Newport, Rhode Island National Historic District

Newport’s tolerant religious attitudes, aggressive mercantile character, and cosmopolitan social life were disparaged as extremist and dangerous in the 17th and 18th centuries by prominent Massachusetts clergymen, London officials, and others. In reality, Newporters were political and religious moderates concerned with pursuing economic rewards and a genteel life. While some traders verged on piracy, the majority were commonplace, but occasionally caught unaware by changing maritime restrictions, particularly with the British Navigation Acts of 1761.

The White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island was established in 1673 and holds the the oldest tavern license in the country. By Kenneth C. Zirkel, Wikipedia

The White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island was established in 1673 and holds the oldest tavern license in the country. By
Kenneth C. Zirkel, Wikipedia

Of the many colonial taverns built during this period, the White Horse Tavern begun in 1673, has the distinction of holding the oldest tavern license in the country. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Pitts Head Tavern was owned by Henry Collins.

By the mid-18th century, as a result of its great wealth, Newport had rebuilt itself, changing from a medieval looking town of steep-pitched roofs, turrets, and overhanging cornices to an urban center of Georgian churches, public buildings, and houses. The new or remodeled buildings were still nearly all constructed of wood and as late as 1793 there were still only six brick structures in the town, including the Brick Market and Old State House.

Burying grounds within the district established during this period include the 17th-century Friends Cemetery at Edward and White Streets, the Clifton Burial Ground at Thomas and Golden Hill Streets, established in 1670; the Arnold Cemetery on Pelham Street, established in 1677; and Coddington Burial Ground on Farewell Street that was established between 1678 and 1700.

By the beginning of the Revolutionary War, there were 1,100 buildings including modest seamens’, craftsmens’, and laborers’ houses, stylish merchants’ houses, commercial buildings, religious edifices, public buildings, and wharves. The buildings of this period reflect general stylistic shifts from medieval to Georgian aesthetics, the beginnings of formalized, classically derived architecture and the use of published design sources.

Siege of Rhode Island at Newport by the British during the American Revolution, 1778.

Siege of Rhode Island at Newport by the British during the American Revolution, 1778.

This prosperous development, however, was completely undermined by the outbreak of the American Revolution. Newport’s key strategic location at the mouth of Narragansett Bay made it a prime target for the British and on December 3, 1776, the British Army under General Henry Clinton occupied Newport and retained possession until October 25, 1779. During this time, soldiers were billeted in houses and churches and scoured the town for firewood. Under the pressure of the American blockade, house after house was torn down by the British to meet the need for firewood, until some 480 buildings of various kinds were destroyed. Many Newporters, both loyalists and others, left, and the population dropped from 9,209 in 1774 to 5,229 by 1776. By 1784, it had declined even further to only 4,000 and continued to decrease.

American troops reoccupied Newport on October 26, 1779. The French army arrived at Newport on July 10, 1780, and remained there until June 1781. By that time, the community’s population amounted to only 1,000. Several buildings still stand that were occupied by the French army, including General Rochambeau’s headquarters at the Vernon House on Clarke Street. There were about 1,100 buildings standing in Newport at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Of these, at least 300 are still standing today.

Narragansett Bay, Rhodie Island by Bob Capra, Flickr

Narragansett Bay, Rhodie Island by Bob Capra, Flickr

With the coming of peace, Newport’s former trade failed to revive. Providence, which was located at the less vulnerable head of Narragansett Bay, had become the government center of Rhode Island during the war, and now surpassed Newport in trade. Though it would be years before the community recovered, there were several buildings that were built including a home that built for 21 ship captains at on Bridge Street in 1800, a handsome Federal-style house built by merchant Samuel Whitehorne in 1811. It is located at 414-418 Thames Street. The city’s third bank, Newport Bank, opened its doors in 1803 at the Abraham Riviera House on Washington Square, which still houses a bank today.

However, the Embargo Acts of 1807 and 1809 and the War of 1812 again checked trade, and from 1815 to 1828 Newport remained in a state of suspended animation with a stifled economy and almost no new construction. Though a few industries were established on the waterfront just outside the district, Newport had no substantial water power, little industrial tradition, and limited land to develop a strong industrial economy. As a result of the devastation and inactivity of approximately 30 years, from 1815 to 1828, Newport remained in a state of suspended animation.

Kingscote is a 1839 Gothic Revival house built by Richard Upjohn. It was the first summer residence in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo by Daniel Case, Wikipedia.

Kingscote is a 1839 Gothic Revival house built by Richard Upjohn. It was the first summer residence in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo by Daniel Case, Wikipedia.

It was not until the 1830’s that the city again began to recover. At that point, residents of the city began to focus on the resort trade. At this time its growth as a summer resort and not as a port began. The seasonal influx of well-to-do urban families from the south and the cities of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore infused the town with attributes of wealth, luxurious taste, and a cosmopolitan flavor.

Some 100 buildings, erected between 1784 and 1840, are illustrative of the Federal and Greek Revival styles, have survived. Built during the depression years, these latter structures, are largely overshadowed by the many fine pre-Revolutionary houses. The 400 historic structures are largely concentrated near the waterfront and situated within 18th-century limits of the town. Modern structures in this area are few and do not seriously mar the general historical setting.

Newport’s population increased from 8,000 in 1840 to 20,000 in 1885, accompanied by a construction boom of summer and year-round houses. The extensive U.S. Navy presence on Goat and Coaster’s Harbor Islands also influenced Newport’s development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Naval Academy had moved temporarily from Annapolis, Maryland to Newport during the Civil War and a naval torpedo station was established on Goat Island in 1869. The U. S. Army also maintained a presence in Newport, based at Fort Adams. For soldiers and sailors, central Newport was an off-base destination.

Fort Adams, Newport, Rhode Island by Jack Boucher

Fort Adams, Newport, Rhode Island by Jack Boucher

The decade of the 1840s coincided with the introduction of steamboat service just outside the district, and later train service into the district. These transportation improvements contributed to the increased number of summer visitors and gradually also the number of day visitors.

Both train and steamboat service continued into the mid-20th century. The most visually impressive and architecturally significant products of this period are the imposing summer houses on ample grounds erected for seasonal residents outside the district to the east, south, and southwest. Yet, the historic district remained the heart and core of Newport, where churning activity supported development elsewhere. Shops, professional offices, services, banks, some government offices, and houses of worship were clustered within the old colonial town, particularly along Thames and Spring Streets and at Washington Square. Several large hotels, constructed in the 1840s but no longer extant, accommodated summer visitors.

For the most part, however, the district neighborhoods were solidly working and middle class. The smaller houses were both single and multi-family, simple and sturdy, and often with minimal ornamentation.

The expansion of population created a housing shortage for the working class in the latter half of the 19th century. Tenements, such as those constructed by William S. Cranston at 343 and 345 Spring Street, and other speculative rental properties built by local investors helped alleviate the problem, although the congested neighborhoods of the town center had little land for new buildings.

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