CHAPTER 3. Colonial Newport

 

Most travelers are aware of Newport's fantastic nineteenth century mansions. However, some are not aware of the colonial treasures Newport has to offer. In fact, Newport has the highest concentration of early colonial houses of any city in the United States.

In 1639 a band of religious refugees from the Massachusetts Bay Colony led by William Coddington and John Clarke settled at the northern end of Aquidneck Island. They spent the winter here, but then traveled to the southern tip of the island where they built their houses. Towns people started building ships here as early as 1646, and by the 1750s the city had become a major port, more important than New York City. Newport became rich through such activities as smuggling and privateering. Another source of wealth was the Triangle Trade, in which Newporters brought slaves from the west coast of Africa, exchanging them for molasses in the West Indies, which they then brought to the Thirteen Colonies to be made into rum, which then was sold to finance more journeys to the west coast of Africa for slaves.

In 1774 the British frigate Rose blocked Newport Harbor in an attempt to stop the ongoing smuggling there. The colonists responded by founding the first Continental Navy.

During the Revolutionary war, 6,000 British troops under General Henry Clinton occupied the city (beginning in December 1776 and ending three years later in November 1779). The occupiers tore down many a house for firewood as the Americans had the city blockaded. The occupation led to a depopulation of the city and a loss of a great deal of commerce. The city never fully recovered from the occupation.

After the British voluntarily evacuated the city, the French fleet under the command of Admiral de Ternay arrived in July 1780. In March 1781 General Washington met with the French General Rochambeau.

Brick Market
Long Wharf and Thames Street (Open Apr-May, daily 10-6; May 21- Dec 30, Mon-Sat 10-9, Sun 10-6)

Peter Harrison designed this market 1762-1772, now a registered historical landmark, as a trading center and granary. Harrison was Newport's foremost architect during the years following 1750. He designed many public buildings in the then current English Palladian revival. He arrived in Newport at the age of twenty-two, and later married the rich Newport merchant John Banister's youngest sister-in-law. Peter and his brother Joseph set up a shop and shipping center near John Brown's wharf. It is not known how he obtained his training in architecture, but his skill cannot be doubted. Other designs by Harrison are the Redwood Library and the Touro Synagogue.

The Brick Market saw later use as a town hall and theater. It now contains various artifacts and collectibles.

Robert Stevens House
31 Clarke Street

Several of the aides of General Rochambeau stayed here during the French stay in Newport. Among them were his aides-de-camp, Axel de Ferson and the Marquis de Damas. De Ferson was a Swedish soldier of fortune who was very lonely in the city. This situation found some alleviation when he met Eliza Hunter, the daughter of the then late Dr. William Hunter. There runs a story that de Ferson asked e to marry him, but she refused, already having been informed by her doctor that she was going blind.

Vernon House
Across the street from the Robert Stevens House and on the corner of Clarke and Mary Streets

William Vernon bought this early 1700's house in 1773. However, he was forced to flee during the British occupation. This was Rochambeau's headquarters and here he met with Washington and Lafayette to lay the plans for the march to Yorktown.

John Bannister House
56 Pelham Street

British General Prescott made this c. 1751 house his headquarters during the occupation. Prescott was highly unpopular with the local Whigs because he was very unpleasant toward them. On the night of July 9, 1777 the then Colonel Prescott had been captured by Major William Barton and forty men. The Americans eventually exchanged Prescott for Charles Lee, who then went on to disgrace at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. Promoted to general, Prescott returned to Newport after his release.

Hunter House
54 Washington Street

This house is one of the finest examples of colonial residential architecture in America. Jonathan Nichols, later deputy governor of Rhode Island, built it in 1748. Governor Joseph Wanton Jr. lived here as well as William Hunter, U.S. Senator and ambassador to Brazil. It also served as headquarters for Admiral de Ternay, commander of the French naval force here. The admiral, already sick when he arrived in Newport, and is buried in Trinity churchyard.

The front doorway is considered to be the finest in Newport, crowned with a carve wood pineapple which has become Newport's symbol of hospitality. The southeast sitting room contains fine original paneling and furnishings which harmonize with the parlor opposite it. The northeast parlor is noted for the marbleized pilasters and fine paneling. Authentic Newport-made furniture of the period is by Goddard and Townsend is shown here and throughout Hunter House.

Old Colony House (Old State House)
Washington Square (July-Sept 6, daily 9:30-12 and 1-4; Sept 7 - June, Mon - Fri 9:30-12, 1-4)

Richard Munday designed this 1739 two-and-one-half story brick structure. The Declaration of Independence was read from the second floor balcony July 20, 1776. Originally built for the General Assembly, both the British and French used it as a hospital during the Revolutionary war. French General Count de Rochambeau welcomed General Washington here. In the Governor's Council Chamber is a full-length portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart. In the big downstairs room there are still marks on the floor made by the axes of British soldiers who were quartered here as they chopped wood for their fires.

Redwood Library
50 Bellevue Avenue

Peter Harrison designed this 1748 building with a Greek temple portico. The library's collection started with the collection of Abraham Redwood in 1747.

Touro Synagogue
85 Touro Street

Jews started coming to Newport in the mid-seventeenth century, because of its reputation for religious tolerance. Peter Harrison designed this 1763 Georgian place of worship to stand diagonally on its small piece of land so that the worshipers would be facing east towards Jerusalem. It combined the forces of the Sephardim and Ashkenazim Jews. Washington pledged religious freedom to the Jewish community here. In the interior is a Scroll of Laws that dates from 1658. A short walk up Touro Street brings ones to the Jewish Cemetery (at the corner of Kay Street).

Stone Tower
Touro Park off Bellevue Avenue

This mysterious tower was probably erected by Governor Benedict Arnold as a gristmill around 1673.

Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House
17 Broadway

This is the oldest restored house in Newport. It was once owned by Richard Ward, Governor of the Rhode Island colony in 1740. It was damaged during the 1765 Stamp Act riots, and its Tory owner was forced to flee. John Wanton purchased the house at public auction. His daughter, Polly, was well known among the French officers of the day, as attested to by the window pane that bears the inscription "charming Polly Wanton."

 

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