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Norwood Avenue Historic District

Cranston City, Providence County, RI


Norwood Avenue Historic District

Photo: Edgewood Manor Inn, circa 1905, in the Norwood Avenue Historic District, Cranston. The Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Photographed by User:John Phelan (own work), 2013, [cc-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed August, 2022.


Description

The Norwood Avenue Historic District [†] is located in northern Cranston in the Edgewood neighborhood. It includes all the properties facing Norwood Avenue, from Broad Street to Green Memorial Boulevard, the eastern boundary of Roger Williams Park. The district includes 33 houses. The buildings in the district are sited on moderate to large-sized lots. Building setbacks range from fifteen to fifty feet. The properties on the street are well maintained, with mature trees and plantings. The integrity of the structures is generally good, and most buildings from the period of significance are still in place.

Most of the houses were constructed between 1892 and 1933, though some were constructed in the early 1950s. Most are wood-frame buildings, but there are some brick structures as well. The district evinces the stylistic evolution of domestic architecture from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with good representative examples of the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles, and more modest examples of.the Tudor Revival, Dutch Colonial and Craftsman styles.

There are a few post-1952 buildings in the district, which have been designated non-contributing; nonetheless, the Norwood Avenue Historic District constitutes a notable assemblage of buildings from the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century in a largely unaltered setting.

Contributing buildings include those that retain sufficient integrity to accurately represent the historical development of a plat in the Edgewood neighborhood. Contributing buildings are defined as those constructed before 1952 which retain in their exterior form, size, scale, mass, materials, design, and setting the appearance of the district during its period of significance.

Significance

The Norwood Avenue Historic District is significant as an example of a typical pre-World War II suburban subdivision whose development spans the streetcar and early-auto eras. (See: Streetcar Suburbs 1888 to 1928.) The district is well preserved and distinctive in its combination of typical and atypical attributes of this type of development. The district is also significant for its exemplification of the trends that influenced the development of the Edgewood neighborhood in eastern Cranston. The district's social history illustrates Edgewood's development from Providence's most fashionable suburb in the 1870s and 1880s to its post-World War II role as a solidly middle-class neighborhood. Architecturally, the district's buildings document this process, through a range of types and styles, from very fine Victorian houses to moderate-scale, mid-twentieth-century builder's houses.

Pre-World War II plats are typologically different from post-war subdivisions: they are more likely to be laid out in an orthogonal grid (straight streets, perpendicular intersections, rectangular lots); they usually (but not always) have fewer lots; the lots are usually smaller (4,000-5,000 square feet is typical) and usually deeper than they are wide; front setbacks are not deep (often less than fifteen to twenty feet, sometimes zero, with siting right at the sidewalk); and the build-up usually occurs over a long span of time, typically from the layout of the plat in the late 1800s right up to the 1950s-60s-70s. An example of this type, Norwood Avenue is both typical and unusual. It is orthogonally laid out, is relatively small-to-average in terms of number of lots, and was built-up between 1880 and 1961. However, the width of the street (eighty feet) is greater than average, setbacks are relatively deep, and the size of the lots is very generous (16,000 square feet and larger). The standard lot size here of 100 by 160 feet is unusual for a suburban development of its era, but typical of the Elmwood neighborhood.

The Norwood Avenue Historic District is part of the expansive neighborhood of Edgewood which developed between the 1870s and 1960s. Set in eastern Cranston, with the advantages of proximity to Providence and a waterside location, Edgewood was the largest and most fashionable suburb in the metropolitan area for many decades. In its physical aspects and its social history, Norwood Avenue is typical of its larger neighborhood as well as illustrative of its pattern of development.

Originally farm land, Edgewood contained only twenty houses and two hotels in 1870. The construction of the first horse railroad from Providence through the area in 1870 improved its accessibility. The character of the area began to change in the late 1870s after the purchase of land by William Hall. Hall was a realtor who began to develop the area for residential use. (His wife is credited with giving the Edgewood neighborhood its name.) Several farms were eventually platted, and development increased rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s.

