Buttonwoods Beach Historic District
Buttonwoods Beach Historic District
|Location||Warwick, Rhode Island|
|Architectural style||Late 19th And 20th Century Revivals, Late Victorian|
|NRHP reference #||84001834 |
|Added to NRHP||February 23, 1984|
Buttonwoods Beach Historic District is a historic district bounded by Brush Neck Cove, Greenwich Bay, Cooper and Promenade Avenues in Warwick, Rhode Island. "Old Buttonwoods" is a bucolic neighborhood on the eastern limb of the Nausauket neck, located in the West Bay area of Warwick, Rhode Island. Buttonwoods is delimited by Nausauket and Apponaug to the west, Buttonwoods Cove to the north, Greenwich (aka Cowesett) Bay to the south and Oakland Beach to the east. The Old Buttonwoods section of Warwick was founded as a summer colony in 1871 by the Rev. Moses Bixby of Providence's Cranston Street Baptist Church, who was looking for a place to establish a summer colony by the shore for his congregation. He envisioned a community that would be similar to Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, where the Methodists established a summer campground in 1835. Today, this coastal neighborhood on Greenwich Bay is home to people from many different religious backgrounds.
The district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Prior to locating to Cranston, RI in 1870, Moses Bixby spent ten years as a Christian missionary in Burma and Siam. He founded the First Shan Church in Toungoo, Burma in 1862 among the Tai people there (the Shan). This church has survived until modern times and is doing well. As of 2009, there are currently 92 Shan churches attributed to his efforts to build the First Missionary To The Shan Of Burma
Bixby and his fellow missionaries met with the King of Siam in 1862 and obtained his blessing to teach English to the Shan living in that kingdom. This was the year that Anna Leonowens was introduced to the king and became his Royal governess and English teacher. Local folklore attributes Bixby to have been the facilitator of that engagement documented in the book called Anna and The King of Siam.
Missionary records show that Mr. Bixby's assistant was Miss A. R. (Anna) Gage, Bixby's wife's sister. She stayed in Burma and founded a girls school there in 1873 to teach the Burmese girls the English language. Anna Gage stayed in Burma for many years giving Moses Bixby a family connection to his former mission.
When Bixby arrived in Cranston, he linked up with Lodowick Brayton. Brayton was a successful industrialist and investor who bought the old Friends (Quaker) Meeting House, said to be the first church in Cranston, in 1866. He set up a Sunday school in the building. This was also the location of the first May Breakfast in Rhode Island established one year later by Mrs. Ruby King to raise money for a new church. Jeannie Bixby Johnson, Silver Burdett and Company, 1904, shows that Bixby founded the Cranston Street Baptist Church in November, 1870, upon his return from Burma. Bixby expanded Brayton's Sunday school into a church of 50 or so members and relocated to Cranston Street. Within a year, three investors acting as trustees, Lodowick Brayton, The Rev. Jonathan Brayton, and Andrew Comstock purchased the Buttonwoods campground in Warwick for $10,000. An early plat of the campgrounds shows the laying out of 1,026 lots on 420 acres (170 ha) of land and a large tabernacle. According to the cartographer, this map "is advertising the sale of lots in Section No. 3." Rhode Island Historical Society, Call# Map 1393-1394, 1872-1873[permanent dead link].
In A Walking Tour of Buttonwoods Beach, written by Robert O. Jones of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, he reports that the “shore bordering the Greene Farms at Nassauket (actually Baker’s Creek) became a popular destination for excursions. Travelers came by steamboat or by wagon overland from the Apponaug train depot.
The western boundary of the site is a road, now called Andrew Comstock Road, that may have been used since colonial times by the James Greene Family from their house described as one of Warwick's oldest houses, the road running southerly down to the bay and the site of a landing hooking up this section of Warwick with Potowomut where several other members of the extended Greene family lived. Another colonial road, now called Buttonwoods Avenue, ran easterly from the James Greene house to other Greene property in Old Buttonwoods.
In the 1830s the Kinnecom family, a group registered with the Narragansett Indian Tribe, started to hold clambakes on the Greene property, the earliest-known effort to make a commercial success of what had been a long-standing Rhode Island social and culinary tradition. The vicinity was also a favored place for church outings. William Henry Harrison held a political rally here during his historic presidential campaign. The Kinnecom family hosted over 10,000 people for this event. The area was first called Buttonwoods at this time, named for the many buttonwood trees that once grew here.”
This site remained popular with the public down until the 1938 Hurricane with people taking trolleys from Providence or driving in from Apponaug and paying daily fees to enjoy the beach.
