Watch Hill Yacht Club is getting a lift
Watch Hill — On Oct. 28, 2012, on the eve of what later would be called Superstorm Sandy, the manager of the Watch Hill Yacht Club and a group of volunteers moved computers, files, kitchen equipment and everything else possible from the first to the second floor.
With predictions of high winds and a storm surge, Darryl Forrester, the manager of the clubhouse over Watch Hill Harbor, hoped to mitigate as much damage as possible.
About five years earlier, prompted by new safety code requirements after the 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in Warwick, the clubhouse had been renovated.
Among the improvements, steel trusses were installed with an understanding that someday the clubhouse would have to be elevated, and the steel supports would allow for that.
Club members believed that project wouldn't be necessary for perhaps 15 or 20 years. Then Superstorm Sandy walloped the eastern seaboard, including Watch Hill, flooding the yacht club with seawater that reached 4½ feet on the first floor and caused havoc to the structure, utilities and everything else that hadn't been moved to higher ground.
The club's kitchen was destroyed — one refrigerator found floating inside afterward, along with seaweed, sand and rotting fish.
A storage locker was breached, taking out drywall and causing even more damage.
That destruction became the impetus for a project slated to begin later this year.
Just after Labor Day, the two-story, 4,000-square-foot clubhouse will close. It will be hoisted with jacks set on barges, and pilings will be pounded into the harbor floor below to hold a new foundation, one that's 15 feet higher than its current perch.
"We would be happy if we didn't have to do this, but we don't have a choice," Commodore Christopher Houlihan said. "We are not doing this to change the building or for any other reason, it just really is a necessity.
"We are doing now what the state of Rhode Island is encouraging everyone along the coast to do," he said.
With the exception of being taller, the clubhouse will remain the same size and retain the same footprint.
On the new ground floor, all four sides will feature roll-up garage doors that will be opened when a storm is approaching to allow rising tides and waves to wash through.
The project has been four years in the making and has obtained all the necessary approvals, Houlihan said.
He declined to say what the work will cost, but said the club's more than 500 members have been assessed, and six members have made additional, generous contributions.
"I would be very happy in my term as commodore if I didn't have to do this," he said, adding, "We have done everything legally, properly, openly."
The contractor for the job is AZ Corp, which will team up with Atlantic Marine Construction. The architect is Burgin Lambert of Newport.
The wood-shingled clubhouse with its gabled roof is a Watch Hill icon that has been featured for decades in photographs of the setting sun over the harbor.
Houlihan said the clubhouse will retain its New England style, with cedar shingles and white trim, and that the garage doors will be white and tasteful.
The new ground floor will not be habitable space. Its use will be limited to storage and building access, according to paperwork filed with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, which has worked with the yacht club on the project.
An elevator will be installed and the building will be handicapped accessible.
"This is definitely a positive thing," said Laura Dwyer, CRMC public education and information coordinator. "It's a positive thing for us because the yacht club wants to elevate their structure above the FEMA flood height."
By raising the clubhouse 15 feet, Dwyer said, it will be 2 feet, 4 inches above the FEMA standard.
"The goal is for them to buy more time so they won't be flooded on a regular basis," she said.
"We just came to realize that we had to do this sooner than we anticipated," Houlihan said, adding that because the clubhouse is over water, it is subject to state regulations.
The club worked with CRMC, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the building inspector and the fire marshal, he said.
After everything was cleaned out and mopped up following Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the first floor of the the clubhouse was inundated with water again the next winter, sealing the decision to hoist the building.
The yacht club, which boasts some fifth-generation members, celebrated its centennial in 2012.
The property over Watch Hill Harbor off Larkin Square and Fort Road was once a ticket office for a steamboat company. In 1922, club members voted to spend $4,215 to acquire the property, build a dock and the first clubhouse.
Although the building has changed over the decades — it was wiped out in the 1938 Hurricane — its location has remained the same.
It survived Hurricane Carol in 1954, thanks to strengthened building codes following the 1938 storm.
Several times the building has been updated, including work on its support pilings.
Houlihan said the plan is for the work to be completed over the fall and winter and for the clubhouse to reopen in the spring.
The club has made arrangements for its launch to use another dock in Watch Hill Harbor this fall.
"The aesthetics will be the same as we have now," Houlihan said. "I think it will be quite an attractive building."