The Greene Memorial House in the 20th century
Then and Now
George Sears Greene of Apponaug ranks high as one of Warwick’s most illustrious Civil War heroes. In addition to the large boulder from Culp’s Hill that was placed in the Greene cemetery at Tanner Avenue in Apponaug as a tribute to General Greene’s Civil War contributions, the house at 15 Centerville Road is dedicated to his memory.
According to the research of the late Dorothy Mayor of Apponaug, General Francis Vinton Greene, son of General George Sears Greene, gave the house to the R.I. Episcopal Convention. His intention was to have it used by St. Barnabas’ Church as a rectory and to have it maintained as a memorial to his illustrious father. Mrs. Mayor reports, “Before deeding it over, he had the building completely repaired and restored and furnished in the period of the early 1800s.”
A letter from Helen Bissell Pettis was quoted by Mrs. Mayor as stating, “My aunt, Mrs. Greene, and I drove about the countryside collecting antiques to furnish the house to give to St. Barnabas Church for all of which Gen. Greene paid….” The letter goes on to say, “This with the promise it be kept up inside and out – the lands, the Greene Memorial Cemetery.…”
The Greene Memorial House was used by St. Barnabas’ Church as a rectory, church school and for religious functions from 1900 to 1926. In 1911 a fire broke out in Apponaug and the wooden church that was St. Barnabas burned to the ground. Dot Mayor says, “and after the old church on Post Road burned to the ground [the Greene Memorial was used] as a place of worship.” When the present church was built in 1926, the old house was no longer needed as a rectory.
Mr. Gustav Schweitzer, a lay reader for the church, and his family lived in the house from 19261930. During this early period in the 20th century, the house was heated by steam from the Apponaug Co., which was next to the house. A pipe ran from the factory to the house and carried steam until a gasfired burner was installed.
After the Schweitzers left, the house remained vacant until 1933. At that time, rather than leave the house empty and neglected, the Red Cross Warwick Chapter was allowed to use the first floor. The agreement was that the Red Cross would remain there rent-free but would pay for the insurance and maintenance. In 1941 the Red Cross was allowed to use the second floor as well and the organization has made full use of the building for many decades.
In 1958 the Red Cross Central Rhode Island Chapter purchased the building. In a letter dated 1958, the Red Cross noted that when they took over the house in 1933 there were pieces of the “ceiling on the floor, floors weak and broken through in places, wall paper hanging in shreds – many panes of glass broken – Roof leaky....”
The cellar was flooded during the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954, and in 1943 the building and its contents were very nearly destroyed by a fire set by a 15-year old-arsonist. Fortunately by that time, most of the original furniture had been removed to the Varnum House at 57 Peirce Street in East Greenwich and was not damaged. One room was nearly demolished and all 11 rooms and the attic received water and fire damage. Among the many interesting materials found were some old wooden legs. According to a 1978 letter from Marjorie Greene, the “old crutches and wooden legs in attic belonged to our grandfather Major Charles Thurston Greene [who] lost a leg fighting in the Civil War at 20 yrs old and the gov’t gave him a new leg yearly and he lived to 82 yrs….”
The house had been the property of Russell Howard during the latter part of the 20th century and a group of Orthodox Jews had used the building as the CHAI Center of Chabad of West Bay. In the early 21st century, Ed and Jackie Alger have purchased the house, and it is now used as a co-op where a number of individuals rent bedrooms and then share the common areas of the house, such as the kitchen and dining areas. The person who is the director of the homestead/co-op is R. Michael Sheldon. Michael and his wife, Margo, were married in the house on March 21, 2004. Michael, who is a true Civil War buff, wore the Civil War uniform of a lieutenant colonel.
In an interview on October 1, 2004, Sheldon explained that co-ops are very popular in the mid-west where often a single family can’t afford to heat and maintain a large home. The concept is now gaining more advocates in New England, and he feels that a co-op creates a family-type atmosphere. The Greene Memorial House can accommodate up to seven residents. Michael says that all tenants have an equal voice in the management of the house and ideally all will sit and talk about the issues on a weekly basis. Without doubt, Michael and Margo are doing a great deal to restore the house as it was in the early 20th century. He noted that at first Margo was not happy with the house as it was so big that she often couldn’t find him, but now, like Michael, she is doing a great deal to make the house a very nice place in which to live.
When the Sheldons first moved in there were many problems that came as a result of the period of long neglect. For example, there were 74 broken panes of glass that had to be replaced. At the time of the interview, Michael had replaced all but 10 and had resealed all the windows to make the house a quiet haven along busy Centerville Road. Michael and Margo are not paid to restore the house but feel it is a labor of love and a luxury to be able to do something for the enrichment of history. Michael feels honored to live in the home once occupied by General George Sears Greene. He believes that General Greene was responsible for saving the Union by his courageous action at Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg. He is also an admirer of George Sears Greene’s son, Francis Vinton Greene, who had a very interesting career from the time he graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1870. Francis Vinton Greene, while still a first lieutenant, served on the International Commission for survey of the northern boundary of the United States as assistant astronomer and surveyor, 1872-76. His ability was to take him to a position as military attaché to U.S. Legation in St. Petersburg, 1877-79, and he was an observer with the Russian Army in Turkey, 1877-78. In that position, he witnessed a number of battles and gained a firsthand knowledge of warfare.
As an engineer, Francis Vinton Greene was in charge of public works in Washington, D.C., 1879-85. He left that position to become a professor of practical military engineering at the United States Military Academy for two years, resigning in late 1886. With the outbreak of the Spanish American War, F.V. Greene once again served in the army. As a major general, he commanded 2nd Division, 7th Army Corps at Jacksonville, Fla., Savannah, Ga. and Havana, Cuba, October to December 1898. He resigned on Feb. 28, 1899.
As had his father, Francis Vinton Greene continued to contribute to society in his writings and in different fields of service. He was New York City police commissioner, Jan. 1, 1903-04. Throughout his career he wrote a number of books including The Russian Army and Its Campaigns In Turkey, Life of Nathanael Greene, Major General in the Army of the Revolution, The Mississippi Campaigns of the Civil War and Our First Year in the Great War.
As Francis Vinton Greene has been such a great benefactor of the Greene Memorial House, the Sheldons plan to name a room in the building in his honor. If Michael and Margo Sheldon have their way, the Greene Memorial House will be one of Warwick’s most well known historic homes.
The story of the historic houses of Apponaug will be continued.