Commonwealth Avenue Historic District
Commonwealth Avenue, the most direct route between the town centers of Attleborough to the east and North Attleborough to the west, existed by the 18th century. A stage route traversed the street by the early years of the 19th century, when it was still a sparsely settled rural area; only three houses (161, 172, and 188 Commonwealth Avenue) document that era.
Manufacturing at The Falls began in 1809, and in 1812 Colonel Obed and Otis Robinson began manufacturing buttons in a building on the Ten Mile River at Robinson Street. Whether this building still remains is unknown; it may be incorporated into the extant wooden mill complex at 35 Robinson Street which housed the B. S Freeman and Co. jewelry manufactory from 1858 until 1913.
Industrial activity intensified here in the mid-19th century, and its presence led to the creation of a village at The Falls. Mills were built on Robinson Street and Towne Street in the first half of the century, and V.H. Blackington began his jewelry operation at 140 Commonwealth Avenue in 1857. Both the manufacturers who owned or managed these mills as well as many of the workers who operated the machinery within them built and occupied housing in the area.
By 1895, large houses stood on both sides of Commonwealth Avenue east of Robinson Street and west of the Fair Grounds, now occupied by a shopping center adjacent to Interstate Highway 95. A few other houses, similar in size and quality to the 19th -century houses, filled in the vacant lots among them in the early 20th century. Late 20th-century development claimed the two largest properties on the south side of the street, the M.B. Macreth House, at the east corner of Robinson Street and Commonwealth Avenue, and the J.J. Freeman House, which stood on a large lot opposite Stanley Street between Freeman Street and James Swanzey Road. Both houses were demolished and replaced: McGrath by a concrete-block industrial building and Freeman by a two-story apartment building.
The Commonwealth A venue Historic District achieves significance for architectural history in several ways. The houses built here reflect in the periods when The Falls' industrial activity was thriving. Their forms and styles are typical, stylish, 19th- and early 20th-century mainstream domestic architecture. They also illustrate the architectural influence of nearby Providence, Rhode Island, with which the community shared cultural and business connections.
Industrial development at The Falls began in the early 19th century and peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The houses built here, most by jewelry manufacturers, date to those periods. The Federal house built at 188 Commonwealth Avenue by Richard Robinson (circa 1825 and later remodeled) and the Late Federal/Greek Revival Robinson House (circa 1830) at 161 Commonwealth Avenue reflect the area's first blush of industrial success. The Modern Gothic house that box manufacturer Samuel D. Mason built at 204 Commonwealth Avenue in 1881 to 1882 and the Queen Anne houses built by jewelry manufacturers Frank M. Sturdy (circa 1885) at 234 Commonwealth Avenue and Edwin L. Evans (circa 1890) at 212 Commonwealth Avenue are equally telling of later success. Rolled-plate-chain-manufacturer Robert F. Simmons chose, on the other hand, to remodel; he added a prominent tower, strut work brackets, turned-spindle front porch (since removed), and a large rear ell to Richard Robinson's house at 188 Commonwealth Avenue in January 1882. Houses are exceptionally telling barometers of both individual and community status, and these convey a strong sense of time and place individually and collectively.
The Commonwealth Avenue houses reflect mainstream American architecture. The south-facing, center-chimney, 2½-story house with a five-bay façade and center entrance is one of the most pervasive 18th- and early 19th-century Southern New England house types; the form is represented here by the house at 172 Commonwealth Avenue. The Colonel Obed Robinson House at 161 Commonwealth Avenue illustrates the continued emphasis on classicism and symmetry found in Late Federal and early Greek Revival forms, and its unusual massing shows an awakening interest in formal experimentation that reflects the growing sophistication of both builder and client that occurred in the early years of the 19th century.
By the latter part of the 19th century, architectural designs reflected a broad range of references to historic styles, used either in coherent, consistent adaptations, like the Modem Gothic Mason House at 204 Commonwealth Avenue, or in more freehanded eclecticism, like the Sturdy House at 234 Commonwealth Avenue. The Dutch Colonial house that Joseph and Edna Semple built in 1924 at 180 Commonwealth Avenue reflects the early 20th-century interest in reviving and celebrating the early architecture of this country.
The influence of nearby Providence, one of the cradles of American jewelry manufacturing and the birthplace of plated jewelry, is seen in two houses within the district. In both its innovative use of classical forms and the stepped-back massing of its upper story, the Colonel Obed Robinson House at 161 Commonwealth Avenue strongly recalls John Holden Greene's Sullivan and Lydia Dorr House (1809), 109 Benefit Street, Providence. Frank M. Sturdy's house (234 Commonwealth Avenue) is identical to the house built about the same time for Joseph G. Birch at 49 Princeton Avenue in Providence's Elmwood section. The connection between Birch, a principal haberdasher in the Downtown Providence firm of Leavens and Birch, and jewelry manufacturer Sturdy remains unknown.
The Commonwealth Avenue Historic District demonstrates a pattern of living and working that helps to explain 19th- and early 20th-century social history. The organization of workplace and home show an equivocation between mill village and small city that gave The Falls its distinct sense of time and place.
The proximity of home to working place reflects a particularly localized attitude typically found in mill villages. Colonel Obed Robinson's house at the comer of Robinson and Commonwealth was immediately adjacent to his button-manufacturing factory on the Ten Mile River. Both Robert Simmons and Edwin Evans, who lived respectively at 188 and 212 Commonwealth Avenue, owned and operated factories around the comer on Robinson Street. Samuel D. Mason's box company is still located at the intersection of Mount Hope and Chestnut Streets, a little more than half a mile west of his house at 204 Commonwealth Avenue. Even in the twentieth century, the Reverend Ebor Eldon Craig, pastor of Central Congregational Church, lived at 172 Commonwealth Avenue, a short walk from the church at 115 Commonwealth Avenue.
The positioning of large houses well back from the street on a major thoroughfare into the center of a community was typical throughout the United States in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. The phenomenon represents a desire on the part of upper-middle-income families to establish a physical presence that reflected their position in the community. Another similar thoroughfare in North Attleborough may be found on South Washington Street in North Attleborough Center.
Since the early 1950s, the end of the period of significance, the district and its surroundings have experienced decline in several ways. South and west of the district, demolition has claimed properties, especially large houses, similar to those in the district. Most properties in the district have suffered from deferred maintenance. One property has been vinyl sided, and one has lost a full-width front porch. The changes to nominated properties, however, are relatively minor and reversible. Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places could provide inspiration and incentive to return the nominated properties to near-original condition while the opportunity remains practicably feasible.