Op/Ed: Saving Buildings – Why and How?

by | Apr 20, 2021

Above: 32 Exchange Street, the longtime residence of Alan’s friend and local notable Charlie Fishell. It is slated for demolition, with plans to build a total of 12 residences on the property. Read more HERE.

I note all the thoughts about saving the old houses and buildings in town. We lament over their loss, we vocalize how we want to save them. But we also have to ask how! How are we going to save a building when there is no more use for it? The old building on Lion Street has been vacant as far back as I can remember. Harold Maddalena took me through there a decade ago when I was on a fool’s mission. Most of the paint was on the floor, having flaked off the walls and ceiling. There it sat for decades. No one tried to save it then. Now, suddenly it is important that we save it. It hasn’t had a viable use in over 50 years but we must save it. 

Charlie Fishell’s Exchange Street house. I thought the of world of Charlie. Knew him forever. When I lived at the Old Jail, I would listen through the open window for his old Chevy that ran on half the cylinders it was appointed with. He would go around the corner poopin’ and poppin’, on his way to the Fireman’s Club in the early morning and I knew it was time for me to get up. But for his old house, he only lived in a few rooms and probably hadn’t been upstairs in decades. And now that it has dilapidated and Charlie is gone, suddenly we must save it. I never saw Charlie hang a little wooden sign on it saying it was the Fishell House, ca. 1824 (or whatever). [Read about plans for the Fishell property HERE.]

What we all miss, what all the calls for salvation miss, is that whatever we save must ultimately be made useful and financially viable in this modern age of endless red tape, building permits, financing and upkeep. There has to be a way to finance saving it and then it must pay its way into the future. There is a potentially viable plan to save Lion Street. Saving it is far superior to it being replaced by yet another Zarrella condoplex. The Fishell place on Exchange Street, I don’t know. The town told Charlie it needed to be painted so he painted it as far up as he could reach. I loved the guy. He was a town character. I would save everything I know about him and everything I could learn about him before I would bother to save his house.

The elementary school at First and Cliff streets that was torn down after Eldredge School was built.

There are buildings now gone that we should have saved. The old old Town Hall on north Main Street, for example. I always thought that the old Our Lady of Mercy Church complex made Main Street proud. All the nice old houses along south Main Street to the Bleachery Hill. The Spring Street school and the old grammar school on Cliff Street I recently posted on Facebook – they were magnificent old buildings and might have become modern apartment houses. The problem is this town government doesn’t want apartment houses, it prefers condoplexes. New buildings are safer and the town has ultimate control over how safe they are. Governments like controlling things – ultimately!

The old Town Hall could today be a center for civic activities if it survived the ‘60s. OLOM Church, as much as it was loved by its congregants, simply wasn’t big enough. Was it to be acquired by another denomination? Apparently not. What possible use for the church could we find? The parsonage and the carriage house? Sure. But that church – like the old Methodist church on Main Street – would have fought for a modern use that could make it financially viable. Fortunately, the Methodist church has found a use, at least for now. 

When the Old Jail at the foot of King Street came on the market, my first thought was to promote the notion that it could become an apartment building for the Housing Authority. Only the Feds could force it through the red tape. I presented this idea to a few people with a say in such things but it never took root. I have no idea what will become of that old barn I once called home. There aren’t a lot of uses for old jails with no parking, but it would be a great place to live in an apartment. All the noise on the waterfront didn’t bother me when I was there. 

This town has been here over 340 years and it has been built, torn down, and rebuilt through many generations of developers. Most original buildings have been replaced, some many times. 

I recently put on Facebook’s EGT&N site the story of the Greenwich Academy’s six-story Girls Dormitory that fell to a massive fire in August 1898. The feelings expressed were that it was a shame it was no longer there. And it is a shame, but what possible use could have justified keeping it there? The building burned to the ground in less than two hours! Would you feel at ease living on the fifth floor of a 150-year-old bone-dry wooden structure? Wherever I have lived, I have an escape plan in case of fire. The picture of the dormitory didn’t show the fire escapes that were added and visible in a later picture. Maybe you could get out, but never forget the Station Fire and those who couldn’t get out. I can state without a doubt in my mind that if I were there that dreadful night, I would have been standing right next to the door.

11 Lion Street. The current owner wants to demolish the structure if an interested party is not able to get permissions to renovate it. Read more HERE.

The whole point I am trying to make is a building – to be saved – must have a modern use and a viable financial plan to make it so. All the lamenting by us wanting to save a building must face the fact that unless we are going to be involved in the financial process of saving and modernizing it, the building will fall to those who do have the financing and they will knock it down and put up another condoplex. 

The developers today are no different from the Main Street businessmen who contributed the money to raze the old Town Hall for a parking lot. Well maybe they are working in a more pliable era and have more money to work with, and maybe they are proud of what they do. Or maybe they are just fulfilling the destiny to turn East Greenwich from a general purpose village to one big restaurant with enough housing for fine-dining customers. Because today, restaurants are the thing. And that’s a good thing! I’ve been through some towns that have lost their villages to the shopping centers in the outskirts. The last time I was in Baytown, Texas – 40 years ago – the entire downtown was closed and all boarded up. That sight made me eternally grateful for the town we have today. Whatever it is today – at least it’s viable.

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April 21, 2021 10:09 am

Well put, Alan.

Donna Rice
Donna Rice
April 22, 2021 8:54 am

EG as we know it has disappeared!
Cliff and Donna

April 22, 2021 5:26 pm

EG as you know it isn’t gone. It’s progressed. Like everything in life. It will always be the same EG that you grew up in and you will always find some corner that has remained the same. But cheers to the people that have come in and made this a vibrant and attractive town. All the out of towners (me included) that came here and purchased old homes and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate and repair them. Don’t resent it. Would you rather EG be like West Warwick, with boarded up buildings and barely any business? I doubt it.

Alan I Halsband
Alan I Halsband
April 24, 2021 11:13 am

Alan your stories about EG are very interesting. This one about old houses and buildings was very good. Every time I drive Main Street I wonder what is happening to my grandfather’s building (Halsband Building ) at 157 Main Street. Hopefully it will be use again soon.

Don Rice
Don Rice
April 24, 2021 3:54 pm

I knew Charlie Fishell well. He dabbled in buying and selling used cars, and his backyard looked like a patch of Greasy Joe’s. I once sold him a ‘41 Chevy that was badly in need of a replacement freeze-out plug. I was incapable of doing it myself—it required removing the engine—and couldn’t afford to pay somebody else, so I sold it to Charlie. A few weeks later I saw the car coughing and sputtering its way north on Main Street with Little Dan at the wheel and Foggy riding shotgun. (I suppose that was better than if it had been the reverse, but I’ll say no more about that.)

As far as Charlie’s old house is concerned, sure, let the developers have at it—but only if they agree to construct low-income housing. Back in Charlie’s day that was one of the poorest neighborhoods in town, but if you didn’t make much money, you could afford to live there. My Aunt Dot and Uncle Red lived next door to Charlie (Red was a coal truck driver), and years later when Cheerio Clarke was priced out of the Halsband building, he moved into that same apartment. Another of my poorer friend’s family lived upstairs. I don’t know where any of these people would go today.


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