From the first, Edgewood attracted wealthy business people from Providence who were drawn by its convenience to the city, the natural beauty of the bay, and its proximity to Roger Williams Park, Providence's largest open landscape, created in 1871.

Development evolved linearly along the streetcar lines down Broad Street and Narragansett Boulevard. Lateral expansion followed as settlement increased, stimulated by the installation of electric streetcars in 1892, which made the trip quicker and cleaner. The Edgewood Casino was constructed on Shaw Avenue in about 1890, and the building erected in 1908 by the Edgewood Yacht Club, bounded in 1889, still stands at the foot of the street.

Typical of the people who settled in Edgewood were William S. Cherry of Cherry and Webb, whose house stood on Narragansett Boulevard; George L. Vose, a jewelry manufacturer who built his home on Broad Street; and George R. Babbitt, president of the American Oil Company, who resided on Shaw Avenue.

Families like these could afford architects, and Edgewood today has the largest concentration of architect-designed domestic architecture in Cranston, and the area includes handsome examples of all the styles popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Eastlake, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Shingle styles. Development of individual dwellings continued in Edgewood into the 1920s resulting in a number of houses which reflect that era's domestic architecture.

In the 1930s, the attractions of Edgewood remained, but large tracts of empty land did not. As a result the decade witnessed construction of apartment buildings, an innovation in the city which anticipated much of today's recent residential construction, and the filling-in of isolated empty lots throughout the neighborhood.

The great hurricane of 1938 damaged some houses and claimed many of the fine old trees along Narragansett Boulevard, and in the decades following World War II changing living patterns diminished Edgewood's prestige somewhat. Nevertheless, in physical form the area remains one of Cranston's most impressive. Set between Roger Williams Park and Narragansett Bay, and marked by wide streets and good-sized lots, Edgewood has a more open feeling than most suburban neighborhoods, providing excellent vistas of the large, well-designed houses that line the streets. The uniformity of scale and setback and the well-landscaped front lawns, make Edgewood an impressive historic area.

Norwood Avenue was laid out in 1873 by partners Albert Arnold, William H. Hall, and Horace Horton as the Williams Park Plat. They envisioned at the onset a wide, tree-lined boulevard linking Broad Street, a principal thoroughfare, in Providence. The Williams Park Plat comprised thirty-four building lots, 100 feet wide by 160 feet deep, on both sides of the proposed avenue, two of which, facing Broad Street, were double in size. The 16.31-acre plat was derived from the 28-acre farm of Stephen H. Williams, who financed the surveying and division process in 1872 by mortgaging the property through four individuals: Earl Potter, Preston Day, David Waldron and Royal Horton, Horace's brother.

Development on Norwood Avenue was a three-phase process: initial land speculation to 1892; the construction of large residences to 1907; and the further subdivision of lots and construction of more modest buildings into the 1930s and the early 1950s. The developers' vision for Norwood Avenue is represented on the Williams Park Plat map, published as a marketing device. Three Edgewood buildings are illustrated: the residences of John Wheeler, Joseph Sweet, and John Butts. The inclusion of these buildings on the plat map implied a standard of quality the developers intended to reach.

Through the 1870s and 1880s, a number of Williams Plat lots were sold and resold by speculators; one lot was bought by Simon Page in 1874 for $8,050; six lots were purchased by Horace Horton, with his partner Henry Anthony, in the 1880s. Dewey F. Adams, a jewelry manufacturer from Providence, bought two large lots in 1880 and erected the plat's first dwelling, since demolished, on lot number 1. In 1891, he purchased four additional lots, numbers 7 through 10, which he held as investments, subdividing and selling them over the ensuing two decades.

