by Neil Dunay

An architectural comparison.

The following article, under the title "Smith's Castle and Two Other Seventeenth-Century Houses," originally appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of the Castle Chronicle, the newsletter of the Cocumscussoc Association. Used with permission.

Smith's Castle

Smith's Castle (1679)
55 Richard Smith Drive, Wickford, North Kingstown

Clemence-Irons House (circa 1680)
38 George Waterman Road, Johnston

Eleazer Arnold House (circa 1687)
487 Great Road, Lincoln

Smith's Castle is one of only a handful of seventeenth-century houses still standing in Rhode Island. Two other notable museum houses of the era are the Clemence-Irons House (circa 1680) in Johnston and the Eleazer Arnold House (circa 1687) in Lincoln, both owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA). [Now known as Historic New England—ed.]

In contrast to the Smith's Castle central chimney plan, the Clemence-Irons and Arnold houses are rare examples of Rhode Island "stone-enders." These houses, with two massive stone fireplaces spanning an entire side of the house and capped with pilastered stone chimneys, are thought to derive from a building tradition from western counties in England. The two stone-enders have similar floor plans, with four rooms on the first floor: two rooms directly next to the fireplaces at one side and two rooms adjoining these rooms (see Figures 1 and 2).

The Clemence-Irons house was typical in its one-and-a-half story construction, but the Arnold house rises a full two-and-a-half stories (see Figures 3 and 4).

Smith's Castle and the two SPNEA properties share some historical threads in their twentieth-century restorations, including ties to two leading preservationists of the era, Norman M. Isham and John Hutchins Cady. Norman Isham (1864–1943) ranks among the earliest architectural historians and preservationists in Rhode Island. He was trained at Brown University and was a North Kingstown resident for many years of his life. Isham and colleague Albert F. Brown published a detailed architectural analysis of Cocumscussoc in their 1895 Early Rhode Island Houses. In the late 1920s, Isham stabilized Smith's Castle and partially restored the fireplace in the keeping room.

Providence architect and preservationist John Hutchins Cady (1881–1967) wrote an historical and architectural description of Cocumscussoc in the January 1949 issue of SPNEA's Olde-Time New England, and he directed the Castle's restoration from 1951 to 1956.

The first of the three houses to be fully restored was the Clemence-Irons House in 1938. Over the centuries, a succession of owners had added to the house and subdivided its rooms, resulting in a thirteen-room structure by the early twentieth century. Recognizing its architectural significance and concerned about its preservation, Henry Sharpe, Ellen Sharpe, and Louisa Sharpe Metcalf (brother and sisters) purchased the property and commissioned Isham and Cady to restore the house.

Isham and Cady dismantled the Clemence-Irons house to its timber frame and reassembled and rebuilt the house to their vision of how it would have appeared in 1680. The house today, SPNEA interpreters say, is "about half 1680 and half 1938." SPNEA presents the Clemence-Irons house as a 1938 restoration of a seventeenth-century house. In fact, when SPNEA conservators make repairs to the house, they try to stay true to the 1938 restoration rather than impose today's views of how the structure might have appeared in 1680. SPNEA even exhibits Isham-designed furnishings: two bedsteads, a trestle table, a hutch, and banister-back chairs. None of the pieces today are considered accurate representations of furniture of the period.

In restoring the Clemence-Irons House, Isham relied heavily on his experience in studying and stabilizing the Eleazer Arnold House in Lincoln in 1920. The Arnold house, however, was not fully restored until 1950. At that time, Russell H. Kettell undertook a complete structural rehabilitation. Like Isham and Cady at the Clemence-Irons house, Kettell removed many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century additions to the Arnold house to return the façade and interior to his vision of how the home would have appeared in the seventeenth century. These renovations included removing plastered walls and sash windows and replacing them with wood paneling (based on fragments found in the house) and lead casement windows. Kettell, however, left intact some later features on the rear of the house.

The Richard Smith, Jr., room at Smith's Castle experienced a similar restoration. After discovering fragments of seventeenth-century paneling, restorers removed mid-eighteenth-century plaster, paneling, and casings and replicated the older paneling throughout the room (see Figure 5).

Any Cocumscussoc Association members who visit the Clemence-Irons and Eleazer Arnold houses will immediately notice the similarity among the great halls in the two latter houses and the Richard Smith, Jr., room at Cocumscussoc. The dark vertical paneling and the large chamfered summer beam are typical of seventeenth-century New England architecture.

Smith's Castle and the Arnold House also share ghosts in the attic—that is, evidence of diagonal beams that supported part of the gables that extended from their façades in the seventeenth century. Smith's Castle is believed to have had two attic gables flanking a projecting central gabled "porch" (see Figure 6). The Arnold House had one gable. For reasons not clear, restorers of the Arnold house did not replicate the seventeenth-century gable, although Norman Isham had sketched how it might have appeared (Figure 3).

Unlike Smith's Castle, the two SPNEA house museums are not furnished to the period and do not have costumed docents. At the Arnold House, the resident manager—who lives in a private section of the house museum—gives tours, and most of the rooms are bare. SPNEA representatives give tours of the Clemence-Irons House, which also is not furnished, except for the few Isham-designed pieces.

Scheduled public hours are rare at these two houses, but you can also call (401) 728-9696, June 1 through October 15, to arrange a special appointment.

Editor's Note: Other notable houses from the same time period include the Major Thomas Fenner House (1677) in Cranston, and the Clement Weaver-Daniel Howland House (circa 1679) in East Greenwich.

Neil Dunay is a former president of the Cocumscussoc Association.

This article last edited January 20, 2020

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