No serious study of the history of our fair town would be complete without taking a hard look at one of the folks most responsible for preserving the most important artifacts of that history; the colonial era homes and structures which make North Kingstown the special place that it is. No one man has done more to preserve and document these buildings than Norman Isham. It only seems fitting, since Isham’s home and studio on Boston Neck Road have recently been restored themselves, that we look back on his life.
Isham was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on November 12, 1864. His formative years were spent in Providence, attending the prestigious Mowry and Goff Preparatory School and then Brown University from which he graduated with a master of arts degree in architecture in 1890. For two years Isham worked in a Providence architectural firm, but in 1892 he left that firm and opened his own office. He supplanted this income as an instructor at Brown University until 1912, when he became the department head at RISD’s famed architectural school.
Around the same time he was beginning his career at RISD, Isham was beginning the design and construction of his dream home just south of Wickford on what was then known as Hamilton Avenue (now Boston Neck Road). The house at 240 Boston Neck is befitting of an architect of Isham’s stature. The two-story, shingle-style Colonial Revival home with its high Georgian Revival interior was, at first, just a summer home for Isham, his wife and parents. But after the sudden and untimely death of his young wife in the early 1920’s Isham left Providence and its many memories and settled into the Wickford house on a full-time basis. In 1922 he added an architect’s studio to the property.
It was during his Wickford years that Isham engaged himself in his real passion; the exacting and precise restoration of colonial buildings. Among his many triumphs were: Old City Hall, The Colony House, and Whitehall in Newport, Gilbert Stuart Birthplace, Smith’s Castle, the John Updike House, and the Bullock-Thomas House in North Kingstown, and the Thomas Clemence and Stephen Hopkins Houses in Providence. Isham also wrote extensively on the subject of colonial architecture as well as period furniture. He somehow found time to supervise the archaeological excavation of the Jireh Bull Garrison House in South Kingstown and to design the American Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and most of Delaware’s state buildings.
Isham left this world in January of 1943. His funeral drew the cream of the architectural crop to “the olde quaint and historic,” and in an ironic and tragic incident a prominent Providence architect, Harry Slocomb, had a massive heart attack and died while waiting for a bus in Seavey’s Drug Store in the village (now Wickford on The Water) after the service. Isham is buried with his wife and parents out at Elm Grove Cemetery surrounded, in a sense, by the folks whose homes he worked so hard to preserve.