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Gerald Carbone: Inside Central Falls’ Iconic Cogswell Tower

Saturday, September 14, 2013

 

Cogswell Tower is one of Rhode Island's most unusual places, and that's what makes it great, says Gerald Carbone.

The door to one of Rhode Island’s most unusual places swings open to the public just one day a year – and that day is today, September 14.

The place in question is the Cogswell Tower in Central Falls, a 108-year-old tower of fieldstone that rises nearly seven stories from the backbone of a high, rocky ledge.

This place is so – different, that the director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Morgan Grefe, has chosen it as the site of her upcoming wedding.

“It’s a spot of very quiet beauty in the middle of the city,” Grefe said of the tower and its underlying structure. “I think there are many places of beauty where you least expect it in Rhode Island, and I think it’s important that we take advantage of these.”

An Architectural Marvel

The tower’s builders hit on an ingenious solution to the problem of building a wide tower on a narrow ledge – they built a huge, enclosed vault of fieldstone and brick on the back side of the ledge. The tower rests on the vault, and the vault creates a beautiful cavern, replete with the crystal waters of a natural spring.

Standing at the tower’s base Steve Larrick, the city’s Director of Planning, says: “It’s more powerful than stone and cement. It’s literally the symbol of the city – it’s on our city seal.”

Larrick’s co-worker, Parks Director Josh Giraldo, unlocks the tower’s iron gate and it squeals open for a sneak peek before today’s tours and other festivities, which begin at noon, with narrated tours stepping off hourly till 5 p.m.

Inside the tower we begin the steep climb up stairs and landings, stairs and landings, which lead to an observation deck.

“This is a tremendous view,” Larrick says, peering over Pawtucket to the white dome of the State House and the art deco tiers of the Industrial Trust building. “It’s neat to be inside this icon of the city – it’s a shame that only city officials and journalists get the experience. The regular folks of the city do get to experience this one day a year.”

The History Behind Cogswell

The reason for opening it today is the second annual Central Falls Bright Future Festival, which also kicks off Rhode Island Hispanic Heritage Month.

The Blackstone Valley was the Silicon Valley of the 1800s, on the cutting edge of industrial technology. When chartered as a city in 1895, Central Falls was home to some of the world’s largest factories and its wealthiest people, including Alvin Jenks, who donated an elaborate park to the city in which his ancestors had grown rich pioneering the manufacture of textile machinery.

Following in that tradition of philanthropy, Caroline Cogswell, widow of the wealthy dentist Henry Cogswell, agreed to fund construction of a 70-foot tower in the park.

An Incredible View

“So yuh, you can see the Seekonk River in the distance,” Larrick says. “You can see downtown Providence – the State House is in full view. See the Superman Building?”

We climb down the tower and walk around to its backside, where another iron door leads to the manmade grotto. Again there’s the creak and squeak of a heavy iron door, opening. We file down a well-lit, shoulder-wide tunnel that opens into a hushed vault containing the calm, yard-deep water of a crystal pool.

The grotto feels partly like a cave and partly like a church, a quiet, sacred space that Grefe feels is just right for her wedding.

“It’s funny,” she says, “to find a moment of the sublime in the middle of urban cacophony.”

 

Gerald M. Carbone is the author of Nathanael Greene, and was a journalist for twenty-five years, mostly for the Providence Journal. He holds a Master's in Public Humanities from Brown University and has won two of American journalism's most prestigious prizes--the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island.

 

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