Living on the Edge
Crammed with a hundred years of family memories, the stately Browning cottages are sliding into the ocean. Can anything rescue our southshore beaches from the relentless march of the sea?
Summer never truly arrived until the family station wagon pulled up in front of the cottages. Fifty years ago residents could drive their cars right onto the hard-packed beach sand where it was easier to unload the luggage and boxes. Salt mist hung in the air as the Atlantic surf rumbled unseen behind vast swathes of rosa rugosa, sea grasses and beach dunes.
How time has changed.
Now, on lazy summer days, the waves lap within easy sight of the houses. When gray clouds vanquish the sun and the ocean grows dark and angry, the breakers gather energy and crash onto the sandbags protecting the foundations. This past winter the cottages were lashed repeatedly.
What the sea is threatening is the Browning cottages, Victorian splendors that are a landmark in Matunuck and honored for their historic importance by the federal government. The walls of these summer houses carry more than a century of memories; of surviving hurricanes, hosting royalty and serving as the playground for generations of children and adults.
Historians say that once there were hundreds of cottages like these classic Queen Annes lining the New England seashore. Over the years almost all have been claimed by the ocean.
Now it is coming after the ones that remain.
Most of the houses have been moved once. One has been raised on stilts. Another was so damaged by the surf that it was demolished.
“It is a really risky place to live,” says Janet Freedman, a geologist with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.
It is not clear whether some of the cottages now closest to the water can be saved. But whatever their fate, with sea levels rising, geologists say the Browning cottages are only the latest sign of what we can expect in future years along the Rhode Island coast.
The first house was built in 1894. Dr. Robert F. Noyes of Providence and his wife, Katharine, bought the land from George Browning, whose name is now attached to the colony. Browning had been a farmer, who was converting his own home into a summer boarding house and inn. Later, the Browning property would become the center for summer stock at the Matunuck’s Theatre By The Sea.
The Noyes erected a two-and-one-half story, high gabled-roof, shingled house with a corner tower in the style of the Arts and Crafts movement. Generations of children would call it the witch house because of the distinctive cone on the tower.
Because plaster does not hold up well in the salt air, the interior featured matchboard wall paneling, a brick and beach stone fireplace and a garret nursery.
Other wealthy Providence families soon joined the Noyes at the beach. They included Webster Knight, heir to a cotton mill fortune, and Elizabeth Treat, the daughter of another cotton mill tycoon. By 1905, the colony had five cottages, along with various carriage houses and bungalows for the horses and servants, a shared tennis court, a beach cabana and other structures. A boardwalk connected the porches of each house. They were strictly summer places where the families and their social lives migrated from Providence to the seashore. Over the years the wood shingles weathered and the trim of the three distinctive houses was painted red, blue and green.
The Browning cottages were constructed at the very back of a coastal barrier. That the houses now lie on the very front of that beach is not a surprise to Jon Boothroyd, a geologist at the University of Rhode Island who has studied the state’s coast for thirty-five years.
“The entire East Coast is eroding,” he says, and that’s been occurring for 2,500 years. “The shoreline at that point was all the way out at the edge of the continental shelf. The water then rose, depending on the amount of climate change that was occurring.”
The coastline as we know it today began to take shape about 2,500 years ago. Besides rising seas, beach erosion is determined by winds, currents, the shape of the dunes and especially storms.
Jesse Bontecou and Betsy Knowles started coming to the Browning cottages as young children in the late 1920s. “It was a very secluded place in those days,” recalls Betsy. “No one ever went down there.”
The children didn’t wear a stitch of clothing on the beach all summer. They were part of the many generations at Matunuck beach who learned how to swim in the ocean and who used Cards Pond behind the houses to discover how to sail. “We all knew what we needed to do to make sure that the ocean would not swallow up any of us,” says Jesse.
They also played tennis, put on skits for the local library and feasted at clambakes on the sand. The pack of kids all knew each other and roamed from house to house.
It was hard to leave the beach at the end of each season. That is one reason Betsy, her mother and other relatives were there one late September day just before the school year began. A fisherman warned them a hurricane was coming.
“Oh wonderful, we can sit on the wind,” Betsy’s mother said. Back on the beach, they sat on a wind so powerful they could not fall over. As the storm grew stronger, they retreated to the red-trimmed house for tea, until water started seeping in through the floorboards. The ocean had breached Cards Pond and the water had risen above the foundation.
