Late twentieth century changes to the Warwick’s Knight Estate
Like so many other farms in Warwick, the Knight Farm by the later years
of the twentieth century ceased to exist as a working farm. In time,
the owners, more interested in sporting events than agriculture found
the farm more of a burden than an asset.
The Antique Automobile Convocation in 1948
Adelaide Knight's death on January 29, 1948, marked the end of an era for the Knight Estate. Her nephew, Royal Webster Knight, moved into the large, beautiful house on the East Avenue estate and continued to operate the farm. For a number of years, he attempted to continue the policies established by his aunt, which included maintaining the trotting horse track on the estate. His relative, Webster Knight II kept a farm at Quidnesset in North Kingstown for many years and horses and automobiles from the East Avenue farm often raced and attended shows there. In 1948, Dawson Powell's camera captured some of the action and many of the prize automobiles, which gathered at the North Kingstown track for an Antique Automobile Convocation.
The end of an era
As has been previously noted, for a number of years after the death of Adelaide Knight, her nephew, Royal Webster Knight, lived on the historic farm in the Natick section of Warwick. Webster Knight, Royal's grandfather, made the family's East Avenue estate one of New England's finest farms, raising prize cattle and horses. This tradition of "gentleman" farming was successfully carried out by Adelaide Knight who, in the 20th century, lived in the large house in much the same style as she had as a young girl.
An international sportsman and oceanographer in charge
By 1960, Royal W. Knight, an international sportsman and oceanographer, known from Scotland to Argentina more for his hunting and fishing prowess than for his farming interests, eventually witnessed the end of the "Natick Farm." When it became obvious during this decade that the proposed Routes I-95 and I-295 would merge at Warwick's Natick section, Knight, in 1961, sold a large tract of land on Bald Hill Road to developer Antonio F. Rotelli. Eventually, this section of the Knight Estate became the Midland Mall.
The Midland Mall
A photo on the front page in the Warwick Beacon dated March 11, 1960 shows a number of barns and other rural buildings and has the caption: "After the snowstorm, all is serene at this Warwick Farm on East Avenue." Within a few years, this lovely bucolic scene no longer existed and the sounds of bulldozers and backhoes replaced the lowing of cattle and the whinnying of horses as work began on one of the most significant shopping malls in the Ocean State.
The Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission Report, K W 1, describes the Mall as, "A monolithic structure comprising a 2 story, flat roofed concrete block...and a 2 story, flat roofed block with patterned brick walls." The report notes that the mall was designed by Victor Gruen Associates of New York for the Homart Development Company. It continues to say, "This was Rhode Island's first enclosed shopping center, responsible for introducing a new commercial building type to the state."
Some historians argue against the claim of the Midland Mall as the first enclosed shopping center. They note that the Arcade, built in 1828, was not only Rhode Island’s first indoor mall, but the first in the nation as well. Not many, however, argue with the concept that the Midland Mall was the first of the modern era. The Commission Report adds, "The mall was considerably more ambitious in intent than other local shopping centers of the 1950's and 1960's, for it was designed to attract and serve customers from the entire metropolitan area."
On Friday, August 11, 1967, the Warwick Beacon reported that, "Cherry and Webb and the Shepard Co. prepare to open for business Tuesday, Aug. 15, and Thursday, Aug. 24, respectively, at the Bald Hill Road location." The story adds that, "The entire 40 store enclosed complex will stage a joint grand opening Oct.2..." and lists the stores participating. An enthusiastic Beacon adds, "the dual level Midland Mall complex, coupled with Sears, is expected to attract many shoppers who now shop in Providence and other cities. Ample free parking adjacent to the new mall is a prime drawing card for the Warwick center."
The 1981 Commission Report on the Midland Mall reiterates the Beacon's 1967 prediction and adds that the purchase of the Bald Hill Road land from the Knight Estate and the building of the Midland Mall shifted "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."
Spurred on by the success of the Midland Mall (now the Rhode Island Mall) other developers have taken advantage of Warwick’s ideal location and many shopping centers have been built along the “Golden Mile” of Bald Hill Road. Now Providence, anxious to regain its title as the retail center of Rhode Island, is building a large mall of its own.
The significance of the sale of land by Royal Webster Knight in the sphere of retail merchandising is obvious and, in a short time, another distribution of land from the Knight Estate would have a similar effect on education.
The story of the Knight Estate will be continued.
This aerial shot of the old Pontiac Mill helps us to remember the glory that was once the heritage of the Knights and other mill owners in Warwick and in the Pawtuxet Valley.