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Watch Hill

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The fame and the obvious well-being of this privileged promontory raise high expectations. Surprisingly, however, there is less to say about Watch Hill architecturally than one would expect: the reticent ensemble and ambience of grand comfort about the place are more memorable than the architectural qualities of specific houses. There are plenty of large houses, handsomely situated on a rocky point which rises sharply, open ocean on one side, the mouth of the Pawcatuck River on the other. The promontory offers a remarkably varied terrain of knolls, depressions, and tiny ponds which provides exceptional building sites and requires winding roads. The houses are less oriented to the roads than fitted to the terrain. During the summer season, a vigorous exclusionary parking policy conspires with the concealed quality of many of the houses to emphasize the environment over the architectural image. Even a closer, offseason view, however, reveals no masterpieces of Newport caliber. Newport ostentation is hardly to be expected—or wanted—in Watch Hill. The mostly low-key assurance of the houses is Watch Hill's style and charm.

Likewise in the center of Watch Hill, surprisingly little absolutely demands attention. Although lively and pleasant, its nondescript late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century shingle and clapboard buildings have been cut up and altered so many times that they are best described as shanty boutique or movie-lot ice cream parlor. Their primary virtue is the sense of community they impart by the mix of white paint and natural shingle which they have in common, some attempt at linkage by false fronts and arcading, their reticence overall (which some recent stridency threatens), and the sense they impart of summery cheerfulness. They let the vacationers, boats, and water command the scene. A little park on the harborfront provides a modest civic presence, the result of efforts of the Park Commission, which existed from 1908 to 1910 to improve Bay Street (an offshoot of the Citizen's Improvement Society, which dated back to 1888). A summer resident and landscape architect, Marian Coffin, laid it out. Another woman with Rhode Island connections, Enid Yandell, who had studied with Auguste Rodin, is responsible for the bronze statue of Ninigret (cast in Paris, 1911, placed on another site nearby in 1916). The local Narragansett chief who befriended the colonists kneels, holding in either hand a blackfish, which originally spouted water.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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