Watch Hill, Rhode Island
Watch Hill Historic District
Watch Hill Harbor
|Area||629 acres (255 ha)|
|Architectural style||Late 19th and 20th Century Revivals, Bungalow/Craftsman, Late Victorian|
|Governing body||Local businesses and residences|
|MPS||Lighthouses of Rhode Island TR (AD)|
|NRHP Reference #||
|Added to NRHP||September 5, 1985|
Watch Hill is an affluent coastal village and census-designated place in the town of Westerly, Rhode Island. It sits at the most-southwestern point in all of Rhode Island, excluding Block Island. It came to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th century as an exclusive summer resort, with wealthy families building sprawling Victorian-style "cottages" along the peninsula. Watch Hill is characterized by the New York Times as a community "with a strong sense of privacy and of discreetly used wealth", in contrast with "the overpowering castles of the very rich" in nearby Newport. Today, it is best known as the backdrop for the Ocean House, the only Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond Hotel in Rhode Island.
Once occupied by Niantic Indians in the 17th century, European colonists used the area as an important lookout point during the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, hence the community’s name. Some landmarks in the village include the Watch Hill Lighthouse, the first of which was built in 1745, 1880's The Flying Horse Carousel, the oldest operating suspended-horse carousel in the United States and a National Historic Landmark, and the 1916 Olympia Tea Room.
One point of interest in Watch Hill is the ruins of Fort Mansfield, an old coastal artillery post situated at the end of Napatree Point. It was one of a series of such forts constructed to guard the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound as part of the coastal defense network for New York City during the Spanish–American War. It was in operation between 1901 and 1909. After closing down over the course of several years, the land was sold in 1926, and all the government buildings were demolished during the winter of 1928–29. The three concrete gun emplacements have been left behind, and still remain there to this day. Some of the fortified gun emplacements of old Fort Mansfield have survived and, while overgrown, offers adventurers tunnels and underground rooms to explore. Occasionally, at low tide, some of remains of the Battery Connell can be seen. As the sea and sand shift, old weapons and sometimes artifacts from the hurricane are revealed.
The Hurricane of 1938 caught Watch Hill by surprise and caused a lot of damage. On Fort Road, which connected Watch Hill to the old Fort Mansfield, all the 39 houses, the Yacht and Beach Clubs, as well as the bathing pavilion were destroyed. Fifteen people were killed there alone and others survived by clinging to wreckage as they were swept across the bay to Connecticut. Several breachways were created in Napatree Point after the hurricane has passed. To this day Sandy Point, once the northern extension, remains an island. The shortened Napatree Point is now a barrier beach without any roads or houses. It is open to the public, and offers bird watching and surf casting.
Watch Hill sits at the most southwestern point of Rhode Island on a stubby peninsula jutting into Block Island Sound. It includes a smaller peninsula known as Napatree Point, a 1.5-mile (2.4 km)-long sandy spit that extends west from the Watch Hill business district, and Sandy Point, which was once attached to Napatree Point. Both Napatree and Sandy Point shelter Little Narragansett Bay have made Watch Hill a popular harbor around which the business district has grown. Watch Hill is a two-hour drive from Boston and a three-hour drive from New York City. On clear days, there are views of Montauk, New York.
According to The New York Times, Watch Hill was historically home to "a select group of wealthy families", whose lives revolved around "golf and tennis at the Misquamicut Club, bathing and yachting at the Watch Hill Yacht Club and tea and cocktails at Ocean House and Watch Hill's other grand hotels." Wealthy families built sprawling Victorian-style "cottages" along the peninsula. The village was known as "a somewhat staid and family-oriented community compared to glittering Newport, Rhode Island's other, more famous summer colony." Famous guests to the seaside resort included Albert Einstein, Douglas Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Groucho Marx, David Niven and Jean Harlow. The writer Stephen Birmingham described Watch Hill as "an Andorra of Victoriana on the New England shore."
In the 1980s and 1990s, many of Watch Hill's expensive Victorian mansions were sold. They had been owned by the same families for generations but there was no longer sufficient cash flow to maintain the sprawling properties. The vibrant real estate market opened up the area to a new class of buyers who found Watch Hill "affordable compared with the Hamptons". These new occupiers are considered "more cosmopolitan than the families of old and less dependent on the private clubs for their social scene". Today, Bay Street in Watch Hill is lined with shops, restaurants, and businesses. East Beach and Napatree Point are the main beaches in the village. The community is a secluded and seasonal resort community with shopping, a golf and beach club, yacht club and public and private beaches.
The New York Times notes that "Watch Hill impresses visitors with a strong sense of privacy and of discreetly used wealth - the rambling, old-fashioned, turreted and gingerbreaded Victorian summer houses with piazzas and softly rolling lawns have little in common with the overpowering castles of the very rich in Newport, a place rarely mentioned in Watch Hill even though it is barely 30 miles distant."
The waterfront was once lined with huge Victorian hotels. However, fire and hurricanes destroyed almost all during the 20th century. The two remaining hotels, The Ocean House and the Watch Hill Inn, went through major renovations during the 2000s. The Ocean House was originally opened in 1868, torn down in 2005, rebuilt and reopened in 2010. This Ocean House today consists of both hotel rooms and condominiums. It is the only Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond Hotel in Rhode Island and has been described by the New York Times as a place which "conjures up another age, when women wore white gloves to tea and golf was a newfangled pastime." Celebrities including Hugh Jackman and Regis Philbin have holidayed at the hotel.
The village is listed as a census-designated place. Watch Hill Historic District is a 629-acre (255 ha) historic district in the village that is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. As a state-charted Fire District (1901), the Watch Hill area is authorized to tax residents to fund their volunteer fire department, but the bulk of property taxes go to the town to fund municipal services and schools.
Notable current and former residents of Watch Hill include:
- Taylor Swift, singer-songwriter
- Conan O'Brien, television host
- Andrew Mellon (1855–1937), banker, industrialist and Secretary of the Treasury
- Henry Ford (1863–1947), business magnate and founder of Ford Motor
- Clark Gable (1901–1960), film actor
- Rebekah Harkness (1915–1982), Standard Oil heiress and founder of the Harkness Ballet
- J. Stark Wayne, a tobacco plantation owner
- Toby Beavers, a Manhattan nightclub owner
- Ari Emanuel, talent agent and co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor (WME)
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23.
- "Watch Hill In The Hurricane of September 21st, 1938" a special pictorial issue of Seaside Topics published November 1938.
- U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Watch Hill, Rhode Island
- Einstein: The Life and Times, by Ronald W. Clark
- Watch Hill Volunteer Fire Department
- Watch Hill Lighthouse
- Visit Watch Hill (Tourism site)
- The Greater-Westerly Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce
- Town of Westerly