They abandoned the house and waded in the high water, moving from house to house, looking for safety. In one they found a note in the typewriter that read: “Have gone to higher ground.” They arrived at the Treat house at the western end of the cluster. It seemed to have the strongest foundation, although the moment they opened the doors, the force of the wind shattered the porch windows. The waves were high enough that water rushed over the porch and seeped in the front door.
They wedged a couch against it and that stopped much of the flooding, but torrential downpours obscured the view; at one point they saw a garage get swept away.
Towards nightfall, with the wind screaming, Betsy went upstairs to help her aunt make the beds. “Sheets of water were coming over the house, and this was a two-and-a-half-story house,” she says. “It was terrifying.”
They ate canned goods by candlelight and the children were sent upstairs to bed. Betsy never slept. Instead, she shivered in fear as the wind howled and the waves crashed.
Finally the storm passed and a farmer, seeing candle lights in the house, rescued them. The hurricane of September 21, 1938, killed more than 600 people, including 252 in Rhode Island, while causing property damage that in today’s dollars would equal nearly $5 billion. It also irrevocably changed the Rhode Island shoreline. Along a five-mile stretch between Weekapaug and Westerly only ten out of 500 homes survived. Throughout the region 5,000 homes were lost. The Browning cottages may have been protected from the strongest waves by an underwater reef just off Matunuck beach.
While hurricanes are powerful, they last only a few hours. Winter storms are an even greater threat to beach erosion because a fierce Nor’easter can pound a shoreline with high waves for days.
Boothroyd and other geologists have spent considerable time tracking just where all this sand is going. Some is driven deep enough out to sea that it cannot be retrieved, but much of it either returns or is pushed sideways along the beach. On Rhode Island’s south coast, according to Freedman, the CRMC geologist, the predominant direction is easterly.
While much of the sand on Matunuck is disappearing, it has to be dredged out of Ninigret Pond and Point Judith Harbor. Boothroyd says that jetties built along the coast are funneling sand into those harbors before it reaches beaches such as Matunuck.
According to Freedman, storms can transport some of that lost sand back onto the shore. “But when we look at long-term erosion rates on Rhode Island’s south shore, it is a net loss,” she says. “The line is moving inland.”
After the 1938 hurricane, Frederick H. Bontecou began to buy several of the Browning cottages. Bontecou had married Cornelia Metcalf, the daughter of U.S. Senator Jesse Metcalf, and they had been renting the red-trimmed Noyes house since the 1920s. Family members recall that he paid $17,000 for three of the landmark cottages along with several ancillary structures. Eventually those three cottages were passed on to three of the children, Susan Bontecou DuVal, Harriett Bontecou Harris and Frederick Bontecou Jr.
The youngest, Jesse, also bought a house after he grew up.
The fifth house, built by Treat, was also sold after the hurricane to John and Janet Chafee, the parents of the late Senator John H. Chafee and the grandparents of former Senator Lincoln Chafee. Soon after the sale, the original Victorian house was partially washed away by the sea. So the Chafees built a more modern, one-story house with big glass windows facing south and north.
In the fifties, sixties and seventies, a new generation of Bontecou, Harris and DuVal cousins would congregate each summer from New York, Connecticut and Virginia, learning to swim, sail and hang out together.
“We each all lived in each other’s houses in those days,” recalls Dan DuVal, whose family was always the last to arrive from Virginia. “The kids were all a pack of Army brats, foraging from one house to another.”
Michael Bontecou remembers that until 1965, his grandmother lived in the red-trimmed house. As a child, he was always a little scared of it. It made odd noises, caused by an old pump and cistern in the attic; the family blamed the strange sounds on a mythical man named Charlie.
On the rare days that it rained the kids knew that the specialty in one house was Yahtzee, in a second it was backgammon and in a third it was hide-and-seek. The houses had television sets, but in the days before cable, the only reception was Channel 6.
Still, it rarely ever rained, or so they remember. “It was a magical place,” recalls Laura Harris. By now it was not nearly as secluded, with the development of the nearby Roy Carpenter Beach and other small communities. Fishermen were discovering the beach was great for tautog.
The beach season was just beginning one May day in 1985 when Senator John Chafee and his family gathered at their cottage. They were rehearsing how to greet Jordan’s King Hussein, who was on his way to Matunuck. Lee Chafee, who at the time was the fiancee of one of the Senator’s four children, Zech, recalled the scene in a 1999 column published in the Providence Journal.
“Some of the king’s security arrived and darted around corners with machine guns before posting themselves on the roof,” she wrote. “Just your ordinary dinner party. The next day we found piles of cigarette butts at corners of the house where the guards had kept their vigil.”
