WATCH HILL, R.I. — You can’t miss High Watch, a rambling, white clapboard 1920s “cottage” that sprawls atop the bluff that gives this town its name, just before the inflection point, as Nate McBride, a local architect, put it, of the Long Island Sound as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
It looms over East Beach and Lighthouse Road, a hulking landmark whose most notable public era, for locals of a certain age, was during the 1960s, when its owner at the time, Rebekah West Harkness, a Standard Oil heiress, became a patron of the Joffrey Ballet and then founded her own company. Dancers practiced on the lawn for more than a few summers, though when Mrs. Harkness planted a blue plastic Buckminster Fuller dome there as a practice space, the neighbors were outraged and sued to have it removed.
For the last three years, however, the place has belonged to Taylor Swift, bought for $17.75 million, reportedly in an all-cash deal. And the people frolicking on its lawns aren’t ballet dancers, but rather Ms. Swift’s famous friends from the music and fashion worlds. It has become a landmark of a different sort, familiar to Ms. Swift’s 86 million Instagram followers, for the annual Fourth of July party she holds there.
With its old-money summer colony — a cohort of privacy-loving, multigenerational families tucked into century-old shingled houses — and its diminutive main drag, the picturesque Bay Street, this town is a curious choice for a megawatt celebrity like Ms. Swift, 26. (Why not the billionaire-infested potato fields of the Hamptons?) And High Watch is a peculiar spot for such a celebrity to hole up, given its fishbowl site and proximity to the public beach, with an access path that runs along its property line.
When Ms. Swift first moved in, “No Trespassing” signs appeared around the property’s perimeter that were prefaced with, “I knew you were trouble when you walked in,” a coy reference to one of her own lyrics that irritated some locals, as did her shoring up, with the blessing of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council, the property’s eroding armor stone sea wall and planting a chain-link fence at its edge.
You didn’t have to be one of her social media followers to see what fun Ms. Swift had there this year. The Boston Globe and Entertainment Weekly were among the many, many publications that printed photos of the star romping in the surf with her friends. There was the actor Tom Hiddleston (the man she started dating shortly after her breakup with Calvin Harris, a D.J. and musician) in an “I ♥ T.S.” tank top embracing Ms. Swift, who wore a red two-piece swimsuit that said “America” across her chest. There were Gigi Hadid, Ruby Rose, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, among other young celebrities, who rushed into the water, posed for a group shot, and rushed out again, climbing the armor stones to the manicured lawn, upon which they tossed a football and careered down an enormous inflated red bouncy water slide.
On a recent Friday, the slide was still visible, but the only dedicated Taylor tourists were four friends from West Springfield, Mass., who had come to spend a day in town. “We knew she lived here,” said Sydney Brosseau, 18, “so we came down to take some photos, too. She’s got a great view!”
At the Flying Horse Carousel, which is old enough to be listed on the National Historic Register, Maya Fontaine, a 17-year-old staff member, said she had never had a sighting, but she remains hopeful. “I’m here working almost every day,” she said. “We’re, like, Taylor Swift fanatics in my house. Our manager told us that if we do see her, to not shout or draw attention, because that wouldn’t be polite.”
At the Olympia Tea Room, Ms. Swift’s restaurant of choice, the two young hostesses gave a practiced, “We have no comment,” to inquiries. So did a representative at the Ocean House, the enormous yellow clapboard estate that became a luxury hotel in 2010; its seaside terrace offers a nice view of Ms. Swift’s house.
In fact, the re-creation of the Ocean House may be a more seismic alteration to the area than Ms. Swift’s house purchase or her red bouncy slide. With rooms starting at about $1,000 a night in the summer, and a cordoned-off square of sand accessorized with tented cabanas and yellow chaises, the Ocean House is a discordant display of gated excess on a beloved public beach.
Despite the occasional stalker, like the guy who swam from a state beach in a wet suit early one morning to climb her rocks (odd, because why not just walk?), perhaps the strangest response to Ms. Swift’s residency here was when Gina Raimondo, the new governor of Rhode Island, proposed a tax on second homes worth more than a million dollars that was immediately labeled “the Taylor Swift tax.” (Governor Raimondo quickly withdrew the proposal.)
“She has as much right as any human being to own property,” Bill Hecker, a real estate broker, and resident since 1983, said of Ms. Swift. “She pretty much stays to herself because she has to. There are naysayers. I’m not one of them. I’ve never seen her frolicking in the waves, and I’ve never seen the paparazzi. I hope she enjoys living here as much as I do.”
Edith Eglin, a summer resident since 1938 and the president of the Watch Hill Chapel Society, said: “I consider her coming here a big surprise and a pleasant one. Did it encourage people with preteen children to come here and buy houses? I don’t think so. Has there been increased air traffic at our little airport? I doubt it. Her plane is too big to get in here.”
To Mr. McBride, the architect, “Taylor Swift is an anomaly,” he said. “So she’s like our pet celebrity. Everyone has kind of adopted her and refers to her by her first name. She’s ours now. In a community like this, you either absorb or deflect.”
Ms. Swift’s Fourth of July party this year went unnoticed as it unfurled in real time. Watch Hill residents, like the rest of the world, experienced it after the fact, as a media event. In any case, it was quickly overshadowed by the latest chapter in the long-running feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West, as Mr. West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, took a swipe at Ms. Swift on her TV show last Sunday.
To briefly recap — stay with me here — Ms. Kardashian West then posted recordings of a phone call between her husband and Ms. Swift, in which it sounds as if Ms. Swift is giving her approval to the lyrics of Mr. West’s song “Famous,” an account that Ms. Swift quickly disputed in a statement on her Instagram account. (“Famous,” famously, says some nasty things about Ms. Swift.)
What does all this have to do with Watch Hill?
The way in which viral media works is through “generators and prompts,” like Ms. Swift’s July 4 Instagram photos, said Charlotte Cotton, curator of “Public, Private, Secret,” an exhibit at the new International Center of Photography museum in Midtown Manhattan, which examines how identity is tied to public visibility. Ms. Cotton saw a direct relation between Ms. Swift’s romping photos and Ms. Kardashian West’s leaked video, which she explained as a kind of celebrity brand smackdown.
“If you compare the visual iconography,” she said, “you can see that each is expressing her brand. Kim is about the cult of the individual, and also the power couple. Taylor, she’s all about the kids and the ingénue, and you can see that because her imagery is all about being in groups and frolicking for the camera. It speaks to a quasi pre-sexual younger audience: The digital natives who are driving today’s celebrity culture. I think Taylor Swift’s iconography is deeply threatening to the Kimye brand.”
Back in Watch Hill, of course, it is doubtful that anyone is engaging in this sort of deep semiotic discourse.
Peter Kaufman, a retired editor living in nearby Westerly, R.I., said, “Before Taylor, the only celebrities that I know of that have been attached to this area are Ruth Buzzi, who was born in Westerly Hospital, and Sergio Franchi, a tenor who used to appear on the Ed Sullivan show, who bought a compound over in Stonington.”
Mr. Kaufman said Ms. Swift’s house is a required stop on the Watch Hill tour that he gives houseguests, particularly those with any connection to a preteen girl. A few years ago, Mr. Kaufman took one guest to the terrace of the Ocean House for drinks, because the man, whose granddaughters were in elementary school, was determined to take home photographic evidence of the pop star. The man swore he had captured Ms. Swift’s silhouette framed in a window, Mr. Kaufman recalled, “But we think it was just a lamp.”