The focal point of the sprawling complex is the magnificent 28-room mansion, styled as a 17th century French chateau. This manor house rivals, and even surpasses, most of the fine and elegant Newport mansions. There is, however, much more to Indian Oaks than this splendid residence. The development of the estate, the vibrant beauty of the landscaping, the power of the man who built it, and the role it played then and now are all significant and an important part of our Rhode Island heritage.
In the early 1800s, Senator Aldrich founded Warwick Neck, with its quiet beauty, an ideal place to spend summers. In 1896 he decided to make this his permanent summer home and purchased the Governor Hoppin farm and about 15 acres. Almost from the start, Aldrich envisioned a magnificent complex that would grow and develop over the years. Aldrich eventually purchased seven farms in the area and it was not completed until he was in his 70s.
The original purchase, the Hoppin house, was a modest, comfortable “hot weather place” that served as the center of the large complex that was to follow. Shortly after this purchase, Aldrich acquired the Larnard estate and an additional 26 acres. In the years that followed, he purchased the Russell estate and 20 more acres, the Utley lot, and the Marshall Woods estate with another 40 acres. In 1909 the senator added Judge Cook’s land and his South Cottage. By this time the estate had grown to 160 acres, wooden buildings were replaced with stone structures and Senator Aldrich had attracted the curiosity and interest of all of Rhode Island. It was obvious that Warwick was becoming the home of a most significant and beautiful country villa.
Everyone speculated on what was happening on Warwick Neck at the turn of the century, but the Aldriches valued their privacy and curiosity seekers had to be content with mere glimpses of the work going on. From the decks of excursion steamers, then popular in the bay, the impressive boathouse and the top of the 150-foot obelisk-type tower rising above the treetops could be seen. Small areas of velvet-like lawn beyond the sea wall, flowering shrubs and trees, and an occasional view of a building under construction was the extent of the view from the sea. The hope of seeing more of the estate by land wasn’t very promising for the average Rhode Islander either. Warwick Neck was not that easily reached in that era, public transportation in the 1890s stopped at the foot of the “Neck,” about two miles distant from the lighthouse.
Those who did venture on the peninsula found their view blocked on the south side of the estate by a stone wall about 5½ feet high and by a dense screen of shrubbery and trees on the north side. For those who were able to venture on the estate, however, there was the reward of great beauty.
The landscaping was I itself a work of art. At its greatest extent, the estate covered approximately 250 acres. The area is roughly saucer-shaped and the land rises gradually from the bay to form two ridges. Within the ridges is a gently rolling plateau, which gave the land a variety of topographical features that Senator Aldrich developed into lovely gardens, groves and vistas. Fred C. Greene, as superintendent of grounds, became the catalyst for Aldrich in developing the estate. Over 100 acres were given over to lawn, all cut by a hand-mower. At first the area was mowed with a horse-mower, but Greene preferred hand mowing. He concluded that it took as many men to trim under the trees as it would to mow, and he felt that power mowers were impractical because of the steep grades and the desirable effects could best be achieved by hand.
Inland, beyond the lawn, were a few lots devoted to utilitarian purposes. There was a cattle and horse barn, a perfectly equipped dairy, chicken houses and pastures. Care was taken to keep these hidden from view. Along the driveway there was a strip of land with a stand of trees that hid the quarry from which the stone was taken to build the walls and houses.
The story of Indian Oaks/The Aldrich Estate circa 1984 will be continued.