East Avenue's rural atmosphere supplemented by a Mall and a College
The Warwick Mall, near the village of Pontiac, opened in 1972. By this
time, the pattern of retail trade in Rhode Island had been greatly
altered by the building of the Midland Mall (1965 1967).
The Midland Mall
The superhighways, Interstate Route 95 and Route 295, were responsible for bringing about this large scale type of commercial building in Warwick. Because of the possibility of attracting customers from areas outside of Warwick, the Homart Development Company secured the services of Victor Gruen Associates of New York to design a mall focusing on a covered or enclosed courtyard. The result was a commercial complex similar to one built by Gruen at the Colonie Center near Albany, New York.
The Rhode Island Historical Commission Report K W 1, written by Robert O. Jones, notes that, "...this was Rhode Island's first enclosed shopping center..." It describes the Midland Mall by saying, "It has two levels of shops facing into a covered, climate controlled courtyard. Its exterior, though blank and windowless, has an austere beauty....." Jones adds that this complex, "together with Warwick Mall, is responsible for shifting the focus of regional retail merchandising from Providence to Warwick, a move which has had a radical impact on the social and economic history of Rhode Island." The Midland Mall has been renamed and is now the Rhode Island Mall.
Providence, which looks to the Arcade now owned by Johnson & Wales as the state’s first mall, hopes to build a new mall not far from the State House. The effect this will have on Warwick’s claim as the retail capital remains to be seen. While many other malls have been developed, Warwick, because of its easy accessibility from I-95 and I-295 and its free and ample parking, has continued to bring shoppers to its “Golden Mile” from all corners of Rhode Island.
The Knight Farm of yesteryear
Today, the Rhode Island Mall and the Community College of Rhode Island occupy much of what was once the farm of the Knight family, the owners of the Pontiac Mills and many of the most productive textile manufacturing mills in the United States. These buildings and the modern highway that is East Avenue today is a far cry from the "Knight farm" that occupied the site during the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.
The change is so great and overwhelming that even those who used the old East Avenue as a regular pathway have to pause to remember that this section of busy road, with its huge brick and cement stores and modern campus, was once a charming rural countryside. Automobiles, lined row after row in black topped parking lots at the mall and the Community College, have replaced prize short horn cattle in open pasture land. Red barns, hay fields, a half mile of track for trotting horses, and the beauty of a country setting are but a pleasant memory.
Looking back to earlier decades brings many fond memories of the way it used to be. The "Knight farm" once covered over 500 acres and extended along the Pawtuxet River beyond the present Mall, along Greenwich Avenue, then down Tollgate Road and Commonwealth Ave. The large open tracts of land are gone, but the magnificent house and many of the farm buildings remain. From the highway, the Knight's house, and the tall shingle style water tower that stands behind it, can still be seen.
The story of the land, the buildings on it, and the changes in their use is comparable to the story of the growth and changes in Warwick from the 17th to the 20th century. The land changed in ownership from the rural farmlands of some of Warwick's early proprietors, to the early industrialists, to the flamboyant and politically powerful Sprague family, and then to the prominent and wealthy Knights.
It was the Knights who owned the Pontiac Mills as well as the mills at Natick and Riverpoint and who were responsible for so much of the paternalism which dominated these villages. The Knight Estate of East Avenue was a symbol of the wealth and power of this family which dominated for such a long period.
The story of the Knight Estate and the impact on Warwick then and now, will be continued.
This beautiful home, once owned by the Knights, now provides housing
for the president of the Community College of Rhode Island. It is
located on the once significant “gentleman’s farm.”
Photo Don D’Amato (1991)