SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Seventy-four years later, the devastation that resulted from the Hurricane of 1938 is still apparent in parts of Rhode Island. Pieces of foundations of old homes that once lined East Beach in Westerly poke through the sand. The Category 3 storm tore though dozens of Victorian-era cottages, which once sat proudly along southern Rhode Island’s shoreline, except for the five cottages on Browning’s Beach in Matunuck.
The homes, built in 1900 and 1905, known to the locals as “the five cottages,” have weathered storms for more than a century, including the Hurricane of 1938, the Great Atlantic Hurricane in 1944, Hurricanes Carol and Edna in 1954, Donna in 1960, Gloria in 1985, Bob in 1991 and Irene in 2011.
But not Sandy.
Two of the five cottages, the blue-trimmed and teal-trimmed homes, as well as the garage of the teal home, will be torn down in the coming months, as Sandy rendered them beyond repair.
According to Jeff O’Hara, South Kingstown’s building inspector, demolition permits have been issued to the Harriet Harris Estate and the Susan Duval Trust to demolish three properties on Browning’s Beach.
Despite surviving numerous storms, the property owners have still contended with weather-related problems.
“They moved the structures back about 50 feet 10 years ago,” O’Hara said. “Over the years these folks have spent considerable sums of money for dune restoration to no avail and just don’t have any land left to the north to move them further back. It’s a shame to lose these landmark structures, but you can’t stop the ocean.”
Laura Harris, whose family owns the teal-trimmed home, affirmed this. She said the homes were moved back away from the water in 1996, but erosion continues to be a problem.
“We’ve lost so much of the dune, there’s just going to be no way to move it,” Harris said Monday. “The beach has to keep migrating back and it’s not stable at the moment.”
The Coastal Resources Management Council approved demolition permits for 392 D, E and F Cards Pond Road. The teal-trimmed home, owned by the Harriet B. Harris estate, is 392 D, built in 1905, which will be torn down, along with its garage/carriage house – 392 E Cards Pond Road.
Additionally, the CRMC approved a permit for the Susan B. Duval Trust to demolish 392 F Cards Pond Road, the blue-trimmed home, also built in 1905.
The emergency permits were approved Nov. 9 in accordance with the CRMC’s policy for Sandy-related damage. The work associated with any permits relating to Sandy must be completed by Aug. 31, 2013, according to Laura Dwyer, public educator and information coordinator for the CRMC.
Harris said that maintaining the homes in a precarious location was becoming “cost prohibitive.”
“We’ve tried so long to protect it,” she said. “We bought a little bit of time by moving it back but the erosion has just been too dramatic.”
The cottages are part of the Browning’s Beach Historic District, which is registered with the National Register of Historic Places.
“The cluster of summer beach houses at Browning’s Beach is significant as a surviving remnant of Rhode Island coastal summer resort domestic architecture popular throughout the region during the late 19th and early 20th century,” reads the registration form for the beach to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Richard Youngken, local architect and former Rhode Island advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, submitted the application to designate the area as a historic place in 1997.
The story of Browning’s Beach begins in 1894 when Dr. Robert F. Noyes and his wife, Katharine, purchased the beach property from George Browning. They built the Noyes-Bontecou House in 1895. Ten years later, the beachfront was fully developed with each privately owned lot connected through a shared driveway and water system.
Families primarily connected through business associations with the Rhode Island textile manufacturing industry quickly flocked to the area developed the colony of houses at the turn of the century.
The Queen Anne style homes, with their wooden frames and shingles, reflect the popular architectural style of the time. At one time, a boardwalk, which ran along an inland dune, connected the houses, giving access to every home’s porch. Nurseries for children were set up in the attics and servants had accommodations in the carriage houses/garage.
According to the National Register of Historic Places, the summer homes also at one time shared a stable, tennis courts and beach cabana with changing rooms.
“Although the novelty of building beach-front summer homes was expressed elsewhere simultaneously along Rhode Island’s open Atlantic shoreline such as at Weekapaug, Watch Hill and Little Compton, few seasonal dwellings of the scale and community-related complexity possessed by Browing’s Beach now survive,” Youngken wrote. “Many similar dwellings were damaged and destroyed in the 1938 and 1954 hurricanes.”
“The extremely close proximity of these cottages to the surf line has created a historic setting unparalleled elsewhere on the Rhode Island coast,” Youngken wrote.
Harris said that the cottages have been in her family since the 1930s – her cousin owns the blue-trimmed home - and have survived four generations.
“It was magical,” Harris said of spending summers in Matunuck, away from the family’s winter home in Connecticut. “We had about 13 cousins that would be down in all the houses when we were little. There was maybe 200 more feet of dune and sand and everything, so we would be all down there for the summer. It was just a gathering place.”
Harris recalled memories of making home movies, playing games and at one point putting a piano on the porch and having cabarets with actors from the nearby Theatre By The Sea.
The beachfront home first belonged to Harris’ grandparents and then to her mother. Harris and her brother have cared for the teal-trimmed house since her mother’s passing.
“I’m glad my mom’s not alive to see this,” Harris said. “She’d be heartbroken.”
Harris said she expects that the homes will be torn down within the next month.
The CRMC has made the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission aware of the plans to tear demolish the structures; they did not object.
Harris said those who have known the cottages as prominent shoreline markers have come up to her on the beach, crying and devastated that they will be torn down.
“I’ve grown up in these houses and it’s part of your heart,” Harris said. “You knew they were sick and eventually not going to be there, so you sort of get ready for it. But I don’t think I want to be there when they tear them down, it’s too hard.”