Hidden in Plain Sight

Fri, 02/11/2022 - 4:15am
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A photo of the west side of Front Street from roughly 1900 shows an iteration of many of the buildings that stand there today, seeming to be neatly aligned, their facades a wall facing the newly constructed harbor, from the National to the Seaside. The street, such as it was, did not move, the buildings did not move... exactly.

Maintenance work has been happening on Front Street, almost hidden in plain sight behind a couple of trucks, an orange cone or two, stepladders, and
miracle of miracles, a trash can. All of which I would have written off to more of the same that has kept the centerpiece of the Old Harbor seemingly unchanged year after year, decade after decade, but that on one of my less-than-frequent trips down the street I saw wide storefront windows gone, not a situation left alone for longer than necessary in any season, especially now when real winter rolls in and out.

The “Historic and Architectural Resources of Block Island, Rhode Island” publication, aka the infamous “Green Book,” offers a meager description of
what we know as the Star Department Store.

“Morton Cottage. A 21⁄2 story, end gable-roof building set back from the street with a prominent 1-story, flat-roof, storefront addition across the facade: the storefront has an off-center recessed entrance and multiple-pane display windows.”
In older photos the Morton Cottage is an elegant building with a two-story porch, and a complexity of fretwork in its high gable. The sign across the solid wall of the upper porch reads “photography” and a banner hangs below it, explaining that H.Q. Morton is available for groups and advertising the still-sought-after “Views of the Island for Sale.”
By 1909 the building was “The Island Department Store” run by A. Negus who expanded with the circa 1913 storefront, that flat-roof addition inadequately described above, the glass-walled space that seemed to go out to the sidewalk, to bring shoppers into the store, an effort replicated in various fashions, from Rebecca to Bridge Gate.
It has always been a fascinating building with its mysterious upper porches and ornamentation.

Of course it was the store ramps that were so unusual when we were little. I remember going in when things were slow with my mother or aunt and younger cousin, who was particularly taken with turtles. He was, he declared, himself a turtle, and started to crawl, as he fancied a turtle would. There wasn’t anyone around so the grown-ups merely relegated him to the more narrow ramp on the northern side of the store, where he wore himself out, scooting up and down, next to the shoes.
Then there is the building that once held a Post Office, before my memory, between the Star and the Odd Fellows. It wasn’t last week but neither was it decades ago that I had to go out and look for the structure I knew was there but could only recall the upper level window; all but a narrow door of its lower front was covered when the storefront was expanded.

When some of the windows were out and the place was most exposed I put a photo of the ongoing work on the Historical Society Facebook page, a nod to true stewardship of an historic building, to quality craftsmanship right there in front of us, and the comments flowed, memories of buying kites and bats, of “my oasis of balsa wood gliders when I was 6,” of my “first rope bracelet,” which back on the mainland mom declared too gray to wear to school so “Dad helped stretch and pry off to bleach.” Another surely evoked envy with “my grandparents rented upstairs in the summer.” Someone got his first pair of Sperrys there and I remember the year at least four of us Narragansett waitresses had dresses easily sewn from the wildly popular India print bedspreads that were turned into everything else, bedspreads found, of course, at the Star.
The store was open into the fall, I said to a response of “I don’t think so” but I insisted the summery souvenir part of the shop was closed and recalled the type of space heater everyone had back then, round and warm and not to be left untended. The response changed to “I can smell it!” It would have been spring when my father must have given me the money and sent me in to buy a present for my mother, 1950’s nylon stockings in a flat pink box; it was a very small town and my “I don’t know what size” was no problem for the nice lady who helped me.
Most of the buildings on the Front Street, especially those built before 1902, have seen alterations, additions, I’m not sure any one better carries the history of the shift in commerce from the old town center to the harbor than the Morton Cottage/Star Department store, even the oddly configured land behind it tells a tale. For another day.