New museum exhibit looks at island’s historic architecture
A new exhibit at the Jamestown Historical Society Museum focuses on the architectural history of Conanicut Island. The exhibit – “Architectural Styles in Jamestown: 1700-1950” – is curated by Jim Buttrick.
According to Rosemary Enright, the idea for the exhibition stemmed from a library lecture given by Buttrick last year on the subject. She said his presentation about Jamestown’s lost architecture, including summerhouses that had been torn down to make room for Fort Wetherill, created some buzz.
“Several people had expressed interest in architectural styles,” said Enright. “I spoke to Jim and this was his idea. I certainly think it’s a good one.”
Enright said most of the houses featured in the exhibit are still around, although they may have been changed considerably over the years.
“We tried to keep it to houses that people could actually go and look at,” Enright said. “There are only two photographs in the whole exhibit of houses that don’t still exist in one form or another.”
The exhibit only goes to 1950, partially to keep the historic aspect of the exhibit, but also because it would have been difficult to select any styles locally that have come on the scene since then. Most of the styles seen on the island are traditional, although they may have been modified to bring them up to date.
In addition to panels that display photos accompanied by captions, the exhibit includes artifacts taken from historic homes and restored. Among them is a stained-glassed window from one of the Three Sisters, which is currently being worked on. The window will be returned to the building when the restoration is complete.
There are also windows and a hinged door from a house on Bryer Avenue that was built in the 1890s, as well as pillars from the old Bayview Hotel that was torn down in 1983.
“These are so that people can get a real feel for what some of the characteristics were during the time period,” Enright said.
Buttrick said he’s been interested in architecture since his high school days, and although he did not become an architect, he spends a lot of his time involved with architectural history. He travels with groups that study architecture and does a lot of reading on the subject.
“I’m really more of an amateur architectural historian,” Buttrick said. “But it’s a strong interest of mine.”
Buttrick has been a contributor to the historical society on the subject, both as a writer and photographer.
In a past exhibition, Buttrick focused on Charles Bevins, who was Jamestown’s principal architect for the shingle style. The current exhibit steps back to look at Jamestown from a larger historical context. According to Buttrick, the heart of the display is the discussion of photographs and text that relate to 12 styles of Jamestown architecture.
The seven primary styles are featured in large panels. The panels include key points of the architectural style, as well as photographs of local houses built that way. There is also text describing where the style came from, and its place in architectural history.
Buttrick said the exhibition also looks at styles that have been commonly used elsewhere, but were not prevalent here. He called these “anomalous” styles because although they are seldom found on the island, examples can be found.
“They’re rare, they don’t show up, but somebody decided they needed a stick-style house so one got built,” Buttrick said. “It didn’t last very long but it made a statement. It seemed very out of character for Jamestown, but there it is.”
Buttrick said he is not trying to make any hard points by including the artifacts in the exhibit. Instead, he is trying to make people aware of building elements that tend to define a style. Windows and doors themselves, as well as the way they are organized stylistically in the building, are a critical starting point, according to Buttrick.
In the 1890s, there was the possibility that Jamestown’s iconic Horsehead house would be taken by the government for Fort Wetherill. The exhibit features extensive plans by Bevins, the original designer of Horsehead, for a replacement house. These plans provide a look at what an architect would have changed 10 years after his original design. There are also drawings of renovations that Bevins proposed for the original building.
“These days if somebody wants to make a change to an important house like Horsehead, they try to keep it as much in the original style as possible,” Buttrick said. “Back when those styles were current, the orientation was different. It was to be up to date. So when you added onto your house or made changes, you emphasized current styles.”
The exhibit at the Narragansett Avenue museum is open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. On Sunday, July 7, Buttrick will be on hand to provide a curator’s perspective and answer questions on the display.
Island homes will also be at the forefront of the society’s annual meeting on Aug. 8 at the library. This year’s speaker will be Ron Onorato, head of the arts department at the University of Rhode Island. He will speak about Jamestown architecture, which dovetails with the current exhibit at the museum.
In other JHS news, the Jamestown Windmill, which dates back to 1787, is now open to visitors on weekends and holidays though Columbus Day from 1 to 4 p.m.