Greene-Durffee house

westshoreJohn and I just returned from four days in Rhode Island, caulking and painting the front and side of our colonial house in Warwick, Rhode Island.  Some friends have asked about the house, so here goes:

The house is known as the Greene-Durffee house.  It was build in 1780 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s located east of West Shore road (Route 117) two long blocks from an inlet of the Providence River, seven blocks from Narragansett Bay, just outside the historic village of Conimicut.  It is a two-and-one-half story Colonial home, gable-roofed, timber-framed structure with a huge brick center chimney, and a fieldstone foundation sitting on a lot slightly less than one acre.  The front is sheathed in clapboard.  It is a fine example of late American Colonial architecture.  It is one of the few remaining 18th century structures in Old Warwick, site of the original town settlement, and the community’s civic center.  Practically all of the structures that once constituted Old Warwick have been destroyed.

The home was built for Captain William Greene (1763-1852), believed to be a cousin of General Nathanial Greene, George Washington’s second in command during the Revolutionary War.  Captain Greene sold it to his son Charles Wells Greene in 1846.  Upon Charles’ death in 1856, the home became the property of his sister Almyra (Greene) Durffee (1807-1888), widow of Edward G. Durffee.  Her daughter and son in law, Sarah D. and John F. Woodmansee, subsequently acquired the house.  I believe it was sold some in in the 1940’s to the Wilbur family, from whom we bought the house in 2006.   

For those of us on the West Coast, where a home built in the 1950’s is considered old, this house is REALLY old.  After all, it was built right in the middle of the Revolutionary War, with battles taking place less than 30 miles away. Consider this:  the house is built with post and beam construction with no framing (of course, there was no electricity or running water back then).  The walls are solid wood and only 3/4″ thick.  The doors are also thin and used hand forged black iron hardware.  The floors (even in the unfinished attic) are solid hand-hewn yellow oak planks one-foot wide.  The basement (when we bought the home) sat under the fieldstone foundation (not concrete) and was just dirt.  We poured a cement basement and shored up the foundation.  We scraped seven layers of wallpaper (this was exciting archeology in and of itself, to see what designs were popular during each generation), and wet plastered the walls (no drywall).  The home originally had SIX fireplaces, used to heat the various parts of the home. 

The interior of the house still has many unique historic features, both Colonial and Victorian.  The main entrance has a four-panel heavily-molded Victorian door flanked by sidelights and fluted pilasters, set in the center of a five-bay facade.  The original pediment over the door was removed in the 1800’s when a large two-story veranda was added to the front and north side of the home.  When we purchased the building, the veranda was in disrepair and detracted form the historic look of the home.  We demolished the veranda and reinstalled a traditional colonial pediment over the doorway.

The main block of the house follows a slightly modified five-room plan.  The small entry and stair hall in front of the chimney contains a tight triple-run staircase with a heavily molded closed string and acorn drops on the newels.  The wall between the southwest parlor and southeast back room was opened up, creating a double-parlor arrangement with a broad archway between the two rooms.  There is a large brick fireplace in the main parlor.  That same parlor is elaborately detailed with eared door and window architraves, a dentil cornice, and a two-story mantel with an eared architrave around the firebox, a mantel shelf, and a beveled panel above flanked by fluted pilasters tobbed by a cushion-fieze entablature.  There was originally another fireplace in the northwest parlor, but it was closed up by the time we bought the home.  The adjoining dining room has a closed up fireplace, which we covered with decorative tin to create an artistic panel.  100_0762

There is a pass-through secret closet between the dining room and the northwest parlor.  The kitchen contains a massive brick fireplace, once used for cooking.  As with most colonial homes, the kitchen was originally outside (to avoid burning down the house) and later enclosed to be part of the home in the late 1700’s.  Sometime, in the 1800’s additional rooms were built above the kitchen “salt box” to increase the square footage of the home.   There is a “drying room” behind the kitchen fireplace, used to dry hams and laundry.  We have modernized the kitchen with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.  We also opened up the dining room to create a more open floor plan.

The home has original yellow-oak wide plank floors, which we refinished. 

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The original front windows have been preserved with one exception.  Again, sometime during the Victorian period, the prior owners replaced the second story center window with a door leading to the second floor veranda.   When we demolished the two-story wrap-around veranda, we removed the second-story door and replaced it with a wooden window.  But in keeping with common practice in both Colonial/Victorian periods, the window is extra large.  In the old days, it was known as a “coffin window.”  Stairs were too narrow to take large furniture up and down inside.  When people died in the home, they were usually in one of the upstairs bedrooms.  The coffin was built on site, the body placed in it and then the coffin lowered out the extra-large window.  No more coffins in this home, but we did put the large window in to allow residents to crane couches, large beds, up and through the window to the second floor.  On the second floor, the fireplace in the southwest bedroom has two-story mantel with bolection molding and beveled panel.

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When we purchased the home, it had already been converted to a three-family home, with one unit on the bottom floor, another unit on the second floor, and a third “in law unit” over the saltbox. The house had 17 rooms, with a total of seven bedrooms, three bathrooms and three kitchens. We have maintained the three-family configuration but updated the interior.  For example, the second floor bath has been enlarged and what remains of the bedroom from which we stole space to enlarge the bath is now an office/reading room.   In my latest visit, the first floor and mother-in-law apartment were occupied.  I was able to get into the second floor unit to take some photos, which include the restored Victorian clawfoot bathtub

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The new granite-and-tile bath with separate shower enclosure

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The sunny reading room with the marble-slab corner seat

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and the decorative tin ceiling. 

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We also refreshed and reinstalled the original Colonial hardware on some of the doors and closets.

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It’s been a lot of work, and there’s still more to be done.  But it’s a labor of love!

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4 Responses to “Greene-Durffee house”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Lovely house.

    It was a good idea to put the in-law unit over the saltbox!!!!

  2. Mama Rose Says:

    Beautiful! But, I’m confused – who lives there??

  3. squirrelmama Says:

    The house is currently a three-family rental. We had originally intended to sell it but the market turned bad so we’re holding on to it until the market improves. There is a little office building on the property that is also rented out.

  4. squirrelmama Says:

    Unfortunately on August 22, 2010, the house was hit by lighting during a storm. The saltbox addition caught fire and was completely gutted. our tenant was not home but she lost everything, including her cat. The fire department also caused some damage to the adjoining unit when they broke into it to make sure the fire had not spread to it. Temporary repairs have been put in place to protect the still occupied unit. We are working with the insurance company to see what can be done to rebuild the saltbox., Of course it will have to be rebuilt to current codes, which have changed substantially from when the unit above the saltbox was first built in the 1800s. I understand there were a lot a news crews at the site and that it was shown on the evening news, but I haven’t been able to find anything on the Web about the fire. If you find anything, can you forward it to me? The home is located on West Shore Road in historic Conimicut Village in Warwick, RI.

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