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53 - 55 Thames Street
The Solomon Thornton-Elizabeth Wilder House, with build dates c.1683 and 1741, is a large, seven-bay house with a gable roof and a central chimney. The structure was originally located in Johnston, Rhode Island. In 1971, the house was donated to the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) by the Allendale Mutual Insurance Company of Johnston, RI. The building was then disassembled and put in storage by NRF until a new location could be determined. It was reconstructed and restored on its current site in 1973-74.
The house had been scheduled for demolition by Allendale Mutual, the then current owner, who was in the process of creating a corporate campus. Once the property belonged to NRF, an investigation of the building followed under the guidance of the Providence Preservation Society. There was considerable structural deterioration in the first floor sills, posts, and joists, but the abundance of interior trim and detail throughout the house was significant.
Later research (1999 - 2000) substantiated the 1971 evaluation of the physical building with a paper trail of land records and other documents that clarified many aspects of the house that had heretofore remained obscure and confusing.
In 1683, Solomon Thornton acquired one hundred acres of land from his father, John Thornton, who owned a three-hundred-acre holding. Tax records for this property, listing Solomon Thornton as owner, begin to appear in 1687-88. This information indicates that a building existed on the property sometime within the period between 1683 and 1688, and seems to confirm 1971 findings that the northeast, first floor room of the house was the original seventeenth-century structure. This was a one-room, one-and-a-half-story, Rhode Island stone-end house that was typical of the area around Johnston and Lincoln.
The architectural investigation of this room found chamfered chimney end and side girts, as well as a massive summer beam. All of these were exposed, as would have been the practice in the 1680s. At the back of the large stone fireplace it was evident that the chimney was enlarged during the same time the house was enlarged, in order to provide fireplaces to the new rooms. The enlarged chimney was built of brick and the new section simply embraced the existing stone fireplace and chimney. Vertical posts on the second level, in the area of the original single-room house, show joints that are only explainable as a method to raise the existing structure to a full two stories. Based on the structure and joinery present, those evaluating the house in 1971 determined that the enlargement took place between 1730 and 1740.
Recent research has also found that Richard Thornton, Solomon's son, took ownership of the family farm when Solomon died in 1713. Richard sold the farm some thirty years later to Jonathan Olney, after running into serious debt. (Two dates are used, 1741 and 1742, because two deeds exist, both transferring the same property to Olney.) Because Richard's ownership encompassed a significant number of years, it appears that he probably undertook the enlargement of the house. Indeed, this may have caused or contributed to his financial downfall. However, Jonathan Olney also owned the house for a long period and he may have enlarged it as well.
Many names have been associated with the building. The property has been referred to as Dr. Toby's Pocasset Farm and as the John Smith Farm. Each had long ownership periods (or were important in some way) so as to have their names connected with it. During the investigation of the building in 1971, the house was referred to as the Wilder House and the same name was applied by NRF after the restoration. The Wilders were the last family to occupy the house for a significant number of years and their name was attached to it for most of the twentieth century. Deed research pinpointed the Thorntons as the first family to occupy the premises for a length of time, thus the Thornton name as well.
Photo of the house before restoration.