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Lawrence Orchard House, Newport, RI

Submitted by mccaffer on Sat, 01/31/2009 - 11:05am

By Geoffrey McCafferty (2009) 

Historic Newport is a shining, even gilded, example of conspicuous consumption during the mid- to late -19th century. Mansion-like "cottages" along Bellevue and Ochre Point Avenues attest to an amazing display of wealth through their architecture, landscaping, and exotic objets d’art.  Excavations by students of Salve Regina University’s Archaeological Field Methods class in 1998 investigated a map-documented historical structure that  provides evidence for the early development of Newport’s Gilded Age.

A mid-19th century article in Newport’s Mercury described plans for the construction of a "large and expensive mansion house" by William Beech Lawrence (Fig. 1). It went on to discuss his "charming" residence, and "among other objects of convenience an orchard house, 300 feet in length, fully covered in glass" where he raised such exotic plants as strawberries, pineapples, peaches and pears, even during the winter.

Figure 1: Lawrence home on Ochre Point


Lawrence was a prominent international lawyer, state congressman and Lieutenant Governor (Fig. 2). He was a renowned author of legal studies and had one of the largest law libraries in the United States. In 1850, Lawrence purchased a 69 acre parcel of undeveloped Ochre Point for the construction of his estate, a beautiful frame house. Note that this was one of the earliest mansions on the point, and that Lawrence lived there year-round as opposed to the later use of the "cottages" as summer homes.

Figure 2. William Beech Lawrence


The earliest map of the area dates to 1876, and shows the intact Lawrence estate including a large structure on the drive off of Lawrence Ave., several small out buildings across from the structure, and another large frame structure presumed to be the primary residence near the cliff overlooking the ocean (Fig. 3). In 1882, one year after the death of Lawrence, the bulk of the estate was sold to the Van Allen’s and the Lorillard’s. The subsequent results of this sale, found on the 1883 map, show that the large, unidentified rectangular structure is still present, and that the smaller, seaside, frame-style house has been removed in favor of Lorillard’s Vinland. By 1893, the large, rectangular structure had also been removed, this time for the construction of Van Allen’s Wakehurst (Fig. 4).

Figure 3: 1876 map showing Lawrence manor and associated rectangular structure


Figure 4: Location of Lawrence manor and outbuilding in relation to existing structures


The large wooden structure first came to our attention as the result of a student paper dealing with the occupation history of Wakehurst Mansion, now part of the Salve Regina University campus. Determining the function of the map-documented structure posed a question that became one of the research objectives of the Field School program: was it a residential structure, perhaps the original Lawrence house? Or was it the "orchard house" described in the Mercury article? Historical archaeology would hold the key to evaluating this problem.

Historically, greenhouses first appeared in America in 1764. Subsequently, throughout the 19th century, the construction of these houses steadily rose, with a particular surge in popularity after 1850. The historical dating, in accord with the Mercury article, would place Lawrence’s "orchard house" at the forefront of this luxury craze.

The goal of the excavation was to obtain a greater understanding of the function of the site. The collection of a substantial artifact assemblage was thought to be the best way to understand the questionable role of the structure, and in order to accomplish this goal effectively and efficiently, a series of 23 shovel test pits were dug on a 50 ft grid in front of the SRU Library (Fig. 5).

Figure 5: Shovel testing in front of library


Based upon the preliminary analysis of test pit data, especially the presence/absence of natural subsoil, the outline of the building was established and artifact concentrations and possinle features were identified. Four excavation units were laid out to further expose potential features.  One of these units exposed a thick concrete pad, possibly the foundation for a furnace used to heat the orchard house (Fig. 6

Figure 6: Concrete pad


Upon comparing the types of ceramics found at the site, it became apparent that we were not dealing with a typical domestic artifact assemblage.  It was found that the bulk of the assemblage (70%) was made up of unglazed redware (Fig. 7). Redware was the typical material used for planting, and the forms were consistent with 'flower pot' forms (Fig. 8).

Figure 7: Relative frequency of ceramic types


Figure 8: Redware ceramics of probably 'flower pots'


The relative frequencies of glass fragments also provided a distinctive pattern.  The great majority was of flat window glass, consistent with the description of the orchard house (Fig. 9).  But there was also an unusually high proportion of colored bottle glass associated with wine bottles (Fig. 10).  Also present were fragments of stemmed wine goblets.

Figure 9: Relative frequencies of glass types


Figure 10: Fragments of wine bottles and goblets


Excavations on the campus of Salve Regina University identified the architectural footprint of an anomalous building that appeared on historic maps dating to the mid/late 19th century, and was associated with the estate of William Beech Lawrence.  Artifacts recovered from these excavations included a high proportion of unglazed redware interepreted as planting pots, and a high frequency of window glass.  These material classes are consistent with the historical description of the Lawrence Orchard House.  An unexpected insight onto the social activities that may have been associated with the orchard house came via the wine bottle and goblet fragments.  Did dinner parties include a visit to the orchard house to show off the exotic plants and their all-season fruit crops?  This possibility adds a new dimension to the concept of 'conspicuous consumption.'

[John Hopeck and Nicole Chalfant contnbuted to the research presented herein]

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