Watch Hill historic sites get storm repair funds

Watch Hill historic sites get storm repair funds

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — Local historic sites will receive at least $497,499 in Superstorm Sandy relief grants announced Monday by the state Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. The grants are among $2.58 million in National Park Service awards to 23 sites or projects in 10 Rhode Island towns. The money will be administered by the state commission.

In this area, the Watch Hill Lighthouse will receive $447,500, and the former Lanphear Livery Stable, also in Watch Hill, will receive $49,999. Another $474,766 was awarded for an archaeological survey of Westerly, Charlestown and Narragansett.

The Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association, which maintains the historic property, was thrilled to receive the funds, said Ann Snowden Johnson, president of the association’s board of directors.

“We were really bowled over by the generosity,” she said.

The building, which was built in 1855-56, as well as the surrounding grounds, was extensively damaged during the storm in October 2012. Johnson estimated that the lighthouse sustained several million dollars in damage from Sandy, and the association has been working on repairs since that time.

Among the repairs that this grant will facilitate is a stone revetment, or wall, on the northeast side of the property that protects the land from waves. The storm put a gaping hole in the wall, and the grant will help repair 150 linear feet. The previous wall had stood for decades, Johnson said, and the work requires that granite boulders be precisely placed so that they intersect.

Grant funds will also be used to fill in holes in the lawn behind the lighthouse’s former oilhouse. The storm also tossed large boulders around the property, ripped up the entry road, and destroyed about 220 linear feet of a historic cobblestone wall.

Johnson expressed her gratitude to the state’s congressional delegation for their work in securing the funds.

The lighthouse was commissioned in 1806 through an executive order by President Jefferson. The first building was constructed in 1807, and the tall lighthouse in use today was built in the 1850s with Westerly granite, Johnson said. The Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association, a nonprofit group, has maintained the property since 1986. Although the lighthouse is not open to the public, the grounds are, and the museum is open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in July and August. With the repairs made possible by this grant, Johnson said she hopes that the grounds will continue to be a safe place for all of Westerly to enjoy.

This was one of four Rhode Island lighthouses to receive funding. The others are Southeast Light on Block Island, Rose Island Lighthouse in Newport, and the Bristol Ferry Lighthouse, which is now a private residence.

The former Lanphear Livery at 1 Bay St. dates back to about 1885, when it provided horses and carriages for summer residents. In the 1920s, the building was converted to a service station, Holdredge Garage. In addition to its historic significance, it’s the first building people see when they enter Watch Hill, according to Watch Hill Fire District moderator Charles S. Whitman III.

The storm surge inundated the old building, causing a serious mold problem, buckling the floor and damaging the foundation and an interior staircase. According to town records, the building is owned by Watch Hill Limited Partnership, and was most recently valued at $2.7 million.

The caretakers of each property applied for the grants individually, noted the Westerly town manager, Michelle Buck. “We’re happy that they did and were successful,” she said. She added that the repairs will make the area more attractive as a tourist destination.

Coastal survey

Timothy Ives, principal archaeologist of the Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, said that the storm exposed areas that could have been hiding archaeological sites.

The survey funded by the National Park Service grant is a two-stage process. Ives said that professional archaeologists have been walking the beach areas looking for artifacts such as Native American tools, parts of old buildings, and anything else that might yield clues to the past. Sites that they feel are worth looking into are being catalogued, Ives said.

The second phase will likely start in the fall, when the sites will undergo a more intense survey and tests to determine if they qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. The age of a site isn’t as important as the information it provides, Ives explained.

If the archaeologists discover a 1,000-year-old place that doesn’t contribute to our understanding of life in the past, it will be disregarded, he said, whereas a unique modern site might be of more interest.

The grants were announced Monday at The Towers in Narragansett, one of the grant recipients. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Reps. James Langevin and David Cicilline were in attendance.

“This is about preserving our past and building toward a more sustainable future,” Reed saud. “In addition to aesthetic value, the preservation and restoration of these local landmarks helps boost tourism and economic development. Rhode Island has a proud history and vibrant culture and we want to properly preserve it for future generations.”

Reed, the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment, spearheaded the effort to secure the grants.

Langevin added: “These relief grants will go a long way to restoring our treasured historic properties to their original condition, thereby reviving iconic Rhode Island destinations for natives and visitors alike.”



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