NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Bare studs are seen in this building going from floor to vaulted ceiling above. Part of the roof is new, the other part needs to be replaced. Nearly 7,500 square feet of space inside is getting gutted and the outside is receiving a face lift.
Yet, this complete makeover for the Narragansett Pier Railroad Station at 145 Boon St. — once home to a laundromat and various apartments — has a history soaked into each piece of wood going back to its 1895 construction.
“We want to take this back to its original look, with updated code work done, and preserve a slice of history,” said, Michael Virgilio, who recently bought the building with Lindsay Holmes and her wife, Christina, for nearly $1.4 million.
Virgilio, a carpenter and a contractor who has done renovations for nearly 20 years, is stripping the old building to its bare bones, such as studs, major supporting beams and subflooring. The renovation is expected to cost nearly $1 million.
“This is going to take a lot of work to do. Right now we have preliminary approvals for work. Once we get the final approvals it should take about nine months to complete,” he said during a recent tour of this artifact of history built during the late 1800s as a go-to spot for the wealthy.
This effort of Virgilio and his partners is about a labor of love to both showcase renovation work, preserve history, help the community, all lined with hope that this real estate investment will turn a profit someday.
It is connected to a storied and small train company whose history still fascinates a community no differently than the much smaller electric train sets capture the fantasy of young children.
Interest in this renovation actually goes back to the origins of the train system that created the need for the train station.
Author and historian, Brian Wallin, has researched and written about the ups and downs from beginning to end of the Narragansett Pier Railroad.
“In 1837, a station was also opened in West Kingston, known as Kingston Station or Kingston Depot—a two-mile stagecoach ride from West Kingston to Kingston village,” he wrote in an online account of the history.
South Kingstown, which then included Narragansett, had numerous mills that were part of the national industrial fabric. They needed transportation for shipping the goods produced in the mills.
A prominent mill owner, Rowland Gibson Hazard, originally built a railroad line from Kingstown to serve the needs of his own business, but in the process, managed to create this “quirky, modestly successful short line that survived from 1876 until the last train ran in 1981,” Wallin wrote.
“By the turn of the century,” he said, “private rail cars of the wealthy would regularly arrive at West Kingston on the tail ends of New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad trains to be switched onto the NPRR track and hauled down to the Pier,” he said.
The cars would be placed on a siding to await those who traveled on to Newport to return weeks or months later, Wallin explained.
“The Peace Dale textile mill’s output and other local freight was carried up to West Kingston for disbursal around the country. For a short time, there was even a Sunday night sleeper car from the Pier to New York operated in cooperation with the New Haven line,” he wrote.
The Narragansett Pier Rail Road line eventually was built to a southern terminus at Narragansett Pier, he said and the original station, a turntable and roundhouse, was on Ocean Drive.
In 1895, a new station, complete with electric lighting, was built a short distance from to the north on Boon Street.
“The line boasted an express end-to-end running time of 13 minutes. Speeds reached as much as 35 miles an hour. When one thinks of how long it can take today to travel from West Kingston to the oceanfront in Narragansett, that is pretty good time,” Wallin said.
When the station opened, The Narragansett Times reported on the building construction of stone and wood, a finished interior of cypress, and shingles all around outside.
“The corridor is about thirty feet square. Opening from this room is the telegraph office, gents’ toilet rooms and stairway to the second floor, entrance to the cellar and also to a ladies waiting room about seventeen by twenty-two feet in size,” the story read.
“The walks on three sides of the building are concreted. City water is provided, the rooms are lighted by electricity and will be heated by steam. The new station is a model in every way and an ornament for the Pier,” it added, touting that it was among the best in the state and also praised by the state railroad commissioner.
However, the fade of Narragansett as a summer haven for the wealthy following some disastrous fires in the heart of the Pier, the later development of the automobile and the decline of mill production became problems for this little railroad.
The rails between Wakefield and the Pier were abandoned and torn up in 1953. The railroad changed hands several times among different individuals and business enterprises with various creative approaches, but none could solidify its operations to be profitable.
By 1979, limited freight service ended and in 1981 the last of its remaining tracks – those from Wakefield to West Kingston – were torn up. It’s now a bike path.
Yet, this Boon Street station and a much smaller one in nearby Peace Dale remain reminders of a quaint form of travel – as well as a different day and age in Narragansett-South Kingstown.
They also are local possessions to be spared the razing that the 1960s and 1970s brought to other buildings of that era. Redevelopment, not historical preservation, were the business goals at that time.
“I think the preservation of the 1895 station is an excellent idea,” said Wallin in an interview this week. “I commend the owners for their thoughtful and exacting restoration. At the time it opened, it was at the center of the thriving summer resort area and many well-to-do names passed through it.”
Virgilio himself also recited different parts of this history as he pointed to walls and subfloors that haven’t seen the light of day in decades, perhaps even a century for some parts of the building.
Not knowing what existed behind walls put up years ago left many suitors unwilling to chance an expensive purchase, but only to find equally expensive renovation work beyond an affordable budget.
“We didn’t know either, but we decided to take a chance. I really love anything that gives me a challenge. I really like anything that pushes me,” he said.
“It’s amazing, every time we took a room apart, it was a big birthday surprise. Most people have a design in mind already, but we say we have to find something that works for this room,” he said.
He stared down at the stripped concrete floor next to adjacent work to remove composite board and brown veneer fake wood coverings.
“We’re going to the original subfloor. No one has seen this, I’m pretty certain, since the 1930s because of the way this is all laid in here,” he said after a moment and pointing to the before-and-after look of the floor.
He and his partners want to put apartments on a second split-level portion of the building and open up the bottom for businesses to augment the developing Boon Street restaurant, retail and apartment district.
A boutique hotel is planned nearby and will complement the area’s restaurants, which include Crazy Burger, featured on a national television food program, a park and a renovated building to house retail and apartments. Homes and other apartments also line the street.
Outside the building is a large parking lot on one side and a grassy area on the other. A rounded cut-out protrudes from the granite stone that meets hard wood that features more than 25 original large windows measuring nearly four-foot across and nearly seven feet high.
On this morning of the tour — perhaps much like the mornings decades ago when the train pulled in — sunshine cast long rays into the building through some of those windows.
Virgilio pointed to the round granite bump on the building. “I think that’s where engineers and even riders would come to watch for the train or to see it off,” he said, looking into track bed long ago removed and now filled in with trees and brush and marked by other changes over the decades after it was abandoned.
History is all around him every day, he said, as he shapes a revival for this old building. Commercial uses and preservation make it a treasure, he said.
“It’s been 100 years since it has been renovated because no one has had the appetite. I believe that the land and building are more valuable today than the day we bought it,” he said.