Commodore Oliver Perry Farm
The Commodore Oliver Perry Farm, named after the famous naval hero of the War of 1812, Oliver Hazard Perry, is located in Washington County in Rhode Island, on the west side of Post Road (U.S. Route 1). The site is of largely symbolic importance, due to the fact that it is associated with Perry and his brother, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, who forced Japan to open itself to trade with the West in 1853. Legend has it that Oliver Perry was born in the house at the farm, and that Matthew Perry may have been. But neither claim is substantiated, and the latter is almost certainly untrue. However, it is not what remains of the original building, but the nature of subsequent revisions that makes the building architecturally important. These alterations, in the words of the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places, “provide a fascinating historical perspective on architectural restoration standards of the early twentieth century. Although the Perry Farm is notable primarily as a memorial or commemorative monument, its connection with local tradition and elements of its architectural design invest it with its own particular significance.” In 1982, twenty-one acres of the property’s 250 acres were selected for the National Register of Historic Places.
Backstory and Context
The farm is associated with Oliver Perry because it is where he was born in August, 1785, though his birth probably actually took place in the no-longer-existing “old mansion house” built in 1743, originally the homestead of Freeman Perry, the grandfather of Oliver and Matthew. The Commodore himself may have had a hand in building the current house, which has been dated to 1815. (Architect John Hutchins Cady claimed that the house was built in the early 19th Century, not in the colonial era, as often previously claimed, corroborating this theory.) Matthew Perry was almost certainly born not on the Perry farm, but at Newport.
Elizabeth Perry, Oliver’s widow, sold the parcel to her uncle Christopher Champlin, who sold it out of the family. In 1865, George Tiffany of New York, a son-in-law of Matthew C. Perry, purchased the farm to bring it back into the family's possession. By the early 20th Century, it was in a state of serious disrepair, but subsequent “renovations” did more harm than good. The widow of George Tiffany’s son turned the house into a museum with memorabilia about the two famous naval brothers. As the nomination form notes, the misguided restoration, “an isolated monument associated with a person of exceptional importance, for use as a house museum, serves as a classic illustrative example of the most common early twentieth-century approach to historical preservation.”
In the late 1930s, title to the farm was transferred to Mrs. Tiffany’s sister, Mrs. Carl Hartman. When the latter died, a trust took title to the farm and sold it to Roland Hazard, a South Kingstown native. The family of the farm's present owner, Ms. Carroll Tickner, acquired the farm circa 1944-1945. She completed a new house on the property in 2003. The Tickner restorations, particularly in the 1950s, have not eradicated the character of the earlier work.
A configuration of stone walls divides the grounds near the house into lane, orchard, night pasture, and field. These walls are important artifacts indicating previous uses of the old farm. The old Perry family cemetery is located about 1000 feet north of the main house, across a cleared field, in a fourteen-foot-square plot bounded by granite fence posts without their original iron rails. Most of the graves are marked by blank headstones and footstones of rough-hewn granite. The resting places of Oliver H. Perry’s grandparents, Freeman and Mercy Perry, are the only ones marked with inscribed slate stones.
In 1936, a delegation from Japan planted several cherry trees on the Perry farm in memory of Matthew Perry and his role in changing Japan.
Gora, Mike. "Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's Birthplace in South Kingstown, RI." Middle Bass Island. Access Date: 11/12/16. http://www.middlebass.org/201009Perry/index.html
Dunn, Christine. "House of the Week: South Kingstown home brings architectural splendor on historic farm." Providence Journal. 7/29/16. Access Date: 11/12/16. http://www.providencejournal.com/entertainmentlife/20160729/house-of-week-south-kingstown-home-bring...
Wallin, Brian. "Rhode Island’s Connection to the War of 1812’s Battle of Lake Erie." Varnum Continentals. Published 9/5/16. Access Date: 11/12/16. http://varnumcontinentals.org/2016/09/feature-article-rhode-islands-connection-to-the-war-of-1812-ba...
"The United States and the Opening to Japan, 1853." U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian - Milestones: 1830-1860. Access Date: 11/13/16. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/opening-to-japan
"Commodore Oliver Perry Farm - Historic Place - Landmark." Facebook.com. Access Date: 11/12/16. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Commodore-Oliver-Perry-Farm/106064432758395