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Bristol

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Warren and Bristol provide one of the more remarkable contrasts among Rhode Island towns. From the close-packed seaport village of Warren, the best-preserved example of the seaport type in Rhode Island, one enters its stateliest town. Bristol's center stood among the queen cities of colonial and nineteenth-century New England. It is also the centered port in Narragansett Bay: twelve miles up from Newport, fifteen miles down from Providence, it occupies a lobster-claw point at the heart of the Bay, with the center of the town located on the large claw and the smaller claw mostly restricted to large private houses gated from the outside world, forming one of the more exclusive such precincts in the state. It is the buildings within the core of the town that perforce provide the attractions for the architectural pilgrim, though given their quality, this is no deprivation whatsoever.

The order and breadth of the village core are immediately felt. The basis of the first is the grid of the street plan, based on a town green, among the few and one of the most evident such gridded town plans in Rhode Island. (Bristol of course began as a Massachusetts town, with the expected Puritan church dominating the green.) The longitudinal streets, all very wide, parallel the water, moving inland from Thames (the street closest to the harbor), to Hope (the principal street), then to High and Wood. The Town Common, which stretches between the latter two, was obviously envisioned as someday centered in an enlargement of the original street, although the historic town never pushed beyond Wood Street.

Contumacious individualists, Rhode Island's settlers did not often organize formal settlements on the Puritan model; Bristol is the finest exception. If it today retains so much of its character and scale, it is because the geometric logic of its plan remained appropriate. Thames Street served the physical functions of the harbor, Hope the commercial, and High the civic. The result is one of the most enduring and successful essays of Puritan town planning, here in a maritime setting.

The peninsula on which Bristol sits had belonged to the Wampanoag Indians, whose councils were held at Mount Hope, on the eastern side of the peninsula. Here, in 1675, Wampanoag chief Philip (Metacomet) launched King Philip's War, which ended in his death not far from the site. Afterward King Charles II granted the lands to the separatists of the Plymouth colony on Cape Cod, who promptly established the town in the Grand Articles of 1680. These not only prescribed a gridded plan, but also specified that “all houses should be two stories high, with not less than two good rooms on a floor.” The town was sited on the western shore of Bristol Bay, while the remainder of the eastern peninsula and Poppasquash, the western peninsula, were divided into farmlands and commons.

By 1700 Bristol was a thriving town, active in shipbuilding and trade, shipping agricultural products and livestock to the Caribbean. There was no hardscrabble period of colonization, and the earliest houses—three of which survive—already show an architectural sophistication of a high order, derived from the urban culture of Massachusetts. During the next century, as the port of Bristol flourished, Thames Street was thickly built up with warehouses and docks as well as distilleries for making the rum that was part of the slave trade in which Bristol was so active. Even the depredations of the Revolutionary War, when the town was damaged by British raids, marked but a temporary setback in its growth.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Bristol declined as a port. After the abolition of the slave trade there was a final flurry of activity in whaling, but the small scale of the port left it ill adapted to large-scale industrial operations. Nonetheless, it was suited for specialized skilled work, as demonstrated by the rapid success of the Herreshoff boat works, established in 1863 and—between 1893 and 1920—the makers of five successful America's Cup defenders. Even as the last shipbuilder's house shuffled into dowdy Victorianization, the first of the opulent resort cottages, inspired by Newport's example, was pushing its way onto the waterfront. Thus, for all Bristol's economic and social vicissitudes, the relationship of town to harbor has remained remarkably consistent, intimate, and benign to its architectural heritage.

The town's buildings show an amiable mixture of conservatism and eccentricity, the result of a stable clientele and an equally settled pattern of life, but also of the cosmopolitanism of a port, always willing to graft new ideas onto local forms. Large enough to have its own architectural culture, Bristol was provincial enough so that the same craftsmen might use the same conventional formulas for decades. Much of its economy was vested in a thicket of intermarried families, of whom the DeWolfs were the most prominent, and all of whom invariably used the same architect, Russell Warren (1783–1860), the town's gift to American architecture.

Born in Tiverton, Warren arrived in Bristol in 1800, remaining until the mid-1820s, when he departed for Providence. Beginning in 1808, he built the first of four great houses for the DeWolf family, whose patronage transformed him from a cautious craftsman to a designer of restless originality and audacity. Warren was no provincial; he traveled regularly to Charleston, South Carolina, where he owned land, and he presumably knew the major coastal cities. His gracious clapboarded mansions, with their decorous porticoes and balustrades, are testament to the lively and fertile communication along the Atlantic seaboard at a time when it was easier to sail from New England to the Carolinas than to visit a town fifty miles inland.

Long after he removed to Providence, Warren continued to provide the most interesting buildings in Bristol. Had it been built, these would have included a palatial house designed for James DeWolf in about 1836, known only from a surviving drawing. Such architectural longevity, sustained by loyal family patronage, is rare enough in America, but for it to happen twice, as it did in Bristol, is providential. Wallis Eastburn Howe (1868–1960), born in the very decade in which Warren died, would play the same role in Bristol in the twentieth century that Warren did in the nineteenth. Howe understood and interpreted “colonial” better than any other twentieth-century Rhode Island architect, and just as Warren worked sympathetically within the vocabulary of Bristol's colonial houses, so Howe practiced a suave historicism, far from the cringing copyism of some of his contemporaries. His version of the DeWolf patronage came from Samuel Pomeroy Colt, friend as well as client, for whom he remodeled Linden Place and worked for almost half a century.

Between the Warren era and the Howe era, Bristol's Victorian interlude was brief and was concentrated around Hope and Church streets, whose white clapboard streetscape was shocked by a strident Victorian ensemble of civic buildings by Stephen C. Earle. But such buoyant buildings, or the occasional work of New York architects such as James Renwick or Alexander Saeltzer, were sufficiently limited not to disturb the scale and sense of the town. And through it all, the tradition of building in wood remained central to the architectural identity of the town. This tradition culminated in the greatest of all Shingle Style houses in America, the William G. Low House, by McKim, Mead and White (1887; demolished 1962), which stood near the southernmost tip of the peninsula. A vast gable in composition, its form echoed the calm topography of the peninsula and was the most affectionate architectural gesture ever paid the town of Bristol.

William G. Low House, photo 1962

Bristol offers a compact architectural experience distinguished by consistently superior craftsmanship. It is a place of urban sophistication and richness, although to the modern viewer it presents an image of small-town calm. Its character can best be experienced by the pedestrian. For the most detailed inventory, the visitor should acquire Historical and Architectural Resources of Bristol, Rhode Island (Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, 1990).

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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