My daughter, Terry Spencer, and I fully agree that one of the nicest aspects of living in Warwick centers around the fact that we have so many historic dwellings. Many of them are private homes that have been lovingly preserved. Others have taken an important role in the 21st century as restaurants, offices and nursing homes. One of the most interesting of the latter is the establishment called Atria Harborhill. In its early years it was called Fyrtre Hall and Royal Manor. The present owners have managed to preserve the magnificent structure located on the Warwick side of Division Street. It does not fit into the modern concept of a nursing home but is a lovely setting as an assisted living community for elderly citizens.
When I first wrote about the house in the 1980s, it was called Royal Manor and I was very much impressed with the fact that it had large rooms and the residents were encouraged to bring their own furnishings and memorabilia that they so cherished. Today, I am very happy to say that concept has continued to be put into effect.
The facility has been expanded, in very good taste thanks to the efforts of the present owners and architect John Robinson. Robinson and his sister sis an extraordinary amount of research in order to make the expansion of the facility conform to the historical integrity of the area. Since the writing about Fyrtre Hall/Royal Manor, the ownership of the property has changed hands. As I saw then, its background presented a tragic love story and a fine transition from a pre-Civil War mansion to an existing assisted living facility. It continues to be so today, and terry and I hope you enjoy the 1980s article and its 21st century update.
The following is the story of Fyrtre Hall as it was written in the 1980s.
There is a very beautiful late Federal-Greek Revival-style mansion on the Warwick side of Division Street in Cowesett. Today, this home, located on six acres of well-kept land at 159 Division Street, is the Royal Manor Retirement & Nursing Residence. It was once part of the large estate known as Fyrtre Hall. One look at the imposing mansion with its columned veranda and elaborate doorway easily evokes images of the grandeur and splendor of pre-Civil War days.
Until 1816 it had been part of the very large Greene family estate. It is not very far from the Governor William Greene mansion, which played such an important role in the Revolutionary War when it served as a meeting place for Generals Greene, Lafayette and Sullivan. Around 1840, Josiah Barker from New Orleans purchased part of the Greene estate and built the mansion called Fyrtre Hall. According to the Barker family, the story that comes to us revolves around a tragic love affair. According to the legend that has grown around the house, Mr. Barker was a native of this area. Too poor to marry his one true love, he decided to go south to seek his fortune as Rhode Island had some difficult economic times following the Revolution. He returned to Warwick in 1840, a very successful man, and proceeded to fulfill his dream and promise. Unfortunately, the lady who had waited for him met an untimely death soon after. Brokenhearted, Barker went ahead with his plans to build the magnificent home and planted a number of gardens and a row of fir trees in memory of his sweetheart, hence the name Fyrtre Hall.
Josiah Barker brought a little bit of the south with him, as can be seen in the style of the house and in the manner in which he lived. He built a house nearby as quarters for his slaves. In spite of the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1784 and the strong anti-slavery feelings of the Quakers, there were still a few slaves in Rhode Island. According to state records, the last slave in Rhode Island died in 1859.
In 1856 the very wealthy Thomas Jefferson Hill purchased the large 34-acre estate from members of the Barker family. The Barkers were Quakers and two of Elizabeth Barker’s daughters, Martha and Mary Ann, were teachers at the Friends Boarding School – now Moses Brown – in Providence. Mr. Hill had shortly before that time become one of the first of the great “captains of industry” in Rhode Island. His story vividly portrays the spectacular rise of the self-made man. He was born in 1801, the year that Thomas Jefferson became president. His blacksmith father, an admirer of the great Virginian, proudly named his son Thomas Jefferson Hill and very early tried to instill political ambition in the young boy. By the time Thomas was 14 years of age, he was already working full time in his father’s blacksmith shop.
“The long hours and the heavy work paid off,” according to Mr. Hill, who lived to be 90 years of age and attributed his long, vigorous life and remarkable stamina to this part of his boyhood.
The story of the lovely mansion Fyrtre Hall will be continued.