The Fate of Beechwood House
The new Beechwood senior center was packed for a Town Council meeting in early February 2010. The mood was tense and grim; the floor was open and citizens came to voice their disbelief and displeasure over recent news on the fate of Beechwood house. The decision to raze the building was a surprise.
“The council is flying in the face of the contract. It was promised,” spoke Dick Shapiro; the former chairman of the towns asset management committee didn’t mince words when he had the floor.
“Many of the people who voted for you because of the Beechwood House issue, will not vote for you next time if you go back on this,” Shapiro spoke.
“This council doesn’t have the vision to understand what the building can be,” said Dave Wrenn, another of many who spoke out against the razing of Beechwood House that first night.
The council was somber during public comment. “It was one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever made,” said councilmember Michael Bestwick after all the public comments were heard. “It was simply a budget issue.”
Wrenn is very passionate about preserving Beechwood House; that was clear to anyone who saw him speak before the five-member town council. Hearing him speak fervently about broken contracts and deceived residents, even someone who had never heard of Beechwood House, could get a sense that some outrage had been perpetrated.
“It doesn’t make sense to pay 100,000$ to tear down an asset,” said Wrenn in a recent interview.
The issue that many of the supporters take umbrage with is that there was no public input in the decision. Public votes were not needed for the town council to vote to raze the building, and therefore the decision was made with out most of the public even knowing. Now Wrenn and his group are going to make sure that citizens are at least informed about the proposed fate of the building, even if they have no power to change it.
“Many people were not aware that Beechwood House was being demolished,” said Wrenn. “People have busy lives, only a limited number of people have subscriptions to local newspapers, and some newspapers didn’t even report it.”
For non-residents, not knowing about Beechwood House isn’t really all that surprising. In Wickford village, most of the wooden, pricey, down-homey cottage-looking shops and gold date-plate marked colonial buildings are squeezed right in along the main street. But you almost have to be looking for Beechwood House to find it.
Drive through winding Wickford, over the rusty bridge, and past the old brick town hall. The tree-line, at this point will be spiked with giant yacht masts shooting above the Oaks from some unseen body of water, but don’t rubber-neck for too long or you may miss Beach road hiding on a curve at the next light.
Crawl down Beach Street and stop at the numerous stop signs as to not disturb the upper-middle-class suburbanites. At one stop sign, the trees open up on both sides and up ahead like the ending of a tunnel. You can see the ocean appear, like an incipient hallucination, it’s just suddenly there, right over the edge of that lawn. But it’s real, sitting right behind the white clapboard Victorian that’s brooding next to the picnic table and those few scarce trees.
That brooding old building is Beechwood house. Hidden down a canopied back road, it becomes the focal point of the entire picture once you breach the threshold of the tree-shaded, house-cluttered road; two big trees near the front steps, an iron staircase, a partial wrap-around veranda, endless ocean and a sprinkle of sails against a blue horizon.
The road continues into a parking lot, passing the new Beechwood Center on the right, and the white clapboard relic on the left, sitting like it has for many years, so close to the water that it looks as if it should have been pulled under by now. The rest of Cold Spring Beach consists of a large lawn. There is an access road and a large parking lot between three brand new structures (a small art gallery, a studio and the new senior center) and Beechwood House on the waters edge.
Standing on the veranda, squinting to see Newport in the clear day, you may feel the urge to wear a monocle and a morning coat, like the sobriquet Commodore himself, looking across the bay, trying to decide which exclusive spot would be better to build The Breakers.
“It isn’t the oldest building in the area,” said Wrenn. “It is just a unique one, with an interesting history.”
North Kingstown has many Colonial buildings, so the Reconstruction era beach house isn’t the oldest, but it’s history is unique.
“There used to be a train station down here. The Vanderbilt’s and all those families wanted a way to get to Newport faster, and came down here to take the ferry across the Bay.”
That is when the history of Wickford began as a summer vacation spot for nineteenth century socialites and aristocrats. It is most famous as being the summer home of well-known Rhode Island personality, Elisha Dyer, Jr., who was governor of Rhode Island from 1897 to 1900.
Continuing the trend of being immersed in the surrounding area, the building was sold to C. Howard Tholl after Dyer’s death in 1906. Tholl first turned it into The Beechwood, and Inn that stood alongside the 25-room hotel, Cold Spring House (gone since the 1960’s). Beechwood stayed in that capacity, run under various families, housing North Kingstown travelers for over 50 years. In 1968 the town of North Kingstown finally purchased Beechwood House, in 1974 it was approved by voters for use as a senior center, and after extensive renovations the building opened in April 1975.
Shorefront weather and age breaking it down, the building was abandoned in 2009 when the new senior center went up near by. In a state of disrepair, with approximately $700,000 in basic renovations needed before it could be reoccupied, and costing the town only $100,000 to demolish the building, the town council made a tough budget-minded decision.
“A lot of people, a lot of seniors, still have a soft spot in their heart for Beechwood House.”
