The town of Westerly on the Pawcatuck River was incorporated in 1669 as the fifth town in the colony of Rhode Island. When settlers weren’t squabbling over boundary disputes with their Connecticut neighbors across the river the usual suspects of mills and shipyards sprouted on the banks. In the nine villages that came to comprise Westerly - the name is derived from its geographic position in the state - farming dominated the economy.
You can still find vestiges of pre-Revolutionary Westerly among these outlying farms but downtown there is nothing today to betray that anything existed before the middle of the 19th century, a time that coincides with the beginnings of the industry for which Westerly gained national renown. It was in 1845 that Orlando Smith discovered an abundance of granite on his farm and within short order several granite companies were organized around town. Westerly granite is fine-grained, susceptible to delicate carving, and hence, particularly well-suited for memorials. The local quarries yield four varieties of stone: a red variety commonly used for building blocks; and white, blue and pink granite usually used for monuments. Monuments crafted from Westerly granite can be found in 32 states.
Our walking tour of downtown will indeed see Westerly granite on town buildings. Perhaps because it is the Rhode Island town most closely located to New York City, Westerly has more big-city architecture than other towns its size. But before we take a look at those we’ll begin with another feature normally associated with big cities - a hundred-year old, award-winning park...
Harriet Wilcox began this botanical gem in the heart of Westerly’s business district in 1898 by donating the seven acre Rowse Babcock estate to the library association that had been started by her late husband, Stephen Wilcox. The park was designed using local plants by Warren H. Manning, a former associate of Frederick Law Olmsted and founding father of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The purchase of the adjacent nine-acre Brown estate expanded the privately owned and maintained park to its current size and eventually non-native plants were added to develop the park as an arboretum. Wilcox Park is widely recognized by both national and international organizations as a significant historic designed landscape. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and in 1999 received a Centennial Medallion Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.
EXIT THE PARK AT THE SOUTHWESTERN CORNER ONTO BROAD STREET.
Westerly Public Library
44 Broad Street
This grand Romanesque building constructed of golden bricks and red roof tiles was built in 1894 as a living Civil War Veteran’s Memorial through the initiative of local industrialist-inventor, Stephen Wilcox. Wilcox, who died a year earlier at the age of 63, invented the water tube steam boiler that were used to efficiently power U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine ships. He is a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Wilcox donated the land and a matching grant of $25,000 for the building’s construction. In addition to the library the Wilcox Memorial boasted a bowling alley, gymnasium, art gallery, museum, and meeting space for the Grand Army of the Republic. It opened with 5,000 books and today is one of the state’s largest libraries with over 160,000 items.
TURN RIGHT ON BROAD STREET.
U.S. Post Office
corner of Broad Street and High Street
The town post office was constructed in 1914 under the auspices of James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the United States Department of the Treasury from 1897 to 1912. Knox was an associate of Cass Gilbert, one of America’s leading proponents of a return to classical architecture at the time and this post office certainly does justice to the philosophy. Its gleaming white marble colonnade of fluted Doric columns curves smartly around the corner lot. The main cornice under a roof of green dull-glazed tile is decorated with lions’ heads.
TURN RIGHT ON HIGH STREET, THE HEART OF DOWNTOWN WESTERLY’S COMMERCIAL DISTRICT. MANY OF THE BLOCKS DATE TO THE LATE 1800s.
Industrial Trust Company Building
14 High Street
The original bank constructed at this site in 1887 used red granite cut by the New England Granite works - its date is remembered in the facade of the current building that was erected in 1914. This Neoclassical vault features exquisitely carved engaged Corinthian columns and a domed roof. The bank shuttered in the 1960s and the impressive space was used as storage for a drugstore and studio space for local artist Lowell Reiland. it is currently owned by the Westerly Land Trust. many of the building’s original features - doorknobs, molding, windows and such - are original.
TURN LEFT ON CANAL STREET.
The Artists’ Cooperative Gallery of Westerly
7 Canal Street
Housed in a former Montgomery Ward’s showroom, the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery was founded by artists in 1992. The building to the east at #11 was the United Theatre that opened in 1926 and operated until 1986. With a seating capacity of nearly 1,000, it featured a pipe organ from the prestigious M.P. Moller Pipe Organ Company of Hagerstown, Maryland.
10 Canal Street
Michael Martin, who owned the Steamboat Hotel across the state line in Stonington, expanded his hospitality empire with this brick hotel in 1888. Hard by the railroad station and overlooking the Pawcatuck River, the Martin House was Westerly’s leading hotel until it closed in 1939. In chugged on through the 20th century as the Foster House and the Granite City Hotel and the Hotel Savoy and survives today as condominiums.
TURN RIGHT ON RAILROAD AVENUE.
Westerly Train Station
14 Railroad Avenue
Sporting a distinctive red tile roof, the Italian Renaissance depot was originally built in 1912 by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. It has been favored by a recent restoration. Historically, Westerly was one of the few stops on the express from Boston to New York; today the train ride to New York City, 142 miles away, takes about three hours.
The Westerly Armory
northeast corner of Railroad Avenue and Dixon Street
After a wood-framed armory on Main Street burned to the ground this brick fortress was erected in 1901. The firm of William R. Walker & Son built the armory for a cost of $30,000, adding to its lengthy legacy of armories and public buildings around Rhode Island. The two-story structure of red brick and white granite was designed int he Norman style with a small octagonal tower topped with battlements at each corner. In addition to storing provisions for local military outfits the armory was the scene of sports activities such as basketball with the New York Celtics, boxing matches, and bowling. In 1996, when the Westerly Armory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places it was deemed by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission as “the model armory in the State of Rhode Island.”
RETRACE YOUR STEPS BACK TO BROAD STREET.
Washington Trust Company
Broad Street and High Street
America’s foremost bank architects, York and Sawyer of New York, came to Westerly to design this Italian Renaissance headquarters for the Washington Trust Company in 1925. The four-story structure uses Indiana limestone trimmed in Westerly granite. The Washington bank opened its doors on August 22, 1800 as the third bank in Rhode Island.
TURN LEFT ON BROAD STREET.
Westerly Town Hall
45 Broad Street
This is another contribution to the streetscapes of Rhode Island by William R. Walker and Son of Providence. The two-story granite structure projects a pedimented Ionic entrance portico.
Broad and Elm streets
The Christ Church parish was founded in 1834 and two years later the congregation erected its first church. That meetinghouse burned in 1872 with only the organ, the first in town, surviving. The present English Gothic church was completed in 1894, constructed of Westerly Blue Granite with Westerly red granite trim.
TURN RIGHT ON ELM STREET TO TOUR stately 19th century houses OF THE Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate and Second Empire styles.
1 Granite Street at corner of Elm Street
This renovated Greek Revival Church was organized in 1843 as “The Christian Chapel in Westerly.” The site was purchased for $200.00 and Aaron Pierce and James Ells contracted to erect the building which was completed in 1849. Purchased for $150,000 in 2000 the old church has been a theater ever since.
Christ Church Rectory
8 Elm Street
This splendid example of Greek Revival architecture now serves as the rectory for Christ Church.
WHEN YOU HAVE SEEN YOUR FILL OF FINE HOMES, TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON ELM STREET AND CROSS BROAD STREET INTO WILCOX PARK AND THE TOUR STARTING POINT.