Houses can be windows to understanding the past, says Rick Greenwood, deputy director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.
“The architecture tells the story, as do the stories of the families who lived there,” said Greenwood. And many of the houses with the best stories, such as Burrillville’s Esten-Bowen House and The William B. Spencer House in West Warwick, become part of the National Register of Historic Places, in recognition of their value to a community’s history or their representation of a style of architecture.
Such properties, according to Greenwood, can be important to their communities.
“Tourism, for example, in Rhode Island, is to a large [extent] driven by the quality of our historic buildings and places,” he said. “In many ways, even if its not tourism, historic buildings give communities a sense of identity, a sense of continuity, and that can be very positive for a community’s sense of itself and its desirability as a place to live.”
The Esten-Bowen House was built around 1790 by John Esten before Burrillville separated from Gloucester and became its own town. The wood-frame home was laid on a stone foundation and built with the traditional five-room lay-out with a center-chimney and supplemented by a kitchen ell. The lay-out remains intact except where two of the rooms have been combined. The house was the centerpiece of a 32-acre farm with several outbuildings, only a couple of which remain.
“The house tells an interesting story of the beginnings of Burrillville as a town and the beginnings of its rediscovery as an ‘exurban’ community,” said Greenwood. John Esten was on Burrillville’s first Town Council and served the town as a member of the General Assembly. “It’s representative of the type of farm that helped develop the area from the wooded frontier of Rhode Island to an agricultural community.”
Eventually the viability of farming in the town waned, and so did the local prestige of the property. After passing through a few different owners and a period of abandonment in the early 20th century, the home was purchased by Esther Bowen in 1941 and renovated in what’s known as the “Early American” style.