Battle for Beechwood House
Rhode Island man fights to rejuvenate an old memory and keep relic standing.
Monday, September 27, 2010 - 21:27
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 the 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 to most.
"The council is flying in the face of the contract. It was promised," spoke Dick Shapiro; the former chairman of the town's 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 threatened.
"This council doesn't have the vision to understand what the building can be," said Dave Wrenn, another of many who took his turn and 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 council member 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 council. Hearing him speak fervently about broken contracts and deceived residents, even someone who had never heard of Beechwood House could 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 public didn't have a say
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 without most of the public even knowing. Now Wrenn and the Partners in Preservation are going to make sure that citizens of North Kingstown and the surrounding areas are at least informed about the proposed fate of the building, even if they have no power to change it. Just building support and outcry.
"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 old-wooden frame cottage looking shops and gold date plate marked colonial buildings are squeezed right in along the tight main street. But you almost have to be looking for Beechwood House to find it.
Down the main road through Wickford Village, over the rusty bridge and past the old brick town hall. You'll notice the tree-line will start to become spiked with giant yacht masts shooting above the oaks from some unseen body of water. If you rubber-neck at the gorgeous boats behind the trees for too long, you may miss Beach Street hiding on a curve at the next light.
Crawling down Beach Street, stopping at numerous stop signs, and admiring beautiful upper-middle-class homes, the trees open up on both sides and up ahead the ocean appears, just over the edge of a green lawn like incipient mirage ripples. It's just suddenly there — the blue, open ocean sitting right behind some brooding white clap-board Victorian and some scarce trees — when a moment ago, there was no sign of water in this suburbia besides the phantom yacht masts.
That brooding old building watching over the bay is Beechwood House. Hidden down a canopied residential road, it becomes the centerpiece after breaching the threshold of trees and houses. Two big trees near the front steps, an iron staircase, a partial wrap-around veranda, endless ocean and a sprinkle of sails against the blue horizon behind it.
The road continues into a parking lot, passing the new Beechwood Center, a new dance studio and a small art gallery on the right, and the white clapboard relic on the left-sitting like it has for so many years — between the trees and the water — so close that it looks as if it should have been pulled under the waves by now. The rest of Cold Spring Beach consists of a large, green lawn and a few scattered trees; from anywhere in front of the new structures, the only thing blocking the view of nothing but ocean and sky is Beechwood House.
Standing on the veranda, squinting to see Newport in the clear day, one may feel the urge to wear a monocle and a morning coat, like the sobriquet Commodore himself, looking across the bay deciding 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."
Historical background on the area
North Kingstown has many Colonial buildings, so the Reconstruction-era beach house is not the oldest, but it has been part of the North Kingstown scene through many of the changes the town has been through.
"There used to be a train station down here. The Vanderbilts 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 Cold Spring beach — and Wickford in general — became a hidden oasis, a summer vacation spot for early 20th century socialites and aristocrats. It is most famous for 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 and culture of the time, the building was sold to C. Howard Tholl after Dyer's death in 1906. Tholl first turned it into The Beechwood, an inn that stood alongside a 25-room hotel, Cold Spring House. Beechwood remained in that capacity, run under different 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, it opened in April 1975.
Why close Beechwood House?
Shorefront weather and age breaking it down, the building was abandoned in 2009 when a new senior center went up nearby. 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. Some former residents of 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. "A lot of people, a lot of seniors, still have a soft spot in their heart for Beechwood House."
"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 not-so-subtle denunciations aside, he believes more strongly in his case than many of us believe in anything. That dedication alone should count for something. He and his small group have been on the charge to save Beechwood House since they heard about its fate. Since that cold Febuary meeting, the small group has gotten even 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 "Save Beechwood" signs dotting North Kingstown and Narragansett roads; there are websites, local meetings, organizations and even a Facebook group devoted to saving and renovating it.
North Kingstown is not without its problems — it has some serious budget issues and restoring some old, dying building is very low on the agenda for most people. Wickford Elementary School closed because of repair cost issues of their own. Some of the money saved knocking down Beechwood could be put toward 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, weather-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 their 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 plaques on old buildings."
"Those who support preserving Beechwood House say the irony is, that in a town like North Kingstown — that prides itself on its old rustic charm and quaint historic villages — is going to demolish one of the most recognizable single buildings in the village.
"The fact that they are just going to pay the money to knock it down, as a taxpayer I resent that," says Wrenn.
Proposed new uses for Beechwood
Wrenn sees a galaxy of possibilities for the old Dyer residence. Some of the ideas he enthusiastically proposed to me were: a rental facility for weddings and reunions, a senior care center, a youth center, a restaurant or hotel.
"They have some very profitable rental halls on Narragansett beach," he said. "Beechwood House has a natural location. It could be used in the same manner."
Wrenn is calling on all brain-stormers, calculated risk-takers, entrepreneurs and preservationists to conjure up the frontiersman spirit of old C. Howard Tholl into reinventing the building for modern day use.
Roadblocks for progress
While Wrenn is fighting hard for his cause, Mother Nature is not helping him, or Beechwood House out very much. A contributer to the "Save Beechwood House" Facebook page wrote recently that hoses had been running from the basement for about a week after the historic rain that deluged Rhode Island at the beginning of the summer. When asked about any flood damage done to Beechwood House, Wrenn paused, than sidestepped the direct question ominously and defended Beechwood House.
"I did hear that it was a little flooded," said Wrenn. "I haven't seen it, though. Basements flood. That is just something any building is going to face."
Pros, cons and the final thought: Supporters will continue to fight for it
Beechwood House definitely has one thing going for it, or in real estate speak, three things going for it: location (, location, location). Beechwood House is extremely close to the calm Bay, so close in fact, that any demolition would have to go through CRMC or DEM before the demolition can even start. Beechwood has a tucked-away, scenic location; the way the sun sets behind it almost looks Photoshopped. While it may be in mild disrepair now, once it's razed, the town can't go back and renovate. For this very practical reason, Wrenn is pleading with the town to at least check every last 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 alot 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 fix them up for adaptive re-use."
The DCR works in an original public-private partnership. Through their Office of Cultural Resources the DCR 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 similar problems," said Wrenn. "That group has done some wonderful things with these old buildings. Getting people who care about restoring them and running businesses out of them."
The Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission denied an application on the National Register for Beechwood House as a historical site, citing 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," he went on to say, "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 has serious budget issues to contend with in the present, and it's easy to see how one's Victorian relic can be another's dilapidated eyesore.
"North Kingstown has enough old buildings," said a twenty-something North Kingstown resident who hadn't really even heard the news on the battle for Beechwood.
"Is that that old white building blocking the beach?" Added Mike Hammond, a North Kingstown resident when asked his opinions about Beechwood House.
While not everyone knows about Beechwood House, apparently the word has gotten out to enough people. In August, the North Kingstown town council decided to temporarily save Beechwood House from the wrecking ball. Two members of the council and two preservationists will round out the committee that will hear proposals for possible reuses of Beechwood.
Beechwood lives on ... at least for now. While some think the damage is irreparable, local preservationists have said the renovations needed would be worth it in the long run. They're spreading the word, and hopefully that word will do some good and they can find some modern philanthropic Elisha Dyer, who has a brilliant plan for reuse of the old brooding beach house. For now, everything is up in the air, but Beechwood has proved to be the little cause that could.
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