Wandering the streets of Newport, Rhode Island, one comes upon hidden treasures. In a city renowned for its architectural heritage, the colonial quarter conceals a storied past. The voices of legendary figures are embedded in the picturesque assortment of fine Georgian houses in this many-layered historic urban scene. Exploring the area around Washington Square, in the heart of the old town, Henry James wrote in the The Sense of Newport (1906), “Here was the charming impression of antiquity…the wide, cobbly, sleepy space in the shadow of the State House.” Today one may still walk in the famous writer’s shoes, discovering a wealth of buildings and the haunting atmosphere of a place from long ago.
The Vernon House (c. 1758), on Clarke Street, is one of the handsomest Georgian mansions in Newport. Its façade is of wood rusticated to resemble stone. The finely beveled edges of the wood blocks and the noble proportions of the Doric-style moldings of the front door exhibit the superb skills of colonial carvers. During the Revolution, the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French forces, used the house as his headquarters and played host to George Washington. Across the street is the Artillery Company. Established in 1741, it is the oldest military unit in the country operating under its original charter. Housed in a monumental stone and brick armory built in 1835, the company operates a museum displaying four cannons cast by Paul Revere. In nearby Washington Square, the Colony House (c. 1741) and the Brick Market (c. 1762) display the civic splendor created by Newport’s wealthy merchants when the city ranked among the most powerful seaports in British North America. Atop the carved pediment of the Colony House is a gilded pineapple, a symbol of wealth and hospitality in a community that had strong trading links to the Caribbean islands. Upon arrival at Long Wharf, the main point of entry in the colonial era, one would have had a direct view from the waterfront through Washington Square and up to the Colony House with its golden, glowing pineapple. This grand vista, still intact, demonstrates how Newport has weathered the vagaries of time and has preserved the largest concentration of 18th-century buildings in the nation.
Travel north from Washington Square along Thames Street and encounter a time capsule of 18th-century architecture in the dwellings and shops of Newport’s artisans and tradesmen. Adjacent to this thriving area is the “Point,” which borders on Narragansett Bay. The Society of Friends acquired the land and laid out the district in grid formation, much like their Quaker brethren in Philadelphia. Order, modesty, and equality prevailed in this neighborhood of equal plot sizes. Streets bore the names of trees and numbers, not of people. That type of human vanity was strictly prohibited. Architectural opulence, however, was not off-limits, as is evident in the houses of “Quaker grandees” lining the waterfront. The Nichols-Wanton-Hunter House (c. 1758), residence of prominent merchants and a colonial governor, features some of the finest interior woodwork of the Georgian period. A National Historic Landmark, it exhibits Newport-made furniture, clocks, and pewter, and the work of the Rhode Island–born painter Gilbert Stuart. Nearby is “Quaker Tom” Robinson’s house (c 1761), where his daughter, the lovely Hannah, became the object of admiration of many French officers during the Revolution, among them the Vicomte de Noailles, who was billeted with the family. Besides the flirtations and fine buildings of the Point’s merchants, the district still preserves the workshops and houses of Newport’s craftsmen, such as the renowned Townsend and Goddard family of cabinetmakers. Christopher Townsend’s sturdily built house on Bridge Street still features the original furniture studio. Its neighbor is the Pitt’s Head Tavern, with a notable front door framed in scrolled brackets. These buildings are a woodworker’s delight, created at a time when Newport was a thriving center for the arts and crafts.
Intimate in scale and rich in architecture, legend, and lore, the old colonial quarter of Newport waits patiently to be discovered with, as Henry James aptly stated, “a thousand delicate secret places, dear to the…rambler.”