Some former residents of the Beechwood House felt betrayed when it was decided that the town would demolish the building rather than pay for the needed renovations that were stated in an earlier proposal.
“There is a small group of people that want to see Beechwood saved,” said town manager Michael Embury. “They have a certain perception that the 2006 bond question would do that, and that’s not necessarily correct.”
Wrenn is one member of that small group of people, and vague denunciations aside, he believes more strongly in his cause than many of us believe in anything. That dedication alone should be taken for something.
Wrenn and his small group of people have been on the charge to save Beechwood House since they heard about its fate. Since that February meeting, the small group has been getting bigger, and support for Beechwood House has grown considerably.
Support is still growing almost as fast as Wrenn and others can get the public informed. There are signs dotting North Kingstown roads; there are websites, local meetings, organizations and even a facebook group devoted to saving and renovating Beechwood House.
North Kingstown has some real budget issues, and restoring an old dieing building is very low on the agenda for most people. Wickford Elementary School recently closed because of issues with repair costs. Some of the money saved knocking down Beechwood could be put to repairing the school. An age struggle, it seems, for citizens with children would much rather pour tax money into renovating a school, than renovating an old water-damaged hotel.
Wrenn has some doubts that it is strictly a budget issue.
“That’s what they say at least,” says Wrenn. “That it’s solely a budget issue. There are a lot of people who want it torn down so they don’t have a blocked view of the water and they can put up the bandstand.”
“North Kingstown is unique like New Orleans,” said Wrenn. “In the way they started preserving historic buildings early on. North Kingstown started in 1932 putting those dated plaques on old buildings.”
Those who support preserving Beechwood House say the irony is, that a town like North Kingstown which prides itself on its old rustic buildings and historic villages, is going to demolish one of the most recognizable single buildings in the historic village.
“The fact that they are just going to pay the money to knock it down, as a taxpayer I resent that,” says Wrenn.
Some of the ideas Wrenn enthusiastically proposed were: a rental facility for weddings and reunions, a senior care center, a youth center, a restaurant, or a hotel. Wrenn is calling on all brain-stormers, risk-takers, entrepreneurs and preservationists to conjure up the frontiersman spirit of old C. Howard Tholl into reinventing the building for modern day use.
While Wrenn is fighting hard for his cause, Mother Nature is not helping him, or Beechwood House out very much. A contributor to the Save Beechwood House facebook page wrote recently that hoses had been running from the structures basement for about a week after the historic rain that hit Rhode Island in April. When asked about any flood damage done to Beechwood House, Wrenn sidestepped the direct question and defended Beechwood House adamantly.
“I did hear that it was flooded,” said Wrenn. “I haven’t seen it though. Basements flood. That is just something any building is going to face.”
Wrenn seemed insulted that I would even ask if a hundred-year-old building, ten feet from the ocean could possibly flood. He would have me think that even with epic rains and historic flooding submerging half of Rhode Island, Beechwood house was obviously immune to water.
Beechwood house definitely has one thing going for it, or in real estate speak three things going for it; location. Beechwood house is extremely close to the water, in fact so close that any demolition would have to go through CRMC or DEM before they could even start. Beechwood House has a tucked-away, scenic location; the way the suns sets behind it over the bay almost looks fake. While it may be in mild disrepair now, once it’s razed, you can’t go back and renovate. For this reason Wrenn is pleading with the town to at least check on every option.
Wrenn is doing a lot of work to see something come of the old building. “We’ve called in professionals, had re-use feasibility studies.”
“There are a lot of good ideas, I feel. We were very encouraged talking to the DCR (Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation). Through their curator ship program they take historic buildings and fixes them up for adaptive reuse.”
The DCR works in an original public-private partnership. Through their Office of Cultural Resources, the DRC finds curators who agree to renovate, and maintain the properties in exchange for a long-term lease. The curators are required to provide a public benefit beyond just the rehabilitation of the property, like allowing public access to the property twice a year.
“Massachusetts has a lot of old buildings with some similar problems,” said Wrenn. “That group has done some wonderful things with these old buildings. Getting people who care about restoring them and running business out of them.”
The Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission denied an application on the National register ability of Beechwood House as a historical site because of some small additions to the exterior.
“The building retains much of its original exterior materials,” said a letter from Edward F. Sanderson, Executive Director Deputy Historic Preservation Officer. “However, altercations to the exterior of the building diminish its historical character.”
Sentimentalists would like to crown Wrenn as the Davidian hero who’s fighting against the culture-crushing Goliaths of small-town politics. But North Kingstown does have some serious budget issues to contend with. We all know about hindsight, but the objectivist has to see how one’s Victorian relic can be another’s dilapidated eyesore.
“North Kingstown has enough old buildings,” said a councilmember in a recent press conference, summing up many peoples feelings on Beechwood house succinctly.
While the resolution is far from over, Wrenn and his fellow supporters are not letting Beechwood house go down without getting word out. Hopefully that word will do some good and they will find some modern philanthropic Elisha Dyer, who has a brilliant plan for reuse of the old brooding beach house.