WAKEFIELD, R.I. — The village of Wakefield in South Kingstown is preserving its past by expanding a special designation for more historic buildings along Main Street.
The Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission announced last monththat Wakefield’s Historic District designation in the National Register — the federal government’s official list of properties throughout the United States whose historical and architectural significance makes them worthy of preservation — had been expanded.
When the district was first listed in the National Register in 1996, it extended along Main Street from Belmont Avenue to beyond River Street.
The expansion, the first since the initial designation, adds several buildings and other points of historical note to the district.
These include the Columbia House built about 1800 and now the home of the W.E. Stedman Co., the Narragansett Times building constructed about 1880, the Wakefield Pond Dam (1850), several mid-20th-century buildings and historic landscape features, such as stone walls.
“National Historic Districts are important because they record the history of a place that otherwise might not be known,” said South County History Executive Director Erica Luke.
South County History’s small team spent more than a year preparing the application to expand the district, which now includes more of Main Street. The amendment was supported by the Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission’s Certified Local Government grant program, which awarded funds to South Kingstown in 2018.
The rigorous process entailed much research of the buildings, including determining a structure’s age, integrity and why it is significant.
“The Wakefield Historic District is a fabric of buildings that was woven over almost two centuries of industrial, commercial, and residential development,” the application for the boundary increase states. “During its period of significance, the district became the most important commercial center in the Town of South Kingstown. Many of the buildings standing in the district exemplify the wide variety of American architectural styles that have been in fashion from the early nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Standing together, these buildings form an architectural group that is both visually distinctive and illustrative of the historical development of Wakefield.”
The application also explores and outlines the buildings that recently became part of the district.
“The residence at 200 Main Street, built between 1862 and 1870, was converted to commercial use, and from the building’s two storefronts a number of specialty businesses operated, including a musical instrument sales and repair shop, a confectionery, and a watchmaker,” it states.
“By 1888, a two-story grocery store was built at 203 Main Street; since that time the building has housed a number of grocery and food specialty businesses including the Wakefield Bakery and Eccleston’s Grocery. This trend was followed in two small commercial structures on the southern side of Main Street (no longer standing) with the opening of jewelry and perfume shops, among others.”
The mansard-roofed, three-story Columbia House at 196 Main St., built in about 1880, was home to a number of businesses catering to travelers, including photography studios and the Columbia Hotel. In the 1880s, the new safety bicycle was invented and popularized, resulting in the founding of Wakefield’s first bicycle sales business in the Columbia House in the 1890s.
In the 1920s, Jim Brown and his son Archie opened a new business specializing in the sale of bicycles and Indian motorcycles and installed a gas pump outside the store. The business passed to Archie Brown’s nephew, William Earl Stedman. “Bicycle Bill,” as he was locally known, renamed the business the W.E. Stedman Co., and it remains a successful bicycle sales and repair business today.
After World War II, entrepreneurs started new types of businesses around Columbia Corner.
In the 1940s, the Henry W. Partelow Building at 195 Main St. was converted into a restaurant, and since that time a number of food service businesses have operated from the building, including the Italian Village from 1976 through 2013. In 1957, automotive supply business County Auto Supply moved into the house-turned-commercial space at 200 Main St., where it operated until 2019.
In 1858, Thomas P. Wells founded a newspaper, the South County Journal, which ultimately became The Narragansett Times. That same year, Wells hired Duncan Gillies, a Scottish immigrant working in New York’s printing industry, to take over management of the paper. Gillies invested both personal funds and the newspaper’s resources in the development of “Columbia Corner,” located at the intersection of Main Street and Columbia Street/Woodruff Avenue.
In 1872, Gillies opened the Columbia Building (no longer standing) at the intersection’s northeastern corner, a massive building that had a large hall, stores, a tenement and the Times’ print shop. Following the destruction by fire of the Columbia Building in 1880, the Times constructed a building at 187 Main St., where the newspaper continues to operate today.
Luke said that South County History, which reopens in March after its winter hiatus, has incorporated much of the information and many photos about the historic district into its programs and exhibits, and more is planned.
“We’ve set up a walking tour of Main Street, and we’re working on completing a book about the area for later this year,” she said.
Last fall, South County History introduced Mapping Memories, which features newly-discovered photographs, historical maps and trivia about Wakefield’s commercial district. The exhibit explores Wakefield’s development from a typical New England mill town into an important center of commercial activity. The causes of the transformation, such as the construction of the Narragansett Pier Railroad and the advent and proliferation of the automobile, are examined as well.