LINCOLN – It began with an empty house and a dream.
Kathy Hartley felt confident she could offer programming at Lincoln’s historic Hearthside House for every season of the year, bringing people into the home to celebrate its history on a regular basis.
Twenty years later, Hartley and a dedicated group of volunteers with the Friends of Hearthside nonprofit have achieved Hartley’s original goal and so much more, breathing new life into the once-empty 1810 home and helping to preserve other historical resources along Great Road.
In recognition of their efforts, the Friends of Hearthside group will receive the Antoinette F. Downing Volunteer Service Award from Preserve Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission next month.
The celebration will take place on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 16 and 17. From noon to 4 p.m. on Oct. 16, the Rhody Road Tour will give ticket buyers the opportunity to see firsthand the select Rhody Award properties from 2020 and 2021 and meet the honorees. Then on Oct. 17 from 4 to 7 p.m., this year’s honorees will be celebrated in a reception and ceremony at Linden Place in Bristol. Tickets for both events are available for purchase at www.preserveri.org .
Hartley found it difficult to describe the significance of the honor.
“It’s so, so meaningful to us, because we’re being recognized for 20 years of volunteer service. I think to be singled out from the entire preservation community really speaks volumes about the work we’ve done here, and it’s an honor to be recognized for that,” she said.
Hartley said she has a deep personal respect for architectural historian and preservationist Downing, for whom the award is named after. She is credited with helping to save much of Providence’s historic east side from demolition and for working to establish state offices for historical preservation.
“She was a trailblazer who made a tremendous impact not only here in R.I., but across the country,” Hartley said.
Hartley was inspired by Downing on a personal level, having invited her to speak on multiple occasions for Leadership R.I. “I was so struck by her words about the importance of historical architecture and of preserving our past,” she said.
Hartley’s own preservation work was put into high gear in the 1990s, when the town purchased Hearthside House. It sat empty and vacant for 11 months of the year.
“In December, the town would decorate a few rooms downstairs, open the doors for a few hours and let the public come inside. If you missed it, you had to wait another year to come back in,” Hartley recalled.
Then-Town Administrator Jonathan Oster asked Hartley for her thoughts: what could be done with the property?
“I said: I’d open up for every season. I’d have a spring tea, a summer garden party, a fall festival and then Christmas,” she said. Hartley was asked to flesh out her plans, and given the greenlight to start.
“When I came in, the house was empty,” she said. Even the Christmas decorations at the time belonged to town employees, who brought them in from home each year.
“There were no curtains, no chairs, no mirrors or pictures on the walls,” she continued. “I had to bring in lamps so we’d have light.”
Volunteers worked “day and night” cleaning up the home, hosting their first tea six weeks later, followed by a summer garden party.
“There was no looking back after that,” said Hartley.
Every project needs that initial spark, or “someone to get out there and rally.” Hartley has been joined over the years by numerous volunteers who have felt likewise drawn to the so-called “House that Love Built.”
According to tales passed down over generations, the 10-room mansion was built to entice into marriage a Providence socialite, who ultimately expressed distaste in the rural property. The builder, Stephen Hopkins Smith, never married, nor called Hearthside “home.”
Despite the sad folklore surrounding Hearthside’s construction, Hartley said the house “has a sense of love around it,” enveloping visitors when they walk inside. For volunteers, she said, “they get bit by the Hearthside bug.”
The once-empty house has been filled with historic artifacts that help tell the story of its former inhabitants.
Hartley said, “We never want Hearthside to be a static, frozen museum. It’s a living, breathing house with many families who have lived there. We’re the latest to call it home.”
Hearthside will be open this weekend for the Great Road Day event. This October, the historic house museum will reopen for its annual Victorian mourning exhibit. They’re planning to host a series of paranormal events in November, followed by the old-fashioned Christmas to close out the year.