Op-ed: The seeds of change planted 50 years ago now bloom in Warren

By Robert Porter Lynch 
Posted 3/30/22

Looking back from where we were 50 years ago, it brings joy to my heart to see these initial efforts have continued to blossom, bringing renewed vitality in our now vibrant community. 

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Op-ed: The seeds of change planted 50 years ago now bloom in Warren

Posted

It was nearly 50 years ago in the autumn of 1972 when I moved to Warren, purchasing an old, run-down house at 43 Miller St. at the corner of Union Street.

I’d just returned from combat duty in Vietnam, stationed in Newport as part of a special detachment assigned to build more teamwork and a spirit of cooperation into the Navy’s leadership. As a young lieutenant, Navy pay was quite low. It was all I could muster to get a loan for $18,000 for an abandoned house in a poor neighborhood.

At first, most people thought I was a “carpet bagger,” until I explained my mother was born in a triple decker at 69 Union St. (just a block away from my new home) and my great grandfather had a grocery store on Water Street. Yes, the old folks remembered Jozef Stachowiak’s store. During Prohibition, he, like most other merchants, was peddling bootleg liquors, but that is another story.

After buying our new home, my wife and I started fixing up. Soon we realized the real beauty of Warren was its people – who had a marvelous sense of community.  But there was a caveat – when I walked around town and asked the local folks what they thought about their town, the most common answer was: “What this town needs is a four-alarm fire!” In other words, the buildings were old, run-down, and decrepit – there was no hope.

In December of 1972, we went to our first meeting of the Massasoit Historical Association. It was quite an experience. Only a handful of people attended, and they were still arguing about agenda items that had not been resolved in the last two years. But, by the end of the meeting, I was asked if I’d become the Association’s next President. “What?” I thought. “They didn’t even know me.” 

My mother and father had revitalized the Cranston Historical Society when I was growing up in the 1950s, so I had a good idea of what needed to be done. By the end of 1973, the Historical Association had good monthly programs, and attendance was up to 35-50 people per meeting. Barry and Mary Ann Lowe helped organize Christmas Caroling on Christmas Eve, resurrecting an old tradition.

For 1974, Bonnie Warren, Lombard Pozzi, and my wife started planning a Walking Tour of Historic Warren for the spring. That was a wake-up call for the community that had a very negative view of the old section of town. Well, the response was staggering – nearly 200 people came, mostly from out of town, to learn about Warren’s hidden treasures. Local cynics could not fathom why so many people came to see what they perceived as run-down slums.

The Walking Tour, as well as other things we were planning, drew so much attention that Fred Williamson of the RI Department of Community Affairs, and Antoinette Downing of the RI Historic Preservation Commission asked me and the Town Council if we would consider making our town the official “Bicentennial Town” for 1976, and focus on revitalization – not just historic preservation – bringing back the real spirit of 1776, helping a community develop pride and preservation. Revitalization meant more than fixing up buildings, but bringing a new life into a community.

Fortunately, the Town Council had one member: Ed Theberge, who really understood the potential and agreed to champion the initiative, which went on for years after the official celebrations were over in 1976. Ed not only worked tirelessly, but also against some very difficult obstacles – there was a lot of resistance to anything as spooky as historic preservation. In my opinion, Ed Theberge deserves the Medal of Honor for the persistence and persuasion; few would realize today the massive emotional cost Ed paid to stick to his highest values.

By 1975, we had drawn up plans to bring federal money into the town to line the sidewalks with bricks and trees, and to rehabilitate two older historic firehouses. While this Federal money seemed like a gift, we were all surprised how political the money would be – let me say no more on this issue. 

Ed Theberge’s wife Sally headed up a team to paint fire hydrants like Revolutionary War soldiers. This got us national attention; they were quite imaginative. People everywhere admired the artwork that was done by dozens of Warren volunteers. Amon Jamiel donated the paint — God rest his soul.

We held another Walking Tour in ’75, and more people came. The Massasoit Historical Association, now vibrant, decided to make a fateful decision: Purchase the Maxwell House from the Sevigny family for $13,000. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot today, but to us, with only a few hundred dollars in our coffers, it was a king’s ransom. 

Fortunately, the Sevigny family made the Maxwell House a gift to future generations of adults and children alike. However, the restoration costs were going to be huge. The massive chimney hadn’t been repaired in centuries. Mariano Pimental, the stone and brick mason we hired, turned out to be a master in putting the chimney structure back in order. Custom made windows to replicate 18th century ones were needed. Plumbing and electricity had to be upgraded. The Historical Association now had a big mission: raise money to turn the old home into a living museum.

Community spirit was beginning to shift. Every weekend a group of volunteers would show up at the Maxwell House for cleanup and restoration duty. Marge White, the new president of the Historical Association, and John Chaney did a great job keeping the Association’s membership focused on events at the Maxwell House.

Another project was planned; create a handbook on restoration written in English and Portuguese for local owners of homes in the North End. Called “Fixing Up,” it was the first time in history, to our knowledge, that such a book had ever been undertaken. Lombard Pozzi, Bonnie Warren, and Ancelin Lynch spearheaded the effort. 

While virtually every other town in Rhode Island held parades and fireworks for the Bicentennial, Warren’s intent was to make something that was lasting and sustainable. Historic preservation was a strategy aimed not just at old buildings, but at revitalizing the heart and soul of a community. As a result, the 1846 Historic Fire Station on Baker Street got some well needed attention. Ed Theberge and Dick Valente re-chartered the Federal Blues. But they went beyond – their headquarters on Baker Street, and then the restoration of the Warren Armory, is an outgrowth of that vision and spirit.

In the early 1980s we recognized we had a terrible problem with low-grade bars on Water Street. It took some time and anguished moments to get this problem cleaned up. If Water Street continued to look run-down, our future would be plagued. How could art shops survive next to a rowdy bar?

The worst building on Water Street at that time was on the corner of Sisson Street. It had been abandoned for many years, had two fires, and virtually every window had been broken with beer bottles. It was going to be demolished for a hot dog stand. My wife and I purchased the building, turning it into the Nathaniel Porter Inn.

Looking back from where we were 50 years ago, it brings joy to my heart to see these initial efforts have continued to blossom, bringing renewed vitality in our now vibrant community. 

Fifty years ago, Warren was then considered a “grubby little place” between Barrington and Bristol. 


No longer! 

We are now a destination and an equal partner in Bristol County. Warren can hold its head high with a vision for its future. Thank you to all of you who have worked so diligently to preserve Historic Warren. Anything good that multiplies is time and effort well spent. 

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.