Just how popular the Buttonwoods destination was for the public in the 1880s is made clear in a representation to the Warwick Town Council by John G. Bissell and others regarding the “Road used by Buttonwood Beach Ass’n for Horse railroad” on October 18, 1881. Apparently this railroad was being torn up at that time. Bissell and others quitclaimed their interest in this road so that it might continue to be “used by thousands for a carriage road.” Even in the old days there were traffic jams on the roads to the shore, it seems.
The plan for the Buttonwoods site now located at the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence called for 1,000 or so land parcels to be sold to Baptists from around the region. Lodowick joined with his brother Jonathan and with Andrew Comstock to secure the $10,000 in financing for this enterprise. This would be the equivalent of hundreds of millions in today's dollars, a large real estate development. Much of the cash investment came from the Brayton family (railroaders and steel dealers and investor in the Colvin loom. The Panic of 1873 set in shortly after this investment was made and few lots were actually sold for many years. The campgrounds were resurveyed in 1882 into much larger lots, many of remained unsold and were combined into a large tract of open space in recent years. Brayton died a rich man but his fortunes were much diminished in the real estate deflation that followed the panic. History of Rhode Island Manufacturers
Andrew Comstock, a beef shipper and merchant in Providence and founder of the Hammond Beef and Provision Company of Hammond, Indiana, Chicago and Omaha was the other significant investor. He remained a very rich man throughout his life. His Providence operation was located at a rail siding in what is now the Roger Williams National Memorial Park where the original Providence colony was established. The Hammond Beef companies along with several refrigerator rail car companies along with Armour and Company, Gustavus Swift, and Morris Beef Company were the subject of the "Beef Trust" trial of 1910. See Industries and Wealth of the Principal Points in Rhode Island
The main interest of these partners was to develop a rail link from Providence to the shore, with Buttonwoods as the terminus. First a horse railway was established and then steam trains were introduced. This then became the Suburban Railroad servicing Rocky Point, Oakland Beach, and Buttonwoods. It was wiped out in the 1938 hurricane.
This residential neighborhood is small, about 170 houses, and most of the houses are historic, with many Victorian cottages and larger shingled bungalows in the Arts and Crafts style. The waterfront along Promenade Avenue has many mature trees in their streets. Many of the original cottages have disappeared over the years, including the cottage at Buttonwoods Point, torn down in the 1980s, and the Moses Bixby cottage, which, except for the roof peak on the West side, was torn down during the real estate boom of the 2000s. These were two of the original cottages at the beach of seemingly historic value.
The above-mentioned A Walking Tour of Buttonwoods Beach, written by Robert O. Jones, documents a few original cottages that survive to this day including the Smith S. Sweet house at 1078 Buttonwoods Avenue and a cottage at 12 12th Avenue which was also in the Sweet family. A cottage at 5 13th Avenue, across from the location of the original Moses Bixby house, built in 1872, was also leveled during the real estate boom of the 2000s upon the death of the former owner who had lived there for much of the 20th Century.
Across Buttonwoods Cove, although not part of Old Buttonwoods, is Warwick City Park, which includes three baseball fields, picnic areas and shelters, three miles (5 km) of paved bicycle paths, and tennis courts among other amenities.
Abutting Old Buttonwoods directly to the west is Budlong Farm, on which land is located the summer colony of the Buttonwoods Campers Association, established around the turn of the 20th century. The Budlong/Greene families were among the original colonists and founders of Warwick, Rhode Island, along with the Gorton, Lippitt and Potter families et al. The Greenes owned a huge portion of the Nausauket neck, which was divided up among the generations of Budlong/Greene heirs. The original Greene/Budlong farm homestead, built in 1776, still stands today and can be seen from Buttonwoods Avenue. Over time, tracts of land were sold off, among them, the tract sold to the Buttonwoods Beach Association (see above, purchase of land by Lodowick Brayton, The Rev. Jonathan Brayton, and Andrew Comstock). When Henry Warner Budlong inherited what remained of the Greene family lands, he was approached to establish a summer colony similar to that of Buttonwoods Beach, but dedicated to middle-class families. At that time the Buttonwoods Campgrounds was established (circa 1899) allowing families to erect long tents (said to have been army surplus from the Civil War) and spend summers on the shore of Greenwich Bay. Henry Warner Budlong, whose memorial building sits next to Warwick City Hall in Apponaug, was a bachelor with no heirs. In his last will and testament, Budlong bequeathed the majority of his material assets to his housekeeper, Emily I. Hohler. The Buttonwoods Campers Association, currently consisting of 120 cottages, continued uninterrupted to lease the land. Budlong's will drawn up in 1928 (he died in 1929) specified that upon Mrs. Hohler's passing, the Budlong Farm land would not pass to her heirs, but would go to the Metropolitan Park Commission of the State of RI to be made into a memorial park named The Greene Park after his mother, Rhody Knight Greene. When Mrs. Hohler died Oct. 31, 1964, the Hohler daughters, Alice Hohler and Hope Maynard joined with the summer resident "campers" to contest the Budlong will. One camper, William McCaughey Jr., was key in obtaining a stay of the state's possession by then-governor John Chafee, who said the campers could remain on the contested land until a solution had been reached. The Hohler/Maynard families, with financial support from the summer residents, purchased an identical tract of waterfront land which was given to the state (and then the City of Warwick) to satisfy the Budlong will. That land was added to other land the City of Warwick owned, and became Warwick City Park.
