Ruins: Real and Imagined

Institute Tower (also known as the Norse Tower) occupies a mysterious area of Institute Park history. Built by the late Stephen Salisbury in 1892, the Tower stood 30ft tall in the Southwest corner of the Park. It remained there until it was eventually taken down 64 years later due to safety concerns. Little is known about why Salisbury built the Tower. But we do know that the tower heavily inspired by the even more mysterious Newport Tower in Rhode Island.

History of Norse Tower

Institute Park tower and Riley house at corner of West and Salisbury Streets #2 Institute Tower with Horse and Bicycle<br />
Institute’s Right in Norse Tower Site Worcester’s Norse Tower Torn Down as a Safety Hazard

In 1892, the late Stephen Salisbury underwrote the construction of a 30ft tall stone tower to be built in Institute Park. Placed in the southwest corner of the park on a mound, this high point allowed the Tower to overlook the entire park. The fairly absence of tree cover in the park meant that visitors could ascend the Tower and take in to the entire park and out to Worcester’s distant parts. The Tower became a real standout element of the park. The imposing height combined with the unusual architectural design made it impossible to miss if you were walking by the park.

The same year the Norse Tower was built came Salisbury Pond bridge. A 127-foot-long arched bridge that connected the west edge of the Park with the small island in the pond. The bridge was made out of wood and sided with fancy shingles. Together, these new pieces of architecture transformed Institute Park into one of Worcester’s finest parks.

In 1892, the late Stephen Salisbury underwrote the construction of a 30ft tall stone tower to be built in Institute Park. Placed in the southwest corner of the park on a mound, this high point allowed the Tower to overlook the entire park. The fairly absence of tree cover in the park meant that visitors could ascend the Tower and take in to the entire park and out to Worcester’s distant parts. The Tower became a real standout element of the park. The imposing height combined with the unusual architectural design made it impossible to miss if you were walking by the park.

The same year the Norse Tower was built came Salisbury Pond bridge. A 127-foot-long arched bridge that connected the west edge of the Park with the small island in the pond. The bridge was made out of wood and sided with fancy shingles. Together, these new pieces of architecture transformed Institute Park into one of Worcester’s finest parks.

15 years after its construction, the parks and recreation commission was forced to issue the first blow to the Tower. Concerned citizens began worrying that weathering had weakened the structural integrity of the Tower. That year, the commission placed a fence around the Tower. Only authorized personnel would be allowed inside. For the next 22 years, the Tower would remain a restricted area in the park. This did not however, did not stop those persistent enough to scale the ladder at night.

In 1929, new controversy surrounded the Tower. The town was looking for a location to place the new Rogers Kennedy Memorial. The memorial needed to be placed within one mile of the town hall. The location of the Norse Tower seemed like the perfect candidate for this role. The Tower was already living in a shadow of what it once was. And having a potential safety hazard lying around was a liability in itself. Not all locals felt the same way as the Parks Commission. When rumors rose that the Tower would be replaced, petitions and articles were written showing public disapproval. Many townsfolk, especially those who had grown up with the Tower, rejected plans for its demolishment. Only 6 years prior, the Salisbury pond bridge had burnt down and was never rebuilt. Having another landmark torn down was not something park goers were particularly excited about. After a 4-1 vote, the commission decided that Rogers Kennedy Memorial would not replace the Norse Tower. Even better news was that the Tower would be partially reconstructed with stronger materials. Once more, park visitors would be able to overlook Institute park from the Tower. As for the Rogers-Kennedy Memorial, it was moved to Elm Park. A place where it can still be seen as of today.

The Norse Tower stood another 27 years. As time passed on, the same problems that plagued it in the past returned. In 1956, the town planned to once again, remove the Norse Tower. Unlike in 1929, public interest in the Tower had dropped substantially. Many of the inhabitants that had petitioned earlier to save the Tower had moved on. On July 18th 1956, a wrecking ball brought down the Norse Tower.

Nowadays, if you visit the site where the Norse Tower once stood, you will be greeted with the recently constructed Sneiderman Gazebo. During the construction process, the crew found parts of the foundation the old Tower once stood upon. The gazebo is used as a small venue for outdoor performances or readings.

Inspiration for the Folly

Institute Tower with Horse and Bicycle<br />
Institute Park Tower (“Providence Tower”)

Before Institute Tower came the Newport Tower. As Salisbury’s primary source of inspiration, Newport Tower holds the key to Institute’s Tower’s name and design. Newport Tower stands in Touro Park, Newport Rhode Island. It is a cylindrical structure supported by 8 columns. The true fame of Newport Tower lies in its origin story. There are two competing theories surrounding Newport Tower’s origins. One is that it was built as an 18th century mill, the other is that it was in fact built as a 12th century Norse church.

