Well, here we are again, with our twentieth attempt to tally up the most endangered historic sites in our fair town for the 12 months ahead. In previous years, we have seen our share of successes promoting and preserving these special places – and sadly our share of failures too. 2020 was largely a “holding pattern” year, to be sure, with a decision for the Wickford Elementary School building finally made but no action yet, and the inexorably slow-moving path forward for the Brown Street Library building causing a collective sense of anxiety in the extended community of those who care about historic places.
On the plus side, the Town Hall on Boston Neck Road does seem to be fast-tracked to be restored, but that has been balanced out by the demolition of the Belleville schoolhouse building on Oak Hill Road, which now, like so many other fine little historic buildings, exists only in memories and postcard images. Well, there’s no telling what this year will bring, so with no further ado, here are the places in North Kingstown that we all need to think about.
Our No. 5 spot on this list again belongs to a town building. The Wickford Elementary School has been on and off “life support” for two decades and is now finally teetering right on the precipice of success. The new town council must push this deal along, and the restoration must begin sooner rather than later. Lets finally get this right North Kingstown.
Jumping into the No. 4 spot on our list is a complex of historic sites in our community – a complex with some complex problems. What I am talking about are our town’s numerous lakes and ponds. You see, the thing that makes them historic is also the thing that places them at risk. This can all be summed up by one intriguing statement. Every one of our fair town’s many lakes and ponds are man-made, and all of them were at one time tied to some sort of 18th or 19th century industry. On top of that, I, a former high school biology teacher, can tell you that nature wants to take those manmade ponds back to what they once were, a wetlands complex with a stream or river running through it. So the collective citizenry of North Kingstown must decide what we want for them – and decide soon, because the eutrophication of these ponds and lakes is underway and unrelenting. Some are really already too far gone: Sand Hill Pond on Post Road and the Annaquatucket Reservoir next to the High School are gone, Hamilton Mill Pond on Boston Neck, Saw Mill Pond in Davisville, and Rodman Mill Pond on Lafayette Road are on their way out. Give it another decade or two, and you can kiss Secret Lake and Belleville Pond goodbye as well. If we want to save some of these beautiful recreational features, we need to act; dredging permits take a lot of time and dredging can be costly.
Coming in at No. 3 on this list of unfortunates is a building that has sat quietly on Oak Hill Road while its younger compatriot got all the attention. The original Belleville schoolhouse was constructed in 1840 from plans drawn up by a South County schoolmaster and budding architect Thomas A. Tefft. Tefft also designed numerous other small schoolhouses in rural areas of Rhode Island and went on to local architectural fame with of St. Paul’s Church on Main Street in Wickford. This Federal Greek Revival style building later went on to be used as the office for the nearby Belleville Mill and was later saddled with a horrendous cinder block addition. This 180-year-old relic of a bygone time been largely empty and unheated for years now.
Sewer lines are both a blessing and a curse when it comes to historic structures. In some cases, the availability of sewers can aid in the thoughtful reuse of an old building. But more often than not, sewers are the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and end up hastening demolition and a 21st century replacement. This problem is facing all the fine – and in some cases, sadly not so fine – 19th century buildings on Post Road. Yes, I know some of you out there could care less if the Pagoda Inn building, the former Red Rooster Tavern Building, the neat little “Once in A Blue Moon” building, or the Wickford Veterinary building and others on Post Road are torn down in the name of progress. But those structures speak volumes about the distant past, represented by the ancient Ben Franklin-planned Boston Post Road and the farmers, tavern owners, and shopkeepers that once lined it from its beginning in Boston all the way to its terminus in New York City. Once these handfuls of 19th century structures are gone, we’ve lost something. That’s why I’ve placed the 19th century buildings along Post Road in the No. 2 spot.
Well, North Kingstown, you can pretty much kiss the living beings in the list’s No. 1 spot goodbye. That’s right, I said “living beings.” Now that’s something that does not show up on a list like this. The living beings are the three ancient sycamore trees that grace the Tower Hill Road edge of the new St. Bernard’s Church property. These trees have graced this parcel of land for a century or more, and have pretty much outlived the numerous ash trees that they once stood with. Although they are still healthy in spite of their location adjacent to a busy thoroughfare like Tower Hill Road, the state of Rhode Island has decided that these three grand dames of the arboreal world have just got to go to make way for a more efficient intersection. Well I am all for efficient intersections, but I am also a lover of big trees and someone who is cognizant of what a tree of this size can do for us in a world where climate change is altering everything. There has just got to be a compromise solution that can save these beautiful trees.