Where Colonial times still echo
Before the Vanderbilts and the Astors and the other moneyed bluebloods built their magnificent “summer cottages’’ up and down Bellevue Avenue, Newport was a thriving Colonial metropolis.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors spend their time in Newport gawking at the extravagant summer playpens of the rich and famous, but overshadowed by the mansions’ glitz and glamour is the city’s well-preserved Colonial neighborhood, which boasts its fair share of historic sites and architectural gems.
Newport was home to great wealth long before the arrival of the Gilded Age. In the 1700s, it was a bustling port city on par with Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The 1762 Brick Market, now home to the Museum of Newport History, was once alive with the cacophony of commerce as merchants plied goods procured from around the globe.
In addition to chronicling Newport’s transformation into a premier resort destination, the museum tells the story of how the small town settled in 1639 by religious refugees fleeing the rigid Puritanism of Massachusetts quickly grew into a Colonial power. Among the artifacts on display are examples of fine Newport cabinetry and furniture along with the printing press used by James Franklin and his younger brother, Benjamin, to publish Colonial currency, pamphlets, broadsides, and laws.
The museum is the starting point for walking tours offered by the Newport Historical Society and the Newport Restoration Foundation, including the Discover Colonial Newport Walking Tour that winds through the hill overlooking the waterfront. On a stroll through the neighborhood’s narrow lanes, we stop outside 18th-century residences and houses of worship and learn that the harbor offered not only a refuge from nature’s fury but a haven from religious persecution for Quakers, Jews, and other groups ostracized in Puritan New England.
“In the early days, people came here for liberty of conscience,’’ our guide Martha tells us. “The principle of religious tolerance started here and provided a foundation for entrepreneurial trade throughout the world when Newport was part of a global economy that created great wealth in the city.’’ The British occupation of Newport during the Revolution decimated the city, turning it into a ghost town as wealthy merchants fled along with half of the city’s population.
Samuel Whitehorne Jr., one of the few Newport merchants to endure the economic ruin in the war’s aftermath, built a waterfront brick mansion in 1811. By the time Doris Duke’s Newport Restoration Foundation — which has preserved more than 80 Colonial-era buildings in the city — bought the Whitehorne House in 1969, it had fallen into disrepair.
After it was restored, Duke (1912-93) used the Federal-period manse to display her collection of 18th-century Newport furniture, many of the pieces finely crafted by the legendary Goddard and Townsend workshops. Duke, heiress to an immense tobacco fortune, played such an integral role in the selection of the pieces and their positioning in the rooms that the Whitehorne House has been called her personal dollhouse. For the uninitiated, a guided tour is necessary to learn about the styles and intricate details of the exquisite furnishings.
It will never be confused with the Breakers, but the 1697 Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House was one of Newport’s finest in the mid-1700s when Loyalist Martin Howard Jr., owned it. That was until an angry mob hanged Howard in effigy during the Stamp Act riots in 1765 and destroyed much of the interior’s fine paneling and refined furnishings for good measure. Newport’s oldest private residence has been restored and is filled with Colonial antiques, some of which were discovered by archeological excavations of the backyard and may have been casualties of the riotous mob.
A few doors down is the stately brick Colony House, built in the 1730s, which was the primary seat of Rhode Island’s government before the opening of the State House in Providence in 1901. The expansive Great Hall on the first floor hosted Colonial banquets and balls. You can still walk on the original pine floorboards worn by centuries of foot traffic that included the presidential shoes of Washington, Jefferson, and Eisenhower. Upstairs is the chamber where the General Assembly sat and the Governor’s Council Chamber, which features a towering Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington.
The Redwood Library & Athenaeum features seven original Stuart paintings. While it is a private membership library, the public is welcome to view the exhibitions in the gallery and the resplendent interior adorned with 18th- and 19th-century portraits and marble busts.
The oldest continuously operating lending library in the country, dating to 1747, is a work of art in itself. It is modeled after a Doric temple and was the first public building in the Colonies designed in the Classical style. Given the building’s intended use, it was apt that self-taught architect Peter Harrison found the inspiration for his neoclassical design while scanning a book on Palladian architecture.
Harrison also used a Palladian style to design Touro Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in the country. In 1790, President Washington wrote a letter to the congregation vowing to uphold freedom of religion by pledging to give “bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’’ The synagogue stages a public reading of the presidential correspondence each year, and the newly opened Loeb Visitor Center includes exhibits on religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
The Quakers were another religious group that found sanctuary in Newport. Quakers dominated the political and commercial life of Colonial Newport; they represented half the city’s population in the 1690s. Not surprisingly, the Great Friends Meeting House, built in 1699, is an impressive structure with a soaring roof, sturdy post-and-beam construction, and an intricate pulley system that could partition the interior.
Befitting the Quakers, the interior of their Meeting House, which is the oldest surviving house of worship in Rhode Island, is strikingly austere. There is no pulpit, statuary, stained glass, or any type of religious iconography. There are just a few rows of white pews and a small set of risers along the walls — used by the elders during worship meetings — which resemble an old-time gymnasium. (In fact, you can still see where a basketball hoop was once affixed to the balcony when the Meeting House was used as a recreation center in the early 1900s.)
After worship services, some of the Quakers reconvened over tankards of ale in the White Horse Tavern, which still stands across the street from the Meeting House. Dating to 1673, the tavern was the gathering place for the Colonial government before the Colony House was built. Glassware has replaced the pewter and a meal costs more than a few shillings these days, but a Colonial atmosphere lingers. In the candlelit dining room or the cozy bar, you can close your eyes and imagine the distant voices of the merchants, freedom seekers, and revolutionaries who gave birth to this city.
Christopher Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.