2012-07-12 / News

Lost architecture of Jamestown paved the way for today’s designs

James Buttrick leads presentation at library

The Harbor View Inn, the Bay View and the Thorndike Hotel once towered over Jamestown’s waterfront, according to author James Buttrick.

Although the grand hotels have vanished – along with historic private homes like Wyndesweepe and Braecleugh – Jamestown’s lost treasures still matter, according to Buttrick. The Jamestown resident said they were important because they have shaped our present.

On June 22, dozens of islanders packed into the library meeting room to hear about the lost buildings and see the vintage photographs projected on a big screen.

The lecture was the third in the “All About Jamestown” series celebrating the Jamestown Historical Society’s 100th anniversary. Although these buildings can no longer be seen, “They live on in images found in the historical society’s collection,” said JHS President Linnea Petersen.

Fires, the building of Fort Wetherill, the Great Depression and two hurricanes were primarily the forces that caused the destruction of many historic buildings. But, said Buttrick, many architectural gems do still remain.

“We’re fortunate to have evidence of the past around us every day,” he said, mentioning the windmill, the Colonial farms and the lighthouse at Beavertail. “But we tend to forget about what is no longer visible.”

For example, Fort Dumpling, which stood from 1800 to 1898, provided the inspiration for the Round House, which was built in 1888 and designed by Charles Mc- Kim. In 1991, fire destroyed much of the Round House’s square addition, which Buttrick says was known as the Square House.

Fort Dumpling succeeded as a romantic ruin, much better than as a military outpost. “Fort Dumpling never saw action, except for target practice for Fort Adams,” he said. It was demolished to make way for Fort Wetherill.

Fort Wetherill, built between 1895 and 1905, did have an architectural impact, but in a negative way. Buttrick, who is the author of “Images of America: Jamestown,” said the fort was the cause of a number of fine houses being destroyed to make room for the garrison.

For one example, in the land taken for Fort Wetherill, the house of maritime artist William Trost Richards was destroyed along with three other summer homes in the Ocean Highlands-Walcott Avenue area. Richards had built the first cottage in Ocean Highlands.

Braecleugh, one of the island’s grand private homes, was also destroyed to make way for Fort Wetherill. Along with Stornaway, which also stood where Fort Wetherill is today, Braecleugh was the work of architect Charles Bevins. Between 1883 and 1900, Bevins designed about 40 buildings in Jamestown, including private homes such as Horsehead and the Barnacle, as well as grand hotels, including the Thorndike and the Harbor View Inn.

Bevins worked in the American shingle style, Buttrick said, and went on to explain that the style was inspired by an appreciation of the Queen Anne style – then popular in England – and nostalgia for the simple Colonial buildings. According to Buttrick, he probably learned the shingle style while employed at Peabody and Stearns, the architects credited for the first Breakers mansion in Newport. At least the influence of that Newport house, which was destroyed by fire, appears in Bevins’ Jamestown houses. Bevins built Stornaway in 1883 for Benjamin Shoemaker. The following year he designed Horsehead for Joseph Wharton.

“Horsehead is an imposing design,” Buttrick said. “It’s mostly granite.”

Although that house still stands, Horsehead almost became one of the lost houses. “Fort Wetherill was proposed, and it was not clear how much land was being taken by the government,” he said. Wharton expected he would have to rebuild, and had plans drawn up. The plans for the new house, which probably would have been constructed at Beavertail, were drawn 15 years after Horsehead was built. The drawings “show a much more relaxed composition,” Buttrick said. It suggested that the shingle style was “morphing” into a Colonial revival.

Meanwhile, on Beavertail Road, Bevins designed Wyndesweepe in 1888 for Henry Audley Clarke. Clarke’s son later turned the house into the Beavertail Golf and Country Club. The club went bankrupt in 1942, and the house was ultimately destroyed.

Bevins also designed buildings downtown. Most famous was probably the Thorndike Hotel in 1889, which stood at 25 Conanicus Ave. It was the focal point of the village, Buttrick said, along with the Bay View. The hotel was built by Newport businessman P.H. Horgan, who was so enterprising that he ordered a roof for the first two stories so he could rent rooms while the hotel was still under construction.

One of the last Bevins designs, the Moveable Chapel, exists but as part of a private home today. Nicknamed the “Go Chapel” after the motto “Go ye into the world,” the building was designed in 1899 to take the St. Matthew’s pastor out to the residents of Conanicut Park in the summer, and back to the mid-island farmers in winter.

“But there was a problem getting it to the north end,” he said.

Buttrick said that remembering the Moveable Chapel and other lost houses is what makes islanders value what they have today. He said that the lost buildings of Jamestown are important because they provide a context for the present buildings, landscaping and streetscapes.

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