Nathaniel Greene Homestead

Despite being a lifelong Rhode Islander, and a lover of history, I had never visited the home of perhaps Rhode Island’s most famous historical figure- Nathaniel Greene. In 1775 General George Washington appointed Greene as a brigadier general of the Continental Army. Gen. Greene’s role and importance in the War continued to grow, so that by the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, Greene was nicknamed “The Savior of the South” for his victories over the British Redcoats in the Carolinas. After the Revolutionary War, Greene and his family settled on a plantation in Georgia. However, this period was short and full of tragedy- financial ruin, and Greene’s premature death from heatstroke in 1786 at the age of 43, meant that for most of his life, Greene lived in Rhode Island, from his birth on August 7, 1742 until he moved to Georgia in 1783.

And so, on a recent Sunday afternoon, I decided to rectify this missing gap in my knowledge of local history by taking the short drive, with my mom to “Spell Hall”, the Greene homestead located in Coventry, Rhode Island. Spell Hall is located on a quiet side-street in a modern residential neighborhood (as an aside, this is one of my favorite things about living in New England, a historical home or building will find itself surrounded by modern structures. This juxtaposition of the old and the new has always appealed to me). Spell Hall is owned and managed by the “Nathaniel Greene Homestead Association” and is a registered National Historic Landmark.

Welcome to Spell Hall
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley
Corner of yellow room
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley

Spell Hall was constructed in 1774 and was built in the style of other colonial era homes found throughout New England. Approaching the home from the street, the yard is separated by a traditional New England style stonewall. The house is two stories, and upon entering, we immediately noticed that the hallway is more spacious than some other homes of this period that we have visited. Our tour guide Steve explained that having this type of space is one way to denote that the family had wealth. The first room we visited was the parlor. The parlor was seldom used in its time, it existed as a formal setting for special guests. One of Gen. Greene’s “special guests” being the Marquis de Lafayette! The most noticeable aspect of the room was the fireplace. It had the typical brick hearth, but the fireplace was surrounded by a simple, but stylish, molding. Above the hearth, in pride of place, is a reproduction of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Gen. Greene. Greene is wearing a red scarf in the painting, and right next to the fireplace, in a glass case, the original scarf is displayed. The parlor looks out onto the back of the house, facing the spacious grounds which start at the top of the hill where the house sits, and sloping down to a lawn with a few trees. The view is lovely. A newly restored cannon and an American flag are also visible from the room.

Painting of Gen Greene
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley

Next was the library. Green was also an avid reader, and Steve explained that during his lifetime, Greene owned over 250 books- particularly impressive, given that Greene had no formal education, and the cost to import books was quite high. This is another sign of the prosperity that the Greene family enjoyed. The fireplace in this room also has a reproduction Gilbert Stuart portrait, of Caty (Littlefield) Greene, Gen. Greene’s wife, who he married in July 1774.

Painting of Caty Greene
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley

We then moved on to the dining room and kitchen. Many of the furnishings throughout the house are not original to Gen. Greene, however, his family were prominent local Quaker family who owned and operated an iron works, and so the iron items in the fireplaces on the first and second floors are from his time, along with a few other pieces, including a desk.

Dining room table
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley
Desk
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley
Kitchen hearth
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley

Next, we climbed the stairs to the second floor. Here are two adjourning bedrooms- one belonging to Gen. Greene, the other to Caty. However, there is a side door passageway where the spouses could move from one room to the next with privacy (Steve explained that it was common during the 1700’s for spouses to sleep in separate rooms). The bed in Gen. Greene’s room is not an original, however, it is a piece from his time-period. The bed has ropes strung across which the “mattress” (filled with straw, cloth, or whatever else was deemed comfortable by the sleeper) was laid upon, and the mattress rests on the ropes. Steve showed us a tool that was used to tighten the ropes when they loosened. He explained that is where the “sleep tight” of the phrase “Good night, ‘sleep tight’, don’t let the bed bugs bite” came from.

Gen Green bedroom
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley

Caty’s room had a more Victorian look and was decorated by the curators to show how the room would have looked in the later years that Gen. Greene’s descendants lived in Spell Hall, specifically, his great-niece Elizabeth Margaret who passed away in 1899. In the late 1800’s, a small fire broke out in the room. In one small area where the wall is not covered by wallpaper you can still see the charring where the fire damaged the wall.

Caty bedroom
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley

Across the hall from Caty’s room is another bedroom that was used by Gen. Greene’s nephew Jacob Varnum Greene. Again, this room is meant to reflect what life was like for those members of the Greene family who lived in in the home in the early to mid-1800’s. Like the first floor, the upstairs rooms each have a fireplace with molding. Steve noted that in the early 1990’s the Association had a scientific study done and were able to identify the paint colors. Most of them had a reddish-rust tint… it is believed that materials from the Greene family’s iron works were mixed in to create the color. Unfortunately, because flash photography is not allowed, and this room is dark, the photo did not come through.

The final room on the tour is a sort-of an all-purpose room. This room has a mannequin wearing a replica of Gen. Greene’s Continental Army uniform. Also found on display are photos and mementos of the USS Nathaniel Greene (a 1960’s nuclear submarine) and a display case of a miniature size battle between the Continental Army and the Redcoats.

Mannequin wearing uniform
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley

We finished our tour and checked out the small gift-shop which was well-stocked with a selection of books on Gen. Green and the Revolutionary War. The volunteers recommended a book. Overall, my mom and I were impressed by all the volunteers, and Steve, our guide. They all have a real passion for preserving and promoting the legacy of one of Rhode Island’s most famous citizens.

Back of house
PHOTOGRAPH BY Colleen Quigley

The Homestead’s hours vary, but generally is open April-October from 10am-5pm on Fridays through Mondays. The cost of admission is $8.00 for adults, $4.00 for children. This also includes walking the 13-acre grounds and visiting the Greene family plot. Due to time-constraints, my mom and I did not have the opportunity to walk the grounds other than those immediately surrounding the house. For the most up-to-date hours and prices, visit www.nathanielgreenehomestead.org.

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Colleen Quigley

Colleen Quigley is an attorney in the US who has spent most of her career in the aviation finance sector. Colleen loves reading, history, art, food & wine, and combines those interests with her passion for travel.