Vernon House, Newport, RI

Vernon House at the corner of Clarke and Mary Streets in Newport, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The house in 2017:

This house is perhaps Newport’s finest surviving Georgian-style house, with an exterior appearance that dates back to around 1759. However, the house itself is actually significantly older, having been built sometime in the late 17th or early 18th centuries. The first recorded owner was William Gibbs, a painter who moved from Boston to Newport in the early 1700s and was living in this house by 1708. Whether he built the house himself or purchased it from a previous owner is unclear, but the architecture of the original structure suggests that it was built sometime around 1700.

William Gibbs lived here until his death in 1729, leaving an estate valued at about 2,300 pounds. His daughter Elizabeth, whose husband William Gardner had been lost at sea three months earlier, inherited the property, remarried in 1732 to James Martin, and then died in 1735. This sequence of events set up an interesting legal battle after her death. Under English law at the time, her father’s property would have gone to her husband, and then to their children. However, if her husband – who had been missing for three months – died before her father, Elizabeth herself would have inherited it, and the property would have gone to her second husband after her death. Martin argued that, by all accounts, Gardner was dead before Gibbs’s death in 1729, but he ultimately lost his case and the property remained in the Gibbs-Garnder family until 1744.

The house was subsequently owned by a Patrick Grant and by Charles Bowler, the Collector of Revenue in Newport, who purchased it around 1753. In 1759, Charles sold it to his son, Metcalf Bowler, a prominent merchant who was among he wealthiest men in colonial Rhode Island. Shortly after purchasing the house, Metcalf had the house expanded and renovated to its current Georgian-style appearance. There are no surviving records of who the architect was, although tradition suggests that it may have been Peter Harrison, the prominent colonial-era architect who designed several buildings in Newport during the mid-18th century, including the Redwood Library, Touro Synagogue, and the Brick Market.

Metcalf Bowler was active in Rhode Island politics, particularly in the years leading up to the American Revolution, when Newport’s shipping industry was in its golden age. He served as one of Rhode Island’s delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, as speaker of the colonial legislature from 1767 to 1776, and was appointed to the state supreme court in 1776. However, during this time he was also a paid informant for the British army, working as a spy for General Henry Clinton, apparently in order to safeguard his property during the British occupation of Newport. His role as a spy was not discovered until the 20th century, but the war was devastating for Newport’s shipping industry and Metcalf Bowler lost much of his fortune as a result.

Bowler only lived in this house until 1773, when he sold it to William Vernon, another merchant who was involved in the American Revolution. However, unlike Bowler, Vernon remained loyal to the Patriot cause, and in 1777 the Continental Congress appointed him as president of the Eastern Navy Board, effectively making him the de facto equivalent of Secretary of the Navy. In this position, he worked to develop the fledgling American navy, and he even loaned his own money – at little or no interest – to the perpetually cash-strapped government, to enable them to meet some of the many pressing wartime demands.

During the American Revolution, Vernon was directly associated with some of the leading figures of the era. His son William traveled to France in 1778 under the care of John Adams, who was also traveling with his own son, 11-year-old John Quincy Adams. Then in 1780, after the British occupation ended, the Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Newport with 5,500 French soldiers, who remained here while awaiting deployment against the British. Rochambeau used Vernon’s house as his headquarters, and during this time his visitors included the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington, with Washington arriving here in March 1781 to meet with Rochambeau. Several months later, in June, the French soldiers departed Newport for Virginia, for a campaign that ultimately led to the decisive American and French victory at Yorktown in October.

In the years following the American Revolution, William Vernon continued to live here in this house. His son Samuel served in the war, and in 1784 married his cousin Elizabeth Almy. The couple lived here with his father, and had eleven children, nine of whom survived infancy. In the meantime, the younger William remained in France for many years, where he became a favorite in the court of Louis XVI. He remained in France through the French Revolution, but returned to Newport in 1796, bringing with him a significant collection of paintings that included a copy of the Mona Lisa that is reputed to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci himself.

