East Greenwich, bounded by the Narragansett Bay to the east and rolling coastal hills to the west, rests in the geographic center of Rhode Island. This was Pequot Indian land until King Charles II bought it in 1644. The General Assembly incorporated the town in 1677 and granted land to 48 men who served during King Philip’s War, one of the most overlooked, yet bloody, conflicts to have occurred on American soil. The town took its name from Greenwich, England in County Kent.
Greenwich developed as a trade center for the surrounding farms and was vibrant enough to be selected county seat in 1750 and the state General Assembly met here from 1750 until 1854 on a rotating basis with other four Rhode Island government seats. Over the decades light industry, mostly textile related, began mixing in with the commerce from the sea.
Our walking tour of downtown East Greenwich will find a bit of history preserved from the 1700s, the 1800s and 1900s, a bit of maritime history, a bit of military history, a bit of ecclesiastical history, and we’ll start in the center with a bit of governmental history...
Kent County Courthouse / East Greenwich Town Hall
125 Main Street
When East Greenwich was established as the Kent County seat in 1750 the first courthouse was constructed on this site. In 1775, it was the practice of the General Assembly to rotate among the five Rhode Island counties. When the wheel landed on East Greenwich in 1764 the legislature established the school that would become Brown University; in 1775 the legislature passed the resolution that created the United States Navy. That original building was replaced in 1804 with this handsome Federal-style structure built by Oliver Wickes, a Revolutionary War veteran. Wickes added some Revolutionary-era styling as well with the square tower and decorative corner quoins. History continued to be made here (or at least close by) - in September 1842 the convention for the framing of the Rhode Island Constitution met here but when the heating system failed the meeting was adjourned and the final vote actually taken in the Methodist church several blocks away. In the early days the courtyard had on one side of its walk a liberty pole and on the other a whipping post. The building, by far the largest structure in Kent County in its day, s listed in the National Register of Historic Places. After 1854 the General Assembly restricted its activities to Providence and Newport but the building continued in use as a Courthourse and cases were heard here until 1978. After many years of vacancy and neglect the Courthouse was given a $2.3 million make-over for re-use as the East Greenwich Town Hall.
WITH YOUR BACK TO TOWN HALL, TURN RIGHT AND WALK SOUTH ON MAIN STREET.
162 Main Street
A tavern or public house has existed on this site for more than 250 years. In 1770, 31-year old William Arnold, the town’s most successful shipping merchant, built a large inn here under a wooden sign with a cluster of grapes. After Daniel Updike married into the family and assumed control in the 1820s he changed the name from “The Bunch of Grapes” to the Updike Inn. That 125-year old building was razed in favor of this three-story hostelry with its central Ionic columns in 1896. In the 1920s, when the hotel became a notorious gambling house during Prohibition, it assumed the name of the Greenwich Inn and today approaches the age of its predecessor as the Greenwich Hotel.
173 Main Street
This three-story Italianate brick building was constructed in 1893 as a town social center and fraternal meeting house. Over the years the storefronts on the first floor have served many masters, including the post office for many years.
United Methodist Church
214 Main Street
This Greek Revival building was constructed as the United Methodist Church in the 1830s on land was donated by Mrs. Joseph Greene. In this meetinghouse on November 5, 1842 the Constitution of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was adopted. The action ended the charter form of government in the state. In 1846 the parsonage was built at the rear of the church and in 1850 the church was cut in two and the sections moved apart to make way for a new central section. Further renovations through the years have sacrificed a classical portico and today the former church operates as retail space.
Kent House Hotel
252-254 Main Street
This 1850s building is typical of the Italianate style of architecture that dominated American downtowns in the middle of the 19th century. The most noticeable elements is the fine, heavily bracketed cornice and the dual bay windows connected by a rail porch. Roland G. Brown was the builder.
East Greenwich Fire Station
262 Main Street
The East Greenwich Fire Station was incorporated in 1797 with the right to levy taxes. Water was piped through bored wooden logs down to Main Street shortly after 1800. An official firehouse for the company was not constructed until this brick building came along in 1914. At the time it housed only hand and horse-drawn apparatus - the first gasoline-powered equipment did not come along until 1928.
294 Main Street
John Reynolds built the first brick house in East Greenwich in 1767 and it still stands today. It features a prominent gambrel roof and may have also had a store on the first floor. The Greek Revival entrance door is an 1840s addiition. Reynolds moved on after a few years and a succession of owners, including Colonel Micah Whitmarsh, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, followed.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON MAIN STREET TO DEDFORD STREET. TURN LEFT AND CLIMB THE HILL. TURN RIGHT ON PEIRCE STREET.
