300-Year-Old McKenna Farmhouse Coming Down

by | May 5, 2022

Above: The McKenna farmhouse, built by Joshua Coggeshall 300 years ago, at 62 South Pierce Road. 

Five years after local developer Tom Primeau first proposed building residential units at 62 South Pierce Road, the 5.4 acre site known as the McKenna property, the Historic District Commission gave its permission in April for the old farmhouse to be torn down due to what they said was the structure’s extreme dereliction.

The house was built in the early 1700s by Joshua Coggeshall, making it one of the oldest houses in East Greenwich, according to Martha McPartland, author of “The History of East Greenwich, Rhode Island 1677-1960.” The house had also been variously known as the Wall House and the Aaron Pierce House. 

The most distinctive aspect of the exterior of the house is the large pilastered fieldstone chimney that served seven fireplaces. 

There had been additions and changes to the house over the years. As noted in the Planning Department’s staff report (find it HERE), McPartland – writing in 1960 – said the house had been a fine example of early 18th century architecture at one time but “the years have not been kind to it, so the fine lines are all but obliterated.”

In recent decades, the house became increasingly rundown. In Primeau’s original application in 2017, he proposed building 21 units on the property, and rehabbing the farmhouse. Subsequent plans called for 18 units, then 13, and restoration of the exterior of the farmhouse, including the chimney, with a complete gutting and rebuild of the interior. 

But the project stalled after the Planning Board denied the developer’s 13-unit plan. Primeau brought it to the State Housing Appeals Board where he won but had to return to the Planning Board. Eventually, Primeau and the town agreed that he could build 8 units on the site.

According to the staff report before the April 13 HDC meeting, “The applicant has had time to further evaluate the integrity of the farmhouse. Findings indicate all of the foundation, walls, floor and roof systems require replacement. The applicant believes that given the extreme poor and unsafe conditions of the structure and the scope of damage it is both technically and financially infeasible to do this selectively. The request is to completely demolish the structure and reconstruct with new materials from ground up all of the foundation, wall, floor and roof systems.”

Members of the HDC toured the house in February and they found the structure hazardous and in extremely poor condition. 

The staff report from the visit reads, “Although staff was originally extremely committed to saving and preserving the Coggeshall Farmhouse, one does not need to be a structural engineer to see how far deteriorated and substantially damaged the building is; the project as proposed and approved will essentially be a 100 percent replacement.”

Primeau’s plan for the site remains unaltered, with eight residential units proposed, including two that would be in the structure that will be built to replicate the original farmhouse, using all wood and designing the structure to mimic what it was like before additions were added.

For neighborhood resident Mallory Walsh – one of those in the neighborhood who fought hard to reduce the number and size of the units, and advocated to restore  the farmhouse –  the decision to raze the farmhouse is an individual tragedy but also a call for the town to work harder to preserve historic structures.

“It’s really heartbreaking that that house is going to be torn down,” she said, noting that four years ago an expert in historic restoration had said the house could be salvaged. But as the years passed and nothing was done, the house fell farther into disrepair. “I do feel strongly there needs to be a way to address this” – letting historic buildings degrade to the point there is no alternative but to tear them down. “Of course, that is a larger town issue.”

 

The design for the structure to replace the farmhouse looks to replicate the original lines of the building, before later additions.

The McKenna farmhouse with porch, known in this photo as Spring Brook Farm. The date pf the photo is uncertain but from the 1970s or earlier. Photo courtesy of Alan Clarke

The McKenna (Coggeshall) farmhouse in 2019.

An outbuilding at 62 South Pierce Road.

The notable chimney will be recreated.

The McKenna farmhouse in January.

The garage at 62 South Pierce Road.

A lonely basketball hoop.

The stream that runs through the 5.4 acre property.

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16 Comments

  1. STEVE LINDSEY

    South Pierce Road should be renamed for developer Tom Primeau. He is willing to invest money into the town and should be honored for building something that will contribute to the community.—SWL

    Reply
  2. Susan Johnson

    As one who has renovated two antique houses, including one built c. 1730, this breaks my heart. Shame, shame, shame on a town as wealthy as East Greenwich for allowing this to happen.

    Reply
    • Robert McKenna

      Charles Lindbergh “Sprite of St. Louis” almost crashed on McKenna’s farm. He hit the tops of the trees with his plane.

      There is so much history and memories that will be lost with that house.

      If they are going to tear down the house. I would like to get a rock from the chimney.

      Years ago I wanted to buy part of the property from my grandfather but he said no. He couldn’t sell to one family member and not the others.

      Bob McKenna

      Reply
      • Elizabeth McNamara

        That’s remarkable about Lindbergh, Bob. I’m sorry about the house. If you are able to share more memories, we would love to post them.

