The most substantial ranged along the cliffs overlooking the sea south of the village center on property which was also originally owned by Hazards. They opened a portion of their vast domain to real estate development, with Ocean Road as a carriage drive from the pier to connect with the road south to Point Judith. Grandest of all the houses in the Victorian heyday of the pier's popularity, the estates of William Sprague and John Peace Hazard presented a study in contrasts. Sprague's Canonchet Farm (c. 1870–1880, William Walker), destroyed by fire in 1909, was as extroverted in appearance as its owner's lifestyle, both dependent on a grandson's inheritance from one of the huge nineteenth-century Rhode Island textile fortunes. It was a rambling, mansarded Victorian mansion, cornered by four heavily ornamented mansarded towers and featuring a telescoped tier of swelling conservatories topped by a belvedere at the end of a grand porch. Its owner eventually faced the sheriff with a hunting gun when the bubble burst. And then, embodying a very different lifestyle, there was (still is) Hazard's Castle, with its ascetic tower for mystical meditation (see entry, below).

Although Narragansett Pier boasted a few other very large houses by the end of the nineteenth century (now all destroyed), it never managed, though it tried, to attract residents who would build palaces in the quantity and magnitude of Newport's. Rather, social life here centered in the hotels and the sort of substantial cottages which still command the scene, as well as McKim, Mead and White's Casino, at least until 1905, when most of this burned to the ground. Casino life continued in makeshift quarters until the opening in the 1920s of the Dunes Club, the largest of all the exclusive beach clubs in the state. The period between the wars saw the scuttling of the last of the once proud armada of grand wooden hotels. Not one exists today. By the end of World War II, the center of Narragansett Pier had declined into semi-dilapidation. “Rescue” occurred in the early 1970s with the wholesale demolition of eleven blocks of the old town center. A bland board-sided and gabled style of commercial building set in parking lots characterizes the new mall-like center—which curiously seems like no “center” at all.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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