The modern consensus is that the Tower was built by Benedict Arnold in the 17th century. Arnold grew up near the town of Chesterton, Warwickshire in England. This town is home to a very old and historic stone windmill. Similar to Newport Tower, it is cylindrical with several stone columns forming arches underneath. When Arnold became Governor of Rhode Island, the old town mill was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt. This theory believes Arnold took inspiration from the Chesterton mill when designing the new mill. This would explain their design similarity. Other evidence points to Arnold’s will that refers to the structure as “My stone-built wind-mill”.

On the other side of things, the Norse theory believes that the Tower was built most likely as a Catholic place of worship in the 12th century, making it the oldest standing Catholic church in America. The theory relies heavily on speculation that Norse Vinland stretched as far south as New England. Such a theory does not have much scientific, historical or archeological evidence to back it up, but the potential implications is what makes it so popular. If you haven’t guessed by now, this theory is what gave Institute Tower its label as a “Norse” Tower.

The main differences between the Newport Tower and Institute Tower lie in their purposes. Institute Tower was designed as a scenic lookout for park goers whereas Newport Tower was most likely designed either as a mill or church. As a result, Institute Tower was designed with aesthetic and entertainment purposes. In its center Institute Tower also contain a metal spiral staircase that leads to an upper viewing deck. On the other hand, Newport Tower has a much more simplistic design revolving around its purpose as a church or windmill. Newport Tower contains what remains to be a fireplace.

Salisbury's Folly

Institute Park Tower (“Providence Tower”)

At its core, a folly is a piece of architecture with a lost purpose. Folly aficionado Gwyn Headley describes follies as symbols of “passion, obsession, and confusion”. Irrationally bold in their design, they tend to stand out in their environment. Follies are built as gifts and not as investments. Most commonly, we see follies associated with stone structures like bridges or towers.

The tragedy behind Salisbury’s Norse Tower is what makes it a true folly. Salisbury spent his own money to fund the Tower. His interest in the Tower was not a monetary investment, but a cultural one. The day the fence went up was the day Salisbury’s Tower lost its place as functional piece of architecture. That day onward the Towers’ use then lied solely in its aesthetics. But this wasn’t all bad for the Tower. Many 19th century upper class park goers preferred to use parks as places of self-refinement and enlightenment. Pondering over the ruins of a mysterious stone structure was perfect for mental stimulation.

While much is still clouded, what we can say about Institute Tower is that it was once an imposing building. Towering over all of institute park it was the high point in Salisbury’s vision. The unusual design and location is what attracted many admirers to it. Since the day it was locked down, the Tower could never live up to the heights it once took. 

Sources

Bullard, Herbert Francis. Institute Park Tower ("Providence Tower"}. Worcester, 1905, worcesterhistory.pastperfectonline.com/photo/30891819-BFA5-484C-B8FC-261999004470.

 

“Commission Decides Norse Tower Will Not Be Removed.” Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Worcester, 13 Mar. 1929. Worcester Historical Museum.

 

Cutler, Uriel Waldo. “Institute's Right in Norse Tower.” Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Worcester, 27 Feb. 1929. Worcester Historical Museum.

 

DeFacto. “Chesterton Windmill, Chesterton - 2016.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 25 Mar. 2016, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chesterton_Windmill,_Chesterton_-_2016.jpg.

 

Earle, M. A. Institute Tower with Horse and Bicycle. Worcester, 17 Aug. 1899, worcesterhistory.pastperfectonline.com/photo/D7EE67C8-74D0-4B17-BD16-572591501710.

 

Erskine, Margaret A. Heart of the Commonwealth, Worcester: an Illustrated History. Windsor Publications, 1981.

 

Headley, Gwyn. Architectural Follies in America. Preservation Press, 1996.

 

Headley, Gwyn, and Wim Meulenkamp. Follies: Grottoes & Garden Buildings. Aurum, 1999.

 

Hunt, John Dixon., et al. Site, Sight, Insight: Essays on Landscape Architecture. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

 

“Institute Park: Important Improvements Planned By Stephen Salisbury.” Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Worcester, 1892. Worcester Historical Museum.

 

Institute Park Tower and Riley House at Corner of West and Salisbury Streets #2. Worcester, worcesterhistory.pastperfectonline.com/photo/3045495C-0850-4700-967D-163930000128.

Knowlton, Elliott B., and Sandra Gibson-Quigley. Worcester's Best: a Guide to the City's Architectural Heritage. First ed., Preservation Worcester, 1984.

 

Means, Philip Ainsworth. Newport Tower. Henry Holt, 1942.

Trump, Matthey. “Newport Tower (Rhode Island).” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 16 Sept. 2004, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DSCN3887_newporttower_e.jpg.

 

“Will Rebuild Norse Tower.” Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Worcester, 18 July 1929. Worcester Historical Museum.

 

“Worcester's Norse Tower Torn Down As Safety Move.” Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Worcester, 19 July 1956. Worcester Historical Museum.

Credits

Michael Taylor