Focus on town center with historic designation

Focus on town center with historic designation

The former Valley Falls Company store on Mill Street with Cumberland Town Hall in the background.

CUMBERLAND – The Cumberland Town Hall Historic District, the town’s civic center, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and that’s a win for the area and the town as a whole, say local officials.

The area last week received the federal recognition for its contributions to the history of community development and architecture. J. Paul Loether, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, announced that the National Park Service had made the designation.

Director of Planning and Community Development Jonathan Stevens said this is all part of the process of drawing “more of a focus on Valley Falls” and the center of town government, which, as most know, is not centrally located but is in the southern end of town.

“It’s kind of about time” that this 1894 government building gets the recognition that it deserves, said Stevens.

The town won a $10,000 grant from the RIHPHC for a condition appraisal of Town Hall and what it would take to restore it, said Stevens.

There is an element of community pride here, he said, but seeking recognition of historic properties goes hand-in-hand with the National Park effort and impacts the way the town is marketed to the heritage tourism community. “It’s a piece of the puzzle,” he said.

A renovated Town Hall, combined with a planned reshaped and beautified Broad Street and the nearby space at Heritage Park, could stimulate conversation on other buildings, including finding an adaptive reuse for the old post office building next to Town Hall, said Stevens.

It’s always important for people to appreciate the historic aspects of the community, said Stevens.

The renewed focus on maintaining and preserving Town Hall shows a continued departure from the discussions of a few years ago, when local officials were discussing moving Town Hall offices to a more centralized location in town.

The Cumberland Town Hall Historic District includes two buildings and one statue near the northeast corner of Broad and Mill Streets in the village of Valley Falls.

The Town Hall, a three-story Colonial Revival-style brick structure with a wood clock tower, was designed by William R. Walker & Son and erected in 1894. The granite statue depicting a World War II infantryman is part of a memorial to veterans located near the southwest corner of Town Hall. Next door to the east is the former Valley Falls Post Office/Valley Falls Free Library, a two-story brick commercial building constructed around 1890.

In 1746, a boundary dispute was resolved by bringing 36 square miles of Attleborough, Mass. into Rhode Island, to be incorporated as the town of Cumberland. The first town meeting was held in February 1747 in a private home on Cumberland Hill in the northwest part of town. Initially, officials did not designate a specific location where town affairs would be conducted. The town clerk stored municipal records in his own house, and Town Council meetings rotated among members’ homes. Town meetings were held in a private home.

While Cumberland Hill remained the seat of town government for over a century, the village of Valley Falls emerged as an important economic and social hub, states the release.

The location of some of Cumberland’s first textile mills, Valley Falls was connected to Pawtucket and Mendon Road by a turnpike (now Broad Street) in 1812. The village began to take shape in the 1830s, as additional streets were laid out, and houses, businesses, and factories sprang up on both sides of the river. In 1839, much of the existing property was purchased by the Chace family, whose Valley Falls Company would become the village’s biggest manufacturer and employer.

In 1868, local leaders agreed to relocate town offices to Valley Falls. The clerk was situated in a rented office, and meetings were held in nearby buildings. Another quarter-century went by before the town purchased a lot at Broad and Mill and hired William R. Walker & Son to design a “Town House.”

Cumberland Town Hall featured offices for town departments on the first floor and a large assembly room above.

“The Colonial Revival style of the building evoked tradition, stability, and conservatism in a tumultuous time,” states the release. “Its solemn symbolism influenced the decision to dedicate two war memorials on the grounds.”

The former Valley Falls Company store at 16 Mill St. was occupied by the Valley Falls Free Library and post office from the 1890s until about 1920. Portuguese immigrants Seraphim C. Cardanha and Ezequiel A. Pires purchased the property and installed a grocery store on the first floor and living quarters above. Joaquim and Maria Amaral owned and operated the store from the early 1940s until 1988. The town acquired the property in 2007.

Cumberland embarked on several campaigns of exterior and interior repairs and alterations to Town Hall in the 1940s, 1960s, and 1990s.

RIHPHC Executive Director J. Paul Loether commented, “Cumberland Town Hall remains a symbol of civic pride in Cumberland. The grand Town Hall and the unassuming company store have been part of the political and social fabric of the village and the town for over 125 years. We applaud the town for recognizing their significance and look forward to its continued stewardship of these important historic resources.”

Mayor Jeff Mutter added, “I am proud that Cumberland Town Hall and the old post office are now listed on the National Register. The story of Valley Falls and of Cumberland is that of hard work, dedication, and a vibrant community. This vibrancy is embodied in these two elegant period buildings.”

He said the town appreciates that the buildings have finally achieved historic status.