Watch Hill: A lot more than Taylor Swift


Lately, the only news we have been getting out of Watch Hill has been about Taylor Swift, the pop star who bought one of the most iconic houses in Watch Hill last year, leaving local residents deathly afraid that she would begin littering the Watch Hill beaches with the discarded beaus du jour that have become her primary source of material.

Well, that hasn’t come to pass, and a closer look at the complaints about her ruining the neighborhood have been unfounded at best and libelous at worst.

Much better news has been the release of a new documentary about Watch Hill by Betty-Jo Cugini and Jim Karpeichik that was premiered on RI PBS last week. Their ravishing video essay of the village, modestly called “Watch Hill: A Portrait of a New England Seaside Village,” traces the history of Watch Hill to pre-colonial times through to just less than a month ago, when they filmed scenes in the village covered with new fallen snow.

While most people in Rhode Island are somewhat familiar with the village, people outside of the state seem to think that it is actually in Connecticut and, if it were not for the Pawcatuck River being designated the boundary between Rhode Island and Connecticut, it would have been. Geographic peculiarity aside, Watch Hill has always been considered a colony of summer residents from New York and points farther west, but, unlike Newport, with its ostentatious gilt “cottages,” Watch Hill’s advocates opted for a less showy but unmistakably de luxe form of architecture called the “shingle style” of coastal building.

Cugini and Karpeichik have managed to impart all this history of the village to the viewer without making the viewer feel like the target of a chamber of commerce booster film. The plain fact is: It’s nearly impossible to film Watch Hill in an unfavorable light. In part, that’s because they based their film on “Watch Hill Through Time,” by Chaplin B. Barnes, a native of Watch Hill and an ardent conservator of its history and heritage.

“One of the pleasures of doing a film like this is the research,” said Cugini. “We got to look at the original deed, where the sachem [Ninigret] signed the deed with a picture of a bow and arrow.”

Cugini, who grew up near Watch Hill and has known it more as a piece of her personal history and you can almost feel the same nostalgia she feels as she describes her research.

“Of course, Chap Barnes was our guide to most of the history,” said Cugini. “Aside from writing about it, he is one of the most active preservationists of the village.”

A brief glance at Watch Hill history online starts with the Niantic Indians, who were led for many years by Chief Ninigret. Colonists later moved in and Watch Hill became a strategic lookout point during the French and Revolutionary Wars.

In 1806, the Watch Hill lighthouse was built.

“About 90 years later, Jonathan Nash, the village's first lighthouse keeper, started to rent rooms in his house, and so the first hotel was born. With the extension of the railroad in the late 1830s from Boston to neighboring Stonington, developers realized that the area with its natural beauty could be a prime destination resort.

“By the turn of the 20th century, there were seven sumptuous hotels on the water's edge. Also, at this time the first ‘summer cottages’ were built by a syndicate of Cincinnati industrialists. By 1920, most of the Watch Hill cottages that stand today had been constructed by people from such places as Philadelphia and St. Louis.”

The Hurricane of 1938 devastated much of Watch Hill’s shoreline. The less substantial shacks, sheds and cottages along Napatree Point were wiped out and, wisely, never rebuilt. The inspiration for the film, “Chap” Barnes, is partly responsible for that. Barnes was instrumental in developing a plan for the protection and stewardship of the Napatree Point Conservation Area, which has recently been honored with the first Distinguished Senior Fellow Award from the University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute. An attorney, Barnes was also a senior advisor for international affairs for the President’s Council on Environmental Quality in the early 1980s. He founded the innovative Napatree Conservation Education Program that teaches children about the ecology of the Napatree ecosystem. Barnes acts as a genial host through most of the documentary and his simple but eloquent anecdotes about growing up in Watch Hill makes us all envy and admire him.

Cugini said Barnes supplied much of the spirit and intimacy that are captured by Karpeichik’s excellent photography. In fact, the film goes far in explaining why the two principals of the documentary have managed to garner so many awards, mostly while they were mainstays of WJAR news, Channel 10.

Betty-Jo Cugini, a National Edward R. Murrow Award and Emmy-award winning journalist in broadcast television, ended her 19-year association from assignment editor to vice president of news and operations in 2009. Balancing Cugini’s gifts in the equation is Karpeichik. He has earned a number of awards for broadcast news and is the founder of Ocean State Video and is especially esteemed as director of photography and editor for Tim Gray Media’s World War II documentaries and many other subjects.

What the documentary makes clear is that the rich and famous have been coming to Watch Hill for more than a century but have not turned the quiet little village into a tourism free-for-all.

Douglas Fairbanks once filmed a feature in Watch Hill using the Ocean House Hotel as the setting. David Niven, Groucho Marx and Jean Harlow failed to turn the village as a movie fan destination. Hugh Jackman and Regis Philbin do not stay at the new Ocean House Hotel to greet fans and, aside for some avid Taylor Swift fans frothing about sightings of her abroad in the village, the village has almost an immunity to fame, if not fortune (Swift did pay more than $17 million for the Harkness House).

But, so far, Swift, like so many of the famous before her, has apparently been charmed into becoming an advocate of preservation. When they sought permission from the Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC) to repair the seawall surrounding Swift’s house, spokesperson Laura Dwyer said they were cooperative and actually moved some boulders they hadn’t planned to because the Council knew they were originally closer to the wall than water and weather had deposited them long before Swift bought the house. Swift’s people were eager to leave them where they were.

“We showed them where the boulders were when the house was built and they moved them there,” said Dwyer. “As for denying public access to the water, there really wasn’t much to begin with. Moving the boulders actually created more beach.”

The CRMC anticipated that any permits that Swift asked for would be subject to intense scrutiny and they were right. She said they went beyond due diligence in evaluating the permit applications. Dwyer said the project’s engineering firm also has an engineer on the site every day “because they recognize this is a high-profile case and they want to be sure they remain in compliance.

“So far, everything she’s been doing has been according to the rules,” said Dwyer. “They haven’t done anything wrong.”

So, now we can relax and enjoy “Watch Hill: A Portrait of a New England Seaside Village,” which will be repeated on RI PBS several times in the near future. Check their schedule for dates and times.


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