Block Island weather station

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Former weather station on Block Island. (photo by Cliff Vanover)

My South County correspondent, Cliff Vanover, mapmaker extraordinaire, sent me the photo above of a fine old house on Block Island’s Beach Road. It was originally built and for a long time served as a weather station for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Notwithstanding the sign in the photograph below, it is now privately owned. My correspondent’s name made me wonder whether it sits atop one of Block Island’s famous bluffs – a cliff, you see. I have asked for guidance on this.

The weather station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the decade-long congressional stint of former U.S. Rep. Claudine Schneider (R.-R.I.), affectionately known hereabouts as “Schneidine.” The nomination papers for the register describe the 1903 house, designed by the Washington, D.C., firm of Harding & Upman, as “a stark white Neoclassical block,” which I find ungenteel, but it continues much more pleasantly:

The portico, parapet and and surface ornament give the building a restrained monumentality and the dignity which the Chief of the Weather Bureau sought for his observatories. …

A single-story portico, supported by paired Doric columns, and a shallow, pedimented, central pavilion stretch across the southerly facade. The exterior is enriched with finely-drawn detailing, in- cluding channeled pilasters at the corners, a full entablature and an eared tablet, framed by scrolls, in the center of the frieze on the facade. The windows, capped by cornice moldings, have twelve-over-one double-hung sashes.

There was once an “instrument tower” on the flat roof. I imagine it must have been a reasonably ornate affair. At some point the instruments, which might have emigrated over time from the tower to the roof in full view of passersby, were eliminated and the house was sold by the weather service to a private individual. But it’s hard to imagine the “Chief” ever allowing the instruments to cavort on the roof in their mechanical nudity. After all:

By employing a design with the formal dignity of the Classical Revival, the Chief of the Weather Bureau hoped to bolster public respect for the weather service and its forecasts.

Even at this late date, my respect is bolstered by the agency’s decision to install one of its observatories in such a magnificent building. But it is diminished, somewhat, by the decision made in 1950 to abandon it. The station was moved to the local airport. Is there an agency presence on Block Island today? If so, I don’t even want to know what it is housed in. Still, if it is nice, readers are invited to let me know. Stranger things have happened.

In fact, the nominating papers describe changes in the portico and in the cornice balustrade that might have been restored to their original charm by subsequent owners. Does anybody know its more recent history?

A meteorological station of the same design was built at the same time among the grand hotels of Narragansett Pier. Does it survive?

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About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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