From the 1890s through the 1910s, development proceeded following the pattern laid out by original platting and influenced by several changes in the surrounding area. In 1890, Norwood Avenue, still a private road, was ceded to the town. At the same time, plans were underway for the expansion of Roger Williams Park, and in 1892, 285 acres of Cranston was annexed by the City of Providence, including the western portion of the Williams Park Plat. The construction of Park Boulevard, now named Green Memorial Boulevard, resulted in the loss of four lots from the plat. In addition, this caused the demolition of the William Booth House (c. 1880), the only other structure standing on Norwood Avenue prior to 1892, which stood on the westernmost lot, number 17. Norwood Avenue connected to the park by the close of the century: in 1895, the annual report of the park commissioners noted that work on the Park Boulevard was nearly completed, while Norwood Avenue and Park Boulevard do not appear in the Providence city directory until 1900. In 1892, Broad Street underwent a major widening and rebuilding and, most significantly, saw the introduction of electric traction trolleys, the first such line operated by the Union Railroad Company. These activities had direct results on Norwood Avenue: in 1892 five lots were bought and improved. From this point to 1907, eleven additional buildings were constructed.

These structures represent some of the finest examples of Late Victorian domestic architecture in Cranston. Built for the most part for Providence residents, these are large houses constructed in the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles. The most notable of these buildings are the Charles C. Newhall House (1892, William H. Walker & Son, architects), perhaps the best Queen Anne house in Edgewood, and the Edmund Sayles House (1901), the most elaborate of Cranston's Colonial Revival buildings. Both Newhall and Sayles were in the real estate business. Other land owners on Norwood Avenue at this time included Providence executives Charles J. Davol, president of the Davol Rubber Company, Henry A. Carpenter, owner of the A. Carpenter & Sons Foundry Company, and William B. Banigan, general manager of the Marvel Rubber Company.

During the 1910s, two large Colonial Revival buildings were constructed, the Frederick V. Kennon House and the Edward N. Cook House, both built in 1918. These proved to be the exception for the remaining houses built on Norwood Avenue: from the 1920s on, the scale of new construction was smaller. In addition, lot sizes were reduced, as earlier speculators tried to maximize their investment now that Edgewood was the scene of increased building activity. The first houses built on these smaller lots were the Patrick Daley House and the Daniel J. Seymour House, two Colonial Revival dwellings built in 1913 on adjacent 6400 square foot lots. These lots were subdivided from 8/10 of lot 10, one of the four lots purchased by Dewey F. Adams in 1892. In 1925, lot 26 was divided into two equal parcels. In this instance, the lot, which had been owned by Dennis Markham prior to his death in 1917, passed through three owners before being purchased by Augustus Eilenberg, who in 1923 built his own house on the eastern half and sold the remaining half to J. Edwards Danforth in 1925. The Eilenberg House is a good example of the Tudor Revival style and has several counterparts throughout Edgewood.

Construction on Norwood Avenue in the 1920s and 1930s was typical of the automobile-oriented suburb. Most of the building took place on the north side of the street, which had been slower to develop. The homeowners of this period tended to be merchants and small business owners, such as Eilenberg, a clothier, and Harry Mulry, an automobile dealer. Calvin Dean, a manufacturing jeweler, built an architect-designed bungalow in 1922. During the late 1930s and 1940s there was virtually no building on Norwood Avenue, as for much of the rest of the state. In the early 1950s, two new residences were added to the building stock; the houses at 273 and 277 reflect earlier houses in their size, scale, mass, and Colonial revival detail. Later buildings from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1980s (ranch houses at 253, 255, and 307) fill in the last available land on Norwood Avenue but differ in scale, size, and mass from the earlier buildings.

Historically, the Norwood Avenue Historic District represents the pattern of development in Edgewood both as it was initially conceived by large-scale developers and as it was realized through the process of suburbanization that occurred over four decades of home building effected by individual property owners.

Adapted from: Karl Bodensiek, Consultant,Cranston Planning Department, Norwood Avenue Historic District, nomination document, 2001, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Bartlett Avenue • Betsy Williams Drive • Broad Street • Norwood Avenue