Johnston, we hardly knew ye

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The Clemence-Irons House, circa 1691, restored by Norman Isham circa 1940. (flickr.com)

Fifteen years ago I wrote about Johnston, R.I., as part of a series that ran monthly (or at far longer intervals eventually) under the kicker “Outside Providence.” Each month, proceeding in alphabetical order, I’d visit a city or town outside the state capital and describe how well it had weathered the assault of modernity on its historical character. I’ve been back often since, but mainly on the “leash” I describe below. Has Johnston changed? For the better? For the worse?

I always tried to look at the positive, but maybe the citizens of Johnston, where I’ll be delivering a lecture on my book Lost Providence at the Johnston Historical Society next Wednesday, will run me out of town on a rail for what I would argue is the positive assessment that follows. (At the time I lived in downtown Providence and did not own a car.)

***

Johnston looms in the mind of your rent-a-car correspondent, heading west on Route 6 from Providence, as the most daunting town thus far to fall under his microscope. Sprawlsville, USA. Fast-food paradise. Land of big hair, coiffed up high as . . . well, high as the Central Landfill.

Jaaahn-st’n. Yeah, we Rhode Islanders think we know this place by heart, don’t we?

I hop off 6 onto Hartford Avenue, head over the Providence line, and what do I find but a string of grand old houses as pretty as you might ever expect to see. This, in Johnston? It was, alas, but a brief reprieve, evaporating with the onset of the Johnston we know too well, the intersection of Hartford and Atwood: Central Casting for Crudscape America.

Subway, Walgreen, Burger King, Jiffy Lube, McDonald’s, CVS, Blockbuster, BJ’s, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Walt’s Roast Beef, Sunoco, Brooks Drug, KFC, Hurd Pontiac, D’Angelo’s, etc., etc. (A friend often chides me for not including in these “Outside Providence” columns more names of local businesses. Now are you satisfied???). And right in the middle of this jumbled junk jungle, this McMegamerican crossroads, was my destination: Town Hall.

Town Hall is an imposing neo-colonial with a cupola high above a central pavilion flanked by two gabled wings. It must have towered above its almost rural surroundings in 1933. Architect Oresto DiSaia cannot have imagined how imperiously it would preside today over its Augean vicinity.

I pulled into a parking lot with a “For Town Employees Only” sign, which led to another, then another. Where, I wondered, do visitors park? Finally, a woman returning to her car after a pleasant visit with her friendly tax collector said, tartly, that I could park “down there, past all the bigwigs.”

At Town Hall, I met Johnston’s town planner, Jeanne Tracey-McAreavey, and local historian Louis McGowan, chief author of two fine books in the “Images of America” series, Johnston (1997) and Johnston, Volume II (1999). They assured me not only that Town Hall was slated for spiffing up, but that a Herculean plan to beautify its vicinity was being drawn up by landscape architect Wil Gates.

We then set out on a grand tour of Johnston.

As I said to myself while motoring on Route 6 at the beginning of this column, “How will I ever find anything nice to say about Johnston?”

Easy. Try looking beyond Hartford-and-Atwood. Most Rhode Islanders just don’t know Johnston. We are tethered to Route 95, Route 2, Route 6, and get on or off to get to work or home. We strain our vehicular leashes only to visit a few friends’ houses, a few favorite non-mall shops and eateries. No, most Rhode Islanders do not really know Rhode Island.

Our attitude toward Johnston is rivaled only by our attitude toward Craaanston, and proves the validity of this generalization. We do not know what Johnston looks like, let alone that it is the 28th town founded in what was still a colony. Or that it seceded from Providence in 1759, and ceded back to the capital its bustling heart, Olneyville, in 1898. Or that its namesake was a popular colonial attorney general, Augustus Johnston – popular, that is, until he was run out of town for his loyalty to the Crown in the Revolution. Or that Gov. Samuel Ward King, who suppressed the Dorr Rebellion in 1842, was from Johnston. Not that much history in Johnston; probably a good thing. A lot of mill owners with jobs for sturdy men and women. Increasingly, these were immigrant Italians who, in turn, immigrated to Johnston from Silver Lake, Federal Hill, Mount Pleasant – an unusual number of whom, to judge by the photos in McGowan’s books, were beautiful. Good bones, thick dark hair, strong features.

Strong features also mark the districts of Johnston we visited: Thornton, athwart Providence, retains its dense urban feel. Graniteville, Hughesdale and Simmonsville murmur of their past as mill villages, despite bombardment by split ranches and the like. In their narrow winding streets, they retain the feel of yore, with the occasional house, here and there a string of houses, reaching back a century – or three. The town’s oldest, the Clemence/Irons House (circa 1680), is a classic stone-ender, restored in 1939 by early preservationist Norman Isham. Many recent houses fetch you back in time. And who’d have thought so much of Johnston was rural, with up to 10 farms? Charming little Belknap enchanted this visitor with its village appeal.

Having borne the brunt of suburban flight, Johnston has weathered its proximity to Providence better than you might think, much better than you do think – better, surely, than this bug-eyed reporter once thought. So, Rhode Island, think again.

Johnston is a-okay. Maybe even aa-okay.

Copyright © 2003. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_189520

[The Clement-Irons House was built circa 1691, not 1680 as stated above.]

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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One Response to Johnston, we hardly knew ye

  1. Eric Daum says:

    Having been raised in “Craaaanston”, albeit the lovely early 20th Century streetcar suburb of Edgewood, I always resisted the taunts of my Providence-based friends, with the caveat that at least it wasn’t Johnston.

    Like

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