This site, the former Whitridge Hall, served as the launching pad for a memorable show business career. In the 1950s, a summer theater troupe called this building home. The troupe hired an 18-year-old actor named Charles Nelson Reilly, who made his professional debut here as the detective in a play called “Broken Dishes.” Reilly became a show business star who regularly appeared on TV in the 1960s and 70s, but he never forgot his acting debut at Whitridge Hall.
In the 1870s, a group of Tiverton residents chartered Whitridge Hall “for the purposes of religious, charitable and literary culture, and the promotion of liberal religious thought.” According to an anonymous writer in 1884, “The hall is of unusual beauty and capacity for the purpose for which it is intended and used, viz., lectures, concerts, social parties, &c., and has a fine piano.”
The hall drew its name from philanthropist Thomas Whitridge, who grew up in the William Whitridge Estate, a 1770s house that still stands on Stone Church Road in Tiverton.
Whitridge’s father served as town doctor, and three of his brothers followed their father into medicine. Thomas moved to Baltimore, where he built a fleet of ships and became one of the nation’s largest importers of coffee, amassing the fortune that he used to endow Whitridge Hall in his hometown.
Three denominations used the hall’s Bowen Chapel for services. Episcopalians and Catholics used it as temporary space while building nearby churches, and Unitarians regularly held services here into the early 1900s.
Two famous New Englanders delivered sermons here: Julia Ward Howe and Edward Everett Hale. Howe, on a visit to Washington, D.C., woke on a gray November morning in 1861 and quickly scratched out the words that were forming in her head, and earned instant fame as the lyricist for the Civil War standard, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Hale, a prominent Unitarian minister and theologian, is best known today for his 1863 short story, “The Man Without a Country,” whose protagonist is sentenced to lifetime exile aboard U.S. naval vessels for shouting, "Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!" during the treason trial of Aaron Burr. Hale’s story was adapted to film several times, most recently as a 1973 made-for-TV movie. Hale’s Matunuck, Rhode Island, home is now a museum.
The town’s first public library blossomed inside Whitridge Hall, growing in just 20 years from a few donated books in 1881 to 4,000 volumes. Local service groups such as the Grange and the nascent Tiverton Historical Society met often in Whitridge Hall, and the building briefly became a dance hall in the 1960s.
Eventually, many of the groups and churches Whitridge Hall once hosted found space of their own. The library moved to a fieldstone building on Highland Avenue bequeathed by a former school teacher, Lydia Essex; and the Historical Society moved its headquarters to the 1730s Chase-Cory House, freeing Whitridge Hall for conversion into the apartment house you see today.
The pulse of Tiverton beat through this building for nearly 90 years, and the town still struggles to replace its function as a center for the community.