The Block Island Times

This week in Block Island’s history, June 2, 1856

Frank Hayes, Block Island’s greatest carpenter, is born
By Robert M. Downie | May 25, 2013
Photo by: Robert M. Downie If you like architecture, then you have probably noticed the fine details near the top of  the First Baptist Church, built in 1888 by the island's finest carpenter, Frank Hayes.

This week in history 157 years ago: On June 2, 1856, Block Island's greatest carpenter, John ‘Frank’ Hayes Jr., was born. As a young man he worked during the island's earliest building bonanza, when the isolated hamlet at Old Harbor blossomed, nearly rivaling in activity the boom towns of the Wild West.

Hayes became a carpenter at the age of 17, in 1873, the year the cornerstone of the Ocean View Hotel was laid. He may well have worked on that building and its many additions during the 10 years of construction that turned the massive structure into the largest hotel in southern New England.

In 1880, he evolved into a contractor, building his first house that year, for John Sheffield, his neighbor on Corn Neck Road. This mansard-roofed home — renovated extensively seven years ago — still stands, on the right hand side on Corn Neck Road near the top of the big hill that swoops down to Sachem Pond. Photos of the original home’s fine decorative touches, elegant entrance, and bay windows with wooden panels could fill a booklet. The gingerbread carvings you see today, though, as well as the outbuildings, are not the originals of Frank Hayes, and not done to his design.

The more than three dozen homes, hotels and other buildings on the island that I’ve identified as being "built by Frank Hayes" range from the large, such as the National Hotel (1903) and the Narragansett Inn (1912) — to the ornate, such as the phantasmagorically gingerbread-covered Innisfail house on Indian Head Neck (1888), and the Blue Dory Inn (1898) — to the spare humbleness of the Water Street Inn (1910), and Camp Hippocampus (1934) on Beane Point next to the channel.

Frank Hayes constructed according to the tastes of the various eras he lived in, as well as the island’s varying financial prosperity. Expensive, intricate buildings of his are “Bit-o Heaven” (1886), on Black Rock Road, a home featured in a national magazine that year and still spectacular with its tasteful tower and stick-style architecture — and the stately, aristocratic Adrian Hotel (1888) shown in the adjacent photo when still in pristine original condition, but changed dramatically when reconstructed into the present-day First Baptist Church in 1952.

In 1917, when money on the island was tighter, he built the little one-story bungalow on Spring Street, just past the Manisses Hotel on the opposite side, and signed his name to it, a name not rediscovered until the house was reshingled 20 years ago by the Honan family, owners for the past half-century.

Through the decades, Hayes was blessed with the same innate eye for design as other common builders across the United States. Dying in 1936, he never lived to see what happened to America after the 1940s, when factory-made window and door inserts, pre-cut molding, electric tools requiring fewer skills, and residential plats of nearly identical, boring homes called ranch houses became the country’s norm — not to mention horrifyingly ugly, architecturally useless, strip malls — all designed by architects.

Hayes’s houses and hotels have lasted four or five generations, and few would find fault with them. Let us hope that despite the speed with which buildings can now be erected, and the resulting paucity of time to reflect on the essence of what is bequeathed to the future, we leave a few buildings from our generation that will be cherished a hundred years from now.

And leave all of John ‘Frank’ Hayes’s efforts, too. Imagine the island without them.

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