Samuel Knowles House
100 Peirce Street
Samuel Knowles, a self-educated lawyer who became president of the town council and a Rhode Island state senator, had this expansive Greek Revival home constructed in 1850.
90 Peirce Street
In 1774, the year it was chartered, the commanders of the Independent Company of Kentish Guards voted to reject an aspiring, officer, citing a stiff knee. The young man swallowed his pride and signed on as a private. Teh next year Rhode Island commissioned him a brigadier general and gave Nathanael Greene the command of its three regiments. Greene became one of the most successful combat leaders of the Revolution, rising to second -in-command to George Washington. The Greek Revival armory was built after the armed insurrection led by Thomas Wilson Dorr to change the Rhode Island’s electoral system in 1842. The Kentish Guard, the nation’s fifth oldest chartered command, used it for meeting and drill sessions.
East Greenwich Free Library
80 Peirce Street
Daniel Albert Peirce was a direct descendent of one of the town’s founders, Giles Peirce. In 1913, while serving on the library board he donated the site of his boyhood home for a new library - and, by the way, he would pay for the building, equip it and endow the enterprise as well. The Free Library, constructed of grey Coventry granite with fine woods inside, was dedicated on June 29, 1915 in the memory of his daughter who died as a young girl. Daniel Peirce would live into his 94 year before dying in 1932.
St. Luke’s Church
99 Peirce Street at Church Street
St. Luke’s Church was organized in 1833 and a wooden church constructed a year later. In 1875 the building was sold and shipped to a different location. This Gothic-style replacement of Coventry granite was built at the cost of $32,000. Beginning in the 1880s forty-three stained glass windows, including some by Tiffany and some by the renowned glass artist Wright Goodhue, were installed. In 1923 a spire was added, containing a carillon of bells.
James Mitchell Varnum House
57 Pierce Street
James Varnum was an honor graduate of the first class of Rhode Island College, later Brown University. He rapidly attained fortune as a successful lawyer and, like his friend Nathanael Greene, entered the militia in 1774 with no prior military training. Varnum fought with distinction in the Boston and New York campaigns and was commissioned as a brigadier general on February 21, 1777. He retired in march 1779, eager to return to his lucrative law practice. However, he was back in the war in 1780, now a major general, assisting the French Army. After the war he was elected a United States congressman and ventured to Marietta, Ohio, as judge of the Northwest Territory, where he died in 1788 at the age of 42. Varnum constructed this Georgian two-story frame house, which also contained his law office, in 1773. It sports a hipped roof, modillioned cornices and a central pedimented doorway with columned porch. The two-storied ell was a late 1800s addition.
First Baptist Church
30 Peirce Street at Montrose Street
The Baptists trace their time in East Greenwich back to the founding pioneers. Their first church, located on Division Street, blew down in the Great Gale of 1815,which left a lasting impression on the congregation. When the current sanctuary was planned in the 1880s it did not include a steeple for fear it would be felled in a coming storm. The church of High Victorian style was dedicated in 1887.
TURN RIGHT ON DIVISION STREET.
20 Division Street
This gambrel style house has been anointed as the oldest house in East Greenwich; its construction date pegged as 1711. Of its early owners, Miller was a silversmith and the Congdons a family of sea captains.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET.
Varnum Memorial Armory
6 Main Street
The Varnum Continentals built their brick Armory in 1914 in medieval style with towers, massive double doors, multiple arched windows, and a crenellated parapet along the roofline. Inside is a rifle range and drill hall. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the armory has contained a military museum since after World War I with a collection of more than 1000 items dating back to 1500. This was the second site of the Rhode Island Central Bank, the town’s first bank.
Old Post Office
11 Main Street
East Greenwich had some of the earliest federal postal service in America, beginning in 1789; the first postmaster was Giden Mumford. This Colonial Revival building was constructed of brick with stone pilasters in 1932. It soldiers on as a restaurant.
65 Main Street
The Greenwich Theatre originally opened as a vaudeville house in 1926. It changed soon after to a motion picture house and in 1933 screened the first “talkie” in town. Movies were shown in the two-story brick Neo-Colonial theater until 1990. In its last incarnation the theater was renovated by a non-profit organization and renamed the Greenwich Odeum.
110-112 Main Street
The John Tibbits Tavern once stood here, before it went up in flames in 1872. William G. Browning built this decorative Victorian block in 1876 for his household furnishings store. It features a Second-Empire inspired mansard roof (altered and less decorative) and fanciful window hoods (same as they ever were). The store remained in the Browning family until 1939.
WALK A FEW MORE STEPS ON MAIN STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.