Finally, they saw the headlights appear on the Cards Pond Road entrance to the compound. A motorcade of black limousines bounced up the drive and the Senator opened the rear door of the first car. No one was sitting inside. For security reasons, King Hussein would move from one vehicle to another.
Then, like clam shells, the doors began to open, disgorging the King, Queen Noor and other family members. After an informal buffet Senator Chafee asked the Jordanian monarch to discuss the Middle East. Hussein, dressed in a dark suit, talked for forty minutes about the need for peace and how to work with Yasser Arafat and the PLO. The next day, Hussein made the same pitch to President Reagan in the White House.
It was sometime after that visit that everyone began to realize the beach was eroding.
“For twenty years I probably did not notice any changes,” says Dan DuVal. “Then I returned and it would be significantly changing. The acceleration of the erosion was just astounding.”
“It happened very quickly,” agrees Zech Chafee.
Some believe the slope of the beach was permanently altered by the 1938 hurricane, hastening the erosion levels. A serious storm in 1991 chewed it up even more. Boothroyd’s measurements show that the shoreline moved inland 122 feet — almost half the length of a football field — between 1939 and 2008.
In 1998, the Harris, DuVal and Bontecou families received permission from CRMC regulators to move their houses fifty feet inland. Three years ago, Jesse Bontecou hired a contractor to cut his house in half and have it moved even further back onto property bordering Cards Pond. This past winter he began placing a second, smaller house he owns up on stilts.
The Chafees did not move their house. When a storm took out a porch several years ago, they had the place torn down. “It was an easy decision for us,” says Lincoln Chafee, who admits he does miss the house, especially on those mornings when he would awaken shortly after dawn and breathe in the sweet ocean air.
Together the Bontecou, Harris and DuVal families have spent close to a million dollars to protect the houses, yet today the three most striking cottages remain in peril. The CRMC, which has regulatory control of the beach, has given permission to protect the foundations with huge sand bags made of an organic material.
“It’s only a bandage,” says Freedman.
Two years ago, she opposed a plan by the families to build a more permanent seawall. Engineers and geologists disagree on how effective seawalls are in preventing erosion. According to Boothroyd, geologists believe that the steeper and higher a barrier is placed before the sea, the greater the ocean works to erode the sand around that barrier. Freedman worries that eventually the houses will become an island surrounded by the ocean.
Scientists now say that emissions from greenhouse gases could cause sea levels to rise at least two feet over the next century. The CRMC is worried enough about the threat that it is working to adopt new rules that recognize that problems on the Rhode Island coast are only going to escalate.
The families did not appeal Freedman’s decision to the full CRMC council. Since the death of Frederick Bontecou Jr. in 1974, a trust run by bankers has controlled the red-trimmed cottage. Last July, the trust sold the house for $1.1 million.
Daniel Carpenter of Simsbury, Connecticut, says that after he and his wife looked at properties on Watch Hill for $4 million, the Matunuck house was “a good bargain.” He said he knows that without support from state regulators the house is living on borrowed time, although he hopes it can survive until at least 2016.
“It would be terrible for Rhode Island culture and history if those houses are reclaimed by the ocean,” says Carpenter.
It is unclear how much time the three Browning cottages have.
“It depends upon the storms,” says Boothroyd. Scientists can track weather patterns in the North Atlantic, and he says that it appears that after years of relative quiet, the cycle is becoming more active, with prospects for more major storms.
Laura Harris says that her family has no plans at this point for their house, but Dan DuVal has begun thinking he would like to find a way to move their house to other land they own on Cards Pond.
Beside the drivewayof the blue-trimmed DuVal house are two stones. One has the name of David DuVal, Dan’s brother, who died in 1988 at thirty-eight in a rafting accident in China shortly after he was married. The other is inscribed with the name of Susan DuVal, the mother of Dan, David and their siblings.
Dan DuVal said they placed their mother’s stone there, and spread part of her ashes on the property in 1997, after she died. She was an amateur painter, and at least half of her paintings were made while she sat on the back porch of the house. “My mother loved it there.”
Even when it became more challenging to make the drive from Virginia, she did it without complaint and would never ever contemplate selling the house.
DuVal says the family will consider their options for saving the cottage. “I’m not sure we are ready to throw our hands up,” he says.
Still, a decision has to be made quickly. The storms of last winter battered the houses and hurricane season is arriving. Time has provided the cottages with a rich patina, but time is no longer a friend.