Historic Walking Tours of Narragansett Pier

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Narragansett Pier, R.I., Illustrated, 1891

A Look Back

Shortly after 1780, John Robinson built a pier near the present site of the Towers to provide local
farmers with a more convenient means of exporting and importing goods. It is to this pier that
Narragansett Pier owes its name.By 1801, when Robinson's son, Benjamin, inherited the property,
a house and a store had also been built here. The pier was destroyed in the Great Gale of 1815 and
was rebuilt by Rowland Hazard, who had purchased it from Robinson five years earlier.

The property changed hands two or three times, finally coming into the possession of George
Brown in 1822. At that time, Brown built a house on the site later ocupied by the old Casino. This
is probably the house which later was moved to its present location at 18 Mathewson Street.

Mercantile and commercial interests at Narragansett Pier contined to expand through the 19th
century, serving the surrounding agricultural countryside. Development of the South Pier area
began in 1836, when Joshua Champlin bought property from the Congdon family, long-time owners
of the land in this vicinity. Champlin built the first wharf at South Pier about 1845.

In the meantime, the property at the original, or north, pier passed through a series of owners and
lessees. One of these, Jonathan N. Hazard, erected a planing mill in the late 1840s or early 1850s.
His successor, William C. Caswell, converted this mill into a store and proceeded to build a new
planing mill, a wharf, and a steam mill.

By 1895, houses were being constructed on empty lots in the compact part of the village, and
development had extended into previously vacant areas, such as the sections south of Rodman
Street, west of Robinson Sreet, along Narragansett Avenue, and along Boston Neck Road near
Narragansett Avenue.

South of South Pier, where in 1870 only a few houses stood in isolation, a line of fine summer
houses extended south for about a mile along the shore. Inland from them lay Earles Court and
the Sherry Cottages. The beach itself was built up with wooden bathhouses belonging to the
hotels and individual proprietors. They formed a continous range of structures linked by a broad,
covered promenade along the sea front, with the large and impressive Sherry Pavilion just beyond
its northern end.

Naragansett Pier, R.I., Illustrated, 1891

In the early 1870s, the focus of commercial activity shifted when the planing mill was relocated
from North Pier to South Pier. Through the early twentieth century, much of the town's coal and
lumber was shipped through South Pier.

A new Casino was built east of the present Post Office in 1905, and the ruined Towers of the old
Casino were restored in 1910 by architect J. Howard Adams. The national polo championships
were held at the Point County Club during the early years of the twentieth centry, and an attempt
was made at the time to encourage the prestigious Newport Casino tennis tournament to
relocate here.

The Growth of Tourism

Paralleling these commercial pursuits, and far more important in terms of civic and architectural
development, was the growth of the tourist industry. In the mid-1840s, people from inland areas
of Washington County and from Providence began to come to Narragansett Pier to take
advantage of the fine bathing afforded by its sandy beach. At that time there were no public
accommodations and visitors had to board at private homes. Joseph Dulles of Philadelphia,
a business associate of Rowland G. Hazard of Peacedale, visited the Pier in 1848 and was so
mpressed that he returned the next summer with several other families to spend the season.

As the twentieth century progressed, Narragansett Pier changed. Once a resort where out-of-state
residents came by train for extended vacations, it became a day-trip destination for Rhode Islanders
travelling by auto and served as the downtown of the largely rural town of Narragansett. Roads
were widened and improved to accommodate the increasingly popular pastime of automobile
touring. This change had the greatest impact on the surviving hotels as the demand for their
rooms diminished.

Narragansett Pier, R.I., Illustrated, 1891

Fire destroyed the Imperial in 1925, the Revere in 1928. Also slowed was the construction of large
summer homes for out-of-state residents. Hereafter, the major architectural commissions were for
public structures such as the Governor Sprague Bridge and the handsome, brick Fifth Avenue
School of 1924, now Town Hall, designed by Willard Kent.

A transformation in the management of the beach also occurred in the early years of this century.
Through the 19th century, the shorefront property had been owned by individuals and private
corporations that operated bathhouses catering to the hotel guests and the cottagers. By the 1920s,
these old Victorian bathhouses had become quite decrepit. The transient visitors who frequented
the Pier in ever-increasing numbers refused to patronize the bathhouses, preferring to change in their
cars and climb over or under the fences to get to the beach. This behavior was the source of much
controversy. Several members of theresident summer colony formed a private organization which
acquired property at the north end of the beach. This group, incorporated as the Dunes Club, built
itself a rambling stucco clubhouse described as being "in the style of a Normandy farmhouse" in
1928-1929. Designed by Kenneth M. Murchison of New York, the clubhouse contained sleeping
apartments for members and was surrounded by a small enclave of private houses in the same
architectural style.

