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Barrington

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Barrington has the highest per capita income of any town in the state. The architectural pilgrim who expects from this a precinct of walled estates and grand mansions, however, will be disappointed by the low-key quality of the place overall. There are imposing houses, of course. They cluster mostly along Narragansett Bay, and especially along Rumstick Road, which takes its name from the neck that separates the mouth of the Warren River from the bay. Yet attractive as many of these houses are, Barrington's wealthiest clients seem to have played it safe in choosing architects, apparently wanting reassurance more than showiness or distinction. To the historian, the most interesting of Barrington's largest houses, had it survived, would almost surely have been Edmund Willson's 1884 replica of the Nightingale-Brown House in Providence, which stood on Nyatt Point at the northeast corner of Nyatt Road and Washington Road. Into this, the earliest of the most conspicuous attempts at Colonial Revival in Rhode Island before 1885, the textile baron Henry Steere moved his pioneering collection of American colonial furniture. Only its elaborate picket fence still survives as a souvenir, transplanted to the Bliss-Ruisdall House in Warren (see entry). Although the largest Barrington estate, that originally owned by Frederick S. Peck, is viewable as a private school, others will be noted only in passing, while still others are not publicly visible. Essentially, custom-built development houses for affluent professionals and businessmen, together with trickledown versions for their juniors, predominate, with a number of upgraded farmhouses, cottages, and workers' housing from the presuburban past.

Except for a fine town hall with landscaped environs, Barrington's commercial center is a hodge-podge of low-rise store blocks fronted by asphalt paving, with no more than minimal cottagey allusions here and there to suggest its suburban status. For character at the center, one must turn to the seaport jumble of Warren or the high-style mix of residences and shops in Bristol, both extending back into the eighteenth century. Barrington exhibits the blah of mostly post-1960 commercial building, redeemed only by restrictive zoning, which keeps most shops small and most signs reticent.

Restrictive zoning, that ultimate hallmark of suburban privilege, appears immediately in following the Wampanoag Trail (Route 114) from the commercial and condominium permissiveness of East Providence to arrive, suddenly, at the beauty of Barrington's protected river and marsh landscape. The short Barrington and Palmer rivers converge in pondlike undulations across the interior of the town to form the even shorter Warren River, which appears more as a small inlet (little more than two miles long) of the bay. This watery environment so close to Providence, which provides plenty of protected anchorage for boats—though barely enough to meet present demand—accounts for Barrington's underlying appeal.

Into this sparsely developed agricultural space between the busy waterfronts of East Providence and Warren, few nineteenth-century industries were drawn. Of special interest to those concerned with architecture, however, was the brickyard at the very heart of the town, which hollowed out Brickyard Pond. The builder-architect James Bucklin's investment in the yard during the 1840s seems to account substantially for his early shift from the use of stone to brick for Rhode Island mills. Much later a few small steam-driven manufacturing plants came to West Barrington and brought some workers' housing with them. So did summer houses and some estates. But farming lingered on into the twentieth century, waiting for suburban development.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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