The Buttonwood Beach Association was incorporated in 1872 by a special act of the Rhode Island General Assembly. The trustees passed control of the running of the property to the association. The association then started selling lots to individuals. It continues to sell lots from time to time and reserves the right to sell additional platted lots. Its most recent "corrected" quit claim deeds for the conveyance of parts of Promenade Avenue were "subject to any existing rights of others in and to the former Promenade Avenue." 
In David Clark v Buttonwoods Beach Association the Rhode Island Superior Court found that Dr. Clark did not establish an adequate adverse possession claim for a part of Promenade Avenue. As of December 31, 2018 that case is being reviewed by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
Many deeds include the provision that owners must first offer their property back to the association in the event of a sale. A few owners have refused to pass that provision on to the next owners.
The Buttonwood Beach Association now organizes activities and celebrations for residents, many held at the Buttonwooods Fire District-owned building called the Casino. The Casino has a stage and two bowling alleys. Tennis courts and a playground are nearby. Potluck dinners, seasonal parties, and arts and crafts lessons for children take place there. Fire District residents and others can use the hall for private parties. The Buttonwood Beach Association owns a nondenominational chapel at Ninth Avenue and Janice Road.
The Buttonwoods Fire District will celebrate its 100-year anniversary in 2025. Originally chartered by the General Assembly to maintain the streets from Cooper Road easterly, its reach was expanded in the 1980s to include the streets from Andrew Comstock Road easterly to the Buttonwoods Point. Included in that expansion is the adoption by the General Assembly of the 1882 plat map as the inventory of Buttonwoods Fire District streets. The streets comprising the school bus route are jointly maintained by the fire district and the City of Warwick. A portion of the school bus route is the subject of the Dr. Clark adverse possession lawsuit.
Today, the Buttonwoods Campers Association, Inc. continues to lease lands (about 25 acres) from the Hohler/Maynard families. The association members have a community hall where various social functions and activities are held for the benefit of residents of all ages. The association has made capital improvements, including a basketball court, soft sand volleyball court, bocce court and playground. Despite considerable erosion of its once pristine beach (due directly to the FEMA-financed construction of a massive seawall to protect Old Buttonwoods' shoreline) the summer community continues to be populated by families with youngsters and by snowbird seniors. The entire Budlong Farm sits on about 60 acres. A good portion is used to grow corn by Confreda Farms. Recently, the land was put under the Rhode Island Farm, Forest, and Open Space Act, with a pledge not to be developed. It remains a bucolic snapshot of colonial times and of the late Victorian era.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Buttonwoods Beach Historic District.|
- National Park Service (2007-01-23). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
- See The Baptist Missionary Magazine, Volume XLVII, Page 272, American Baptist Missionary Union, published in 1867
- and The Golden Jubilee Report
- See Lodowick Brayton and the first May Breakfast
- The Life and Works of Moses Bixby
- The Life and Works of Moses Bixby, Jeannie Bixby Johnson, Silver Burdett and Company, 1904
- Town of Warwick land records, Book 37-B, Pages 141 through 144, December 4, 1871
- T.F. Green Runway Expansion Environmental Impact Study, Kinnecom Native Historic Cemetery Notes, Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission
- A Walking Tour of Buttonwoods Beach, written by Robert O. Jones of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission
- This report can be found in the Town of Warwick, Town Council Proceedings, Book 8, Page 154
- Rhode Island Historical Society Archives Map Room
- History of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: Biographical NY: The American Historical Society, Inc. 1920
- New England Families, William Richard Cutter, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, NY, NY, 1915
- Recent transactions include the quit claim deed conveyances of portions of Promenade Avenue to abutting landowners with a "SUBJECT TO any existing rights of others in and to the former Promenade Avenue." The Beach Association never petitioned the Warwick City Council for the abandonment of these portions of Promenade Avenue.