The founding of the Dunes Club provided new and luxurious accommodations for Narragansett's
social elite, but the problem of beach use by the general public was leftunsolved. In 1935, the town
made a proposal to buy theshore property and build new bathhouses with Public Works Administration
funds. This project was not fully realized until the hurricane of 1938 wrecked the old bathhouses,
clearing the way for the development of the present town beach. The hurricane also destroyed the
Dunes Club's original clubhouse. The present structure, designed by Purves, Cope and Stewart of
Philadelphia, replaced it in 1939-1940. Two stuccoed Murchison-designed houses, at 151 and 155
BostonNeck Road, and Sedgefield, another stuccoed structure, at 129 Boston Neck Road, designed
to harmonize with the first Dunes Club, survived the hurricane. The storm ruined large sections of the
Pier area: just back from the beach, stores, houses, and the police station were destroyed. By the
1940s, the heyday of the Pier was over. Richmond Barrett, who had known the Pier at its height,
wrote, "Today nothing remains of it but a few ramshackle old buildings typical of all clap-trap seaside
resorts that have slumped into stoop-shouldered neglect." The exceptions, however, said Barrett,
were the superb new Dunes Club and the stone Towers, the "one conspicuous landmark that
impresses the stranger, a ruin that looks historical and rather noble." In the early 1970s, several
blocks in the core of the village were demolished and the old buildings replaced by new businesses
and residences.

The Dunes Club, 1939-40.

A Contemporary View

Below, a rather breathless (the original was all one paragraph) and occasionally ungrammatical description of the Pier
in 1890. The writing is of a sort one would not expect to find in a book having the title
Industries and Wealth of the
Principal Parts of Rhode Island.
*We couldn't resist including the ornamental initials used throughout the book.

he unsurpassed location of Narragansett Pier as a watering-place of unexceptional advantages has
attracted visitors here from all parts of the world, and made it a famous summer resort and a worthy
rival of Newport.

ituated at the head of Narragansett Bay, it faces the broad Atlantic, and on its magnificent stretch of
sandy beach the breakers roll in with all the grandeur and sublimity that the most vivid imagination
could conjure, and in their soothing roar the hum of business activity and the city's bustle is forgotten,
and tired brains are lulled into the repose that brings them much needed rest with the same benefits
as a tripacross the ocean.

ithin a comparatively few years this noted resort has sprung into prosperity "as from the stroke of an
enchanter's wand," and today boasts about twenty magnificent hotels accommodating each from fifty
to two hundred guests, and many elegant cottages are occupied. In fact, there never has been such a
demand for cottages as there has been for this season (1892). The improvements which have recently
been made is almost astonishing and adds greatly to the comfort and convenience of guests as well as
to the attractiveness of the Pier.

durable sea-wall of one thousand feet, which is to be continued another thousand feet at the close of the
season, has been erected which affords protection to those driving along the ocean front, and a fine broad
walk has been built along this sea-walk, giving a thoroughly safe place to those who wish to enjoy a
moonlight stroll.

n addition to these improvements a new passenger station is to be erected by the Narragansett Pier
Railroad Company, which will be highly ornate and will be finished by May, 1893, at a cost of $30,000.
It will be constructed of quarry-faced granite and hard pine after the style of the Casino, and every
convenience is to be provided, including a covered archway for private carriages, etc. The grounds
adjoining are to be laid out as a park, and in many different ways the Pier is to be adorned everywhere.
The roads have all been recentlyrepaired, and fine driving is to be had everywhere, and the district
has been thoroughly policed.

he Casino is on the plan of that of Newport, and a magnificent orchestra is always in attendance. Balls,
amateur theatricals, concerts, etc., are held here which are of the highest order of merit, and which are
largely attended at all times by the summer population, which comprises the most select families and
visitors from both continents.

esides this, every amusement is provided that both sexes can indulge in, such as tennis tournaments,
bowling, billiards, etc.; and with the addition of Sherry's this season, who is to form a rival to the Casino,
the future of Narragansett Pier will not be outshone by any of its rivals on the coast, and presents an
agreeable contrast that beheld by our forefathers when the fierce conflicts raged for the possession of
this choice tract of countrybetween them and the warlike tribe of Narragansett Indians that originally
held possession here, and who realized as well as their white opponents that this beautiful spot,
favored by climate, ocean, and land, was well worthfighting for – which has been realized in its
brilliant prosperity.

*A. F. Parsons Publishing Company, 149 & 151 Church Street, New York; 1892; pp 269-270

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