Newport, Rhode Island, located at the southern end of Aquidneck Island, sits at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. Within this seaside city is the Newport National Historic Landmark District which tells much history of this more than three-century-old city.
The historic district was designated as National Historic Landmark in 1968 due to its extensive and well-preserved assortment of intact colonial buildings dating from the early and mid-18th century. Six of those buildings are National Historic Landmarks in their own right, including the city’s oldest house and the former meeting place of the colonial and state legislatures. Covering some 250 acres, the historic district sits in the center of Newport roughly bounded by Kingston, Bellevue, Pope, Thames, Bridge, and Van Zandt Streets.
Newport, Rhode Island was founded in May 1639 by a small band of men under the leadership of John Clarke and’ William Coddington, from Massachusetts. Among other early settlers were the Clarkes, Brentons, Coddingtons, and Eastons. Cultured, wealthy, with high political and social standing in England and the colonies, these settlers explicitly embraced religious freedom, tolerance, and separation of church and state. Language to that effect appeared in the statutes drawn up in 1640, and John Clarke is credited with drafting similar text for the Rhode Island Colony Charter of 1663. This liberal outlook set Newport, like Providence, which was founded on religious freedom in 1636, apart from other New England colonies, both in the people it attracted and the favorable climate for commerce it created. The town’s diverse religious identity figured prominently in the development patterns of commercial associations, family relations, government, and physical plan.
Early industries were farming, fishing, and shipbuilding. By 1680 Newport had become a thriving seashore town of some 400 houses arranged in a still-legible, irregular network of streets along the harbor and the hill, covering at least a mile in length. Houses of the initial settlement period were similar to other Rhode Island and New England 17th-century dwellings, which were modest-scale, blocky, wood structures with gable roofs, large chimneys, and small windows. The form derived from English precedents. Approximately ten 17th-century houses survive in Newport and are valuable records of early building traditions, although all were altered and expanded by later additions.
Construction of wharves occurred simultaneously with the building of the first houses, and by 1680 Newport merchants had formed “The Proprietors of the Long Wharf” to promote shipping. Early industries supporting the agricultural/maritime economy included grist and saw mills, tanneries, cooperages, ropewalks, breweries, and bakeries. The town supported shipwrights and housewrights, blacksmiths, masons, cordwainers, mechanics, shopkeepers, silversmiths, and artisans.
Early agriculture within the town center quickly gave way to commerce. Benedict Arnold’s cylindrical stone mill, built in about 1670 in present-day Touro Park, is a survivor of the agricultural phase of the district’s history.
Although all of Newport’s extant 17th-century buildings were modified in later years, enough structural fabric survives to provide valuable documentation of vernacular English medieval domestic building traditions transported to the colonies and adapted to local materials and climate. At least ten 17th-century buildings remain in the district. The most notable is the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, built in about 1675, which continues to stand at 17 Broadway Street. It is the oldest house in Newport and its renovation today reflects several different styles it passed through in the century after its construction.
Few public buildings were erected in Newport until the last two decades of the 17th century. The first Colony House was built in 1687, as well as eight or nine churches which no longer stand. The earliest surviving public building is the simple elongated, wood-frame Quaker Meeting House erected in 1699. Though it was later altered, it continues to stand on Marlborough Street and is Rhode Island’s only example of an early hip-roof and turreted meetinghouse. Its austerity reflects the Quaker belief in the “plain,” and it stands in strong contrast to the exuberance of the extant early 18th-century public buildings. It is the oldest house of worship in the state and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Rhode Island was more concerned than any other colonies with the African slave trade and Newport became the chief New England slave center. Many fortunes were amassed in the slave trade. Fifty or sixty Newport vessels were engaged in this traffic and their owners were among the leading merchants of the city so that by mid-century, fine public buildings and mansions of the wealthy merchants stood in the city as well as row-on-row of small dwellings, many of which still stand today. Outside of the city, Newport merchants participated in the Rhode Island plantation system, prevalent on the island and the mainland to the west, which relied on slaves. Large country estates were established for farming, relaxation, and retirement.
During the colonial period, there were three to five times as many blacks in Rhode Island as in other New England colonies. Most who came to Newport were born in the West Indies and were often highly skilled compared with those brought directly from Africa.
During this time, Newport was the most prosperous seaport on the eastern coast and ranked among the five largest colonial port cities, with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Despite war and British trade restrictions, it was a bustling port, engaged in a profitable trade with the West Indies, the Atlantic seaboard towns, England, and Portugal.
The wood frame Trinity Church was built in 1726 by local architect-builder Richard Munday which closely resembles English architecture. Located between Elm, Church, and Spring Streets, it is the second oldest parish church in the state and is still has an active Episcopal congregation. Munday was also responsible for other buildings, including two Malbone houses, now gone, which were acclaimed as the most elaborate houses of their day. The simple wood-frame Sabbatarian Meeting House was built in 1729. It was later moved in 1884 and attached to the Newport Historical Society building in 1902. The prominent brick and freestone-trimmed Colony House was built between 1739 and 1741. Located at the east end of Washington Square, the colonial and state legislatures met in this well-preserved Georgian public building, which is the fourth-oldest statehouse in the U.S.
Later, Peter Harrison, one of the nation’s first and most accomplished architects, designed the Redwood Library in 1748, Touro Synagogue in 1759, and the Brick Market in 1760, all of which continue to stand today. The Touro Synagogue, located on Touro Street, was built by the city’s Portuguese Jewish population. It is the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Brick Market now serves as the Museum of Newport History.
By 1761 Newport had 888 dwelling houses and 439 warehouses and stores. Almost all the 120 Newport-owned vessels that sailed these routes were built in the town. Lumber from Honduras, salt from the Mediterranean, molasses, and sugar from the West Indies, as well as hemp, fish, flour, rice, flaxseed and whale oil were all carried on Newport vessels.
Newport’s era of greatest prosperity was from 1740 to 1775, and many of its surviving historic structures date from these golden years. During this time, Craftsmen produced the best furniture, silver, pewter, and clocks on the east coast. At one point, the town boasted at least 99 cabinetmakers, 17 chairmakers, and two upholsterers. Artisans and artists were strongly encouraged and respected in 18th-century Newport, and their products furnished many of the city’s houses. The houses and shops of the Townsends and Goddards, whose furniture is still highly prized, are still located in the Point section near the site of former wharves with direct access to shipping for export to the West Indies and Charleston.