Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot Landscape Architects, “R.I. College of A.; M. Arts /
Kingston R.I. / Preliminary Sketch,” March 6, 1895. Plan shows three existing
buildings (Taft, Davis and South Halls) and the planned drill hall (Lippitt Hall) in dark
shading, and a rectilinear, double-quadrangle plan with tree-lined paths.
Credit: Olmsted Plans and Drawings Collection. Job #01392. Frederick Law Olmsted
National Historic Site, Brookline, MA.
by Joanna M. Doherty, Principal Architectural Historian of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission
The core of the University of Rhode Island’s campus in Kingston was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 9, 2017. In listing the University of Rhode Island Historic District, the National Park Service recognizes its significance to the history of public higher education in Rhode Island and its fine collection of academic buildings designed by locally prominent architects, centered around a quadrangle laid out by Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot.The campus traces its origins to 1888, when the state purchased the Oliver Watson Farm as the location for the Rhode Island State Agricultural School and Experiment Station; the ca. 1796 Watson Farmhouse survives as a relic of the property’s agricultural history. Three academic buildings were soon constructed: Taft Hall (E.A. Ellsworth, 1889), Davis Hall (Stone, Carpenter & Willson, 1890/1895) and South Hall (1890, not extant). In 1892, the institution’s name was changed to the Rhode Island College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, and two years later it was designated the state’s “land-grant” college (a status initially given to Brown).
View looking southwest across the quadrangle, taken in 1900, showing Lippitt Hall
(center foreground) and, in the background, South Hall (left; not extant), Davis Hall
(center) and Taft Hall (right). The one-story buildings in the foreground do not
Credit: Bernon Helme Photograph Collection, 1895-1930. Mss. Gr. 125, Folder 13.
University of Rhode Island Library, South Kingstown, RI.
That same year, the school’s Board of Managers engaged Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot to assist with campus planning. The firm’s earliest schemes proposed a circulation system comprised of gently curving roads, but plans from the spring of 1895 showed a less romantic approach; a few roads still curved around the edge of campus, but a rectilinear double-quadrangle was at its core. The centers of the quadrangles would be open, with tree-lined paths defining the edges. Although the double-quad plan was never entirely implemented, the northern quad was established and survives largely intact, with tree-lined, perimeter paths and buildings arranged on the edges, mostly facing inward toward the green. (The perimeter of the quad was originally planted with American elms which, due to disease, were replaced with Japanese zelkovas in the mid-1980s.)
Aerial photograph of Rhode Island State College, ca, 1946.
Credit: Carl R. Woodward Papers. Mss. Gr. 1, Box 62, Folder 170. University of
Rhode Island Library Special Collections and Archives Unit, South Kingstown, RI.
Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot’s design reflected a move away from the park-like campuses advocated by landscape practitioners earlier in the 19th century toward more formal plans that emphasized symmetry and geometry. By drawing on European precedent, the quadrangle served as a potent academic symbol for the young college. It also provided an organizing principle for the continued development of the campus. The three existing academic buildings were lined up on the western edge of the quad, and a new building, Lippitt Hall (Stone, Carpenter & Willson, 1897), was soon built on the northern edge. In 1909, the school was re-named the Rhode Island State College and new facilities were required to meet the needs of a growing student population and an expanding curriculum. Three buildings – East Hall (Leslie P. Langworthy, 1909), Ranger Hall (Clarke, Howe & Homer, 1914) and Washburn Hall (Eleazer B. Homer, 1921) – were erected on the eastern and southern sides of the quad, while Bliss Hall (Bigelow, Kent, Willard and Co., 1928) joined Lippitt Hall on the north.
View showing Main Quadrangle, taken in 2013, looking southeast toward Washburn
Hall and Edwards Hall, showing double-row of trees along east perimeter of quad.
Credit: Joanna M. Doherty.
Other, mostly later buildings were constructed slightly off the quad, sometimes disrupting Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot’s double-quad plan; Green Hall (Jackson, Robertson & Adams, 1937), for example, was sited in the center of what was to be the southern quad. A Post World War II building boom, coinciding with the school’s designation as a university in 1951, resulted in the construction of over 20 new buildings, many executed in the Modern style, mostly away from the quadrangle. The historic core of the campus remains intact, however, embodying the university’s origins as a land-grant school and its growth in the first half of the 20th century.
The University of Rhode Island Historic District National Register nomination may be found at http://www.preservation.ri.gov/register/riproperties.php