        Reply
        • Robert McKenna

          The roads around the McKenna home (Spring Brook Farm) where built and named by my grandfather John McKenna. Violet Ct. Is named after his wife, my grandmother. Cora was named after his mother, my ggm. And Eugene was named after his father, my ggf.

          Reply
  3. Bruce

    Government at its worst. This building and its preservation should have been addressed years ago. I remember when the HDC would get upset about someone touching ONE shingle on a house in EG and, yet, they let this house go to pot. I do hope the builder tries to keep the “look & feel” of the house in his design.

    Progress !

    Reply
  4. Alan Clarke

    Like the old Briggs Place out on Division Road and the Stable (Riding Academy) at Goddard Park, let a building deteriorate until it is too far gone to rehabilitate. For the town’s historic purity, this house should be razed and an identical structure built around that chimney. But that is not authentic and when it was done to an old place on Block Island, Smiling Through, it was deemed locally as a disaster. A significant relic lost forever. (I was only privy to a few opinions when I worked out there so I might not have it totally correct.) I seem to recall a porch on the original building but it is so old that the porch could have been added any time. I think a porch can only add to the charm of a house so I’d see a porch on it too.
    I took a tour of this place fifteen years ago and my opinion was the originality was gone to all the “warts” and ells added, plus it was pretty run down then. (“Warts” being Pendulum editor Bill Foster’s word for odd appendages to original structures.)
    Whatever comes from this, I rue it’s passing as any Townie would because it is as much a part of the town as General Varnum… and all the old backyard cemeteries, of course. My father grew up with John McKenna and I was of age with many of his children. That family was the kind of stuff this town was made of—stubborn, age-resistant old Yankee Townies—and like the house, they are gone too. Sad, what passes with the passing of time!

    Reply
  5. Mark

    Sad tale; great photos!

    Reply
    • Elizabeth McNamara

      Thanks, Mark. The pictures will survive anyway.

      Reply
  6. Laura Sullivan

    Interesting to explore the former names of this property: the Wall and Aaron Pierce House. Martha McPartland’s book tells us that Joshua Coggeshall’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Samuel Wall, whose son, Samuel, married Hannah Spencer. Their daughter, also Hannah, married Philip Pierce, and their son, another Samuel, married Caroline Sherman. Their son, Aaron, was the last of the family to live in the homestead. Aaron died in 1917, and the house passed out of the family.

    Though this sounds like a Biblical geneology (without the ‘begats’), it is enlightening to learn of another Pierce/Peirce family in town, since there has always been confusion over the Pierce/Peirce names in town, particularly in regard to South Pierce Road and Peirce Street (named in honor of Daniel Peirce, who built the Library). So now it seems likely that South Pierce Road is indeed a reference to this house, and its last family owner. And are Aaron Pierce and his forebears buried somewhere in Town? I’m guessing that someone here knows.

    I heard a recent author say that Letting Go is hard, but Holding On is harder. How well I know these conflicting states of mind, even as I wish for threads and whispers of the past to remain on this special property, and its future dwelling.

    Reply
  7. Alan Clarke

    Aaron Pierce and all his family, the Walls, Spencers, a Taft, and a West are at EG-071, the Pierce-Spencer Lot, located west of Post Road between Eugene and Cora Streets, south of South Pierce Road. They are listed as Peirces and we have to check for the spelling. My cemetery listings are based upon Bruce MacGunnigle’s 1977-79 survey and the spelling of the name is spelled PEIRCE. I have a reasonably clear picture of one Peirce stone and the name is definitely spelled PEIRCE, not Pierce. I doubt the stonecarvers got the names spelled wrong, so apparently we have been wrong all along. Well sure, but more research is needed. Sooooo, is South Pierce Road really South Peirce Road and is the cemetery the Peirce-Spencer Lot?? Thankfully there are no variations on spelling Spencer.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth McNamara

      That is fascinating! I have always marveled that we have Peirce and Pierce…. Thanks, Alan.

      Reply
  8. Alicia Horan Cranston

    So glad my cousin Beth shared this article. The McKenna homestead holds so many treasures memories for the family. The McKenna’s we’re part of the fabric of EG. Our daughter is named for my Great Grandmother Cora. It would be very special for the family to be allowed to have a stone from the chimney or a floorboard. I remember the amazing fireplaces in that house! I wonder how this could be arranged?
    Alicia Horan Cranston

    Reply
    • Christine Horan Kellerman

      This is fascinating, and so sad! I had no idea that our dads grew up just down the road on Tillinghast. What a beautiful historical treasure lost. Please contact me, I would also love to have a stone if that can be arranged.

      Reply

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