American history–or the history of any land–is more than just political events, leaders, battles, and the kind of thing you find in history books. It’s about people’s homes, families and private lives; indeed that is the bulk of history, and virtually none of it ever makes it into the historical record. I’m taken by photos like the one above, which is of a house owned by one William Wilkinson, which stood at 69 College Street in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s a beautiful Federal style home, very classic New England, built in 1818. Somebody–many people–lived here over the years. In this house, husbands and wives made love, argued and made up, probably children were born, probably somebody died, there were arguments perhaps over money, politics or business, there were dreadfully hot summer days and bone chilling winter nights, and life went on. We know virtually none of it. I can’t even tell you who William Wilkinson was, but he must have been pretty wealthy to have had a place like this built for him.
We do know that this house was designed by architect John Holden Greene, the most popular and prominent architect in Providence at the time. He designed numerous other houses in the city, many of which are still standing, and some on the National Register. There is a tenuous connection between Greene and another subject of this blog, if you play a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon type of game. In addition to the Wilkinson place, Greene designed the home of Sullivan Dorr, another prominent Providence resident. In that house–which is still standing–lived Sullivan’s son, Thomas Wilson Dorr, who in the 1840s led a Quixotic rebellion against the state government of Rhode Island. Thomas Dorr’s secretary and right hand man was Aaron White, whose teenage years I profiled on an episode of my Second Decade podcast. History is full of connections.
The Wilkinson House was torn down in 1954 to make room for an expansion of Brown University. The day the wrecking ball smashed it, we lost all of the wonderful history that was contained within its walls.
Although this series is inspired by Constance Greiff’s 1971 book series Lost America, researching this article has made me somewhat frustrated with her and the inaccuracies in the book. Over the course of five articles based on Lost America so far, I’ve discovered at least one, and often more, possible errors in Greiff’s books. For instance, when she profiles this house, on page 83 of Volume I, she refers to it as the “William Watson House” instead of the “William Wilkinson House.” It could be that someone named William Watson also lived here, but she’s been wrong on names and dates before. I like these books for collecting so many great old photos of these lost properties–most, like this one, taken in the 1930s by U.S. government photographers working on a New Deal program–but I don’t rely exclusively on her research to write these articles.
The site of the Wilkinson House is now the List Art Building on the campus of Brown University.