JHS 100 years: Shoreby Hill – an exceptional garden suburb
When summer vacationers discovered Jamestown in the 1870s and 1880s, farms surrounded the tiny village at the ferry wharf. Only a block north of Ferry Road (now Narragansett Avenue) lay the 58 1/2-acre Greene farm. At the center of the farm, at the top of the rise above Jamestown Harbor, stood the 17th century Greene farmhouse, the only pre-Revolutionary building left standing in or near the village after the destructive British raid of December 1775.
The land had been farmed by the Greene family from the early 18th century until the death of Joseph Greene Jr. in 1839. Greene had no children and his will placed the farm in perpetual trust for the benefit of those who believed in Greene’s particular form of Quakerism.
For more than 50 years the Quakers continued to work the land as the village grew to the south. When in 1891 the Rhode Island Supreme Court declared Greene’s will invalid on the grounds that it was impossible to know what a person truly believed, the Quakers decided it was the right time to sell.
The Jamestown Land Company, formed in 1895 by St. Louis residents Ephron Catlin, James Taussig, his son Charles S. Taussig, and Henry Scott, along with Charles Acton Ives, a prominent Newport political figure, bought the Greene farm for $75,000 (approximately $2 million in 2012 dollars). Catlin and the Taussigs weren’t newcomers to Jamestown. The families had summered here for several years, and Catlin owned a house on Friendship Street. They worked with local realtor Daniel Watson both to buy the land and to sell the lots that were platted on it.
To transform the farmland into a sophisticated and exclusive vacation enclave, modeled on private garden suburbs in St. Louis, the company hired Ernest W. Bowditch who had recently designed the private community of Tuxedo Park, N.Y. Bowditch’s design embodied the distinctive characteristics of late 19th and early 20th century suburban planning theories. It featured curved roads that followed the contour of the land and afforded maximum visibility of the waterfront. The lots varied in size but averaged about a quarter acre. Stone pillars at each entrance created an air of exclusivity.
The developers invested about $125,000 in infrastructure for the private community. The general contractor, Mague, hired laborers from Boston – at times as many as 100 – who lived in temporary quarters that have since disappeared. They buried sewer pipes 2 feet in diameter to carry raw sewage far out into the bay (a common practice at the time) and laid 6-inch water mains. They graded and macadamized streets and built gravel sidewalks. Trees and plants began arriving in late April 1896, and William Bryan, a landscape gardener, directed their planting.
By September 1896, the construction was far enough along for sales of lots to begin. Lot price varied with location and view. The lots on Alden Road at the top of the meadow – the center one soon to be the site of the Taussig home – were offered for $0.35 to $0.40 per square foot, or about $6,000 each. Middle-of-the-block lots without a water view could be as inexpensive as $0.04 per square foot.
Purchasers were constrained by deed to follow the rules of the planned community. Only one building, costing no less than $3,000, could be built on each lot. It was to be set back at least 20 feet from the road and used exclusively as a private residence. No hedges fronting the road could be higher than 3 1/2 feet. A covenant, similar to those used by condominiums today, ensured that the roads and other common areas would be maintained.
The land company, which owned the land down to the water’s edge, built a bulkhead to protect the hill from erosion and sold a 50-foot wide strip along it to the town for $1 after the town agreed to build and maintain what is now Conanicus
Avenue. Along the bulkhead, a boardwalk extended out over the beach. A pier in the middle, added two years later, reached 300 feet into the bay.
The first subdivision of Shoreby Hill, also called Lower Shoreby, was legally recorded with the town of Jamestown in September 1898, and the first homes were ready for occupancy that summer.
Ten houses – including the Shoreby Hill Club, which was built as a dining pavilion and a social club for Shoreby Hill families – were built almost immediately. The houses clustered around the green and meadow at Shoreby Hill’s east entrance. The families who summered in them came from St. Louis. Most lived in the same exclusive neighborhood there.
No more houses were built until the second subdivision, or Upper Shoreby, was recorded by the town in 1911.
In 2012, Shoreby Hill was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination called it “an exceptional example in Rhode Island of a planned garden suburb.”
This is the 16th in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.