Both of the Vernon brothers were prominent men in Newport, with Samuel running a prosperous merchant business and serving as president of the Newport Bank and the Newport Insurance Company, while William was the secretary of the Redwood Library for many years. They inherited the property after their father’s death in 1806, owning it until William’s death in 1833 and Samuel’s a year later. However, the house would remain in the Vernon family until it was finally sold in 1872, 99 years after William Vernon purchased it from Metcalf Bowler.

For the rest of the 19th century, the house was used as offices. Tenants included prominent geologist Raphael Pumpelly, as well as architect Clarence S. Luce, both of whom had offices in the building in the early 1880s. In 1912, about a decade after the first photo was taken, the house was purchased by the Charity Organization Society, who did some restoration work. It was later the home of the Family Service Society until the 1960s, when it was sold and again became a private residence.

Because of its historic and architectural significance, Vernon House was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968. Since then, it has been well-preserved, and there are hardly any noticeable differences between the photos aside from minor details such as the shutters, which may not have been original to the house anyway. The house remained privately owned until 2009, when it was donated to the Newport Restoration Foundation. This organization has preserved a number of historic properties in downtown Newport, and it continues to own Vernon House and rent it out as a residence.

Thames Street at Touro Street, Newport, RI

The east side of Thames Street, just south of Touro Street in Newport, around 1885. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Thames Street is a major north-south street that runs along the waterfront in downtown Newport. It has long been a major commercial center in the city, and the first photo shows parts of three 19th century commercial blocks here on Thames Street, just south of Washington Square. All three have similar Italianate-style architecture, and they were probably built around the 1850s or 1860s. By the time the first photo was taken, the buildings housed several different businesses, including John H. Martin’s sporting goods shop on the far left at the corner of Touro Street, as well as the Young Brothers grocery store in the center of the photo.

In more than 130 years since the first photo was taken, Thames Street has undergone some significant changes. These buildings survived the large-scale redevelopment projects that took nearly all of the historic buildings on the opposite side of the street, but they have had major alterations over the years. The one on the far left, known as the Henry B. Young Building, lost its top floor sometime in the 20th century, and the building in the middle might be the same one from the first photo, with a new facade and without its top floor. Only the building on the far right, which is just partially visible in these photos, has remained relatively unaltered.

Like it was in the first photo, Thames Street is still lined with shops, although they are very different from the ones in the 1880s. The storefront at the corner, once the home of John H. Martin’s sporting goods shop, is now a Banana Republic, and the rest of the Street is similarly lined with  boutiques, souvenir shops, and restaurants that cater primarily to Newport’s tourists. Compared to the rest of downtown Newport, the buildings on Thames Street does not remain as well-preserved, but overall the Street still retains a similar appearance, and his section of the street is now part of the Newport Historic District, a National Historic Landmark district.

Governor’s Carriage, Newport, Rhode Island

A group of men pose in front of the Old Colony House in Newport, around 1880. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The Providence Public Library’s information on this photo does not provide any context for the first photo, aside from the title of “Governor’s Carriage Newport” and the approximate date of 1880. It does not seem clear, for example, why this carefully-posed photo would include the governor’s carriage yet not the governor himself, but it was taken in front of the Colony House, which at the time functioned as one of Rhode Island’s two state houses, with the other being located in Providence.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the Colony House was built in 1741, and was the work of Newport architect Richard Munday. The exterior was heavily influenced by the work of Christoper Wren, and the interior featured an open hall on the first floor and legislative chambers on the upper floor. For many years, Rhode Island did not have a fixed capital city, with the legislature instead holding sessions on a rotating basis in each of the state’s five county seats. When in Newport, the legislature met here in this building, and continued doing so even after 1854, when the rotation was reduced to just Providence and Newport.

This unusual arrangement continued throughout the 19th century, and the building was still in use by the state government when the first photo was taken around 1880. The practice of alternating legislative sessions finally ended in 1900, though, and Providence became the state’s sole capital city. For the next 26 years, though, the building was used as the courthouse for Newport County, until the current county courthouse was completed in 1926. Located directly to the right of the Colony House, the new courthouse was built with a Colonial Revival style that bears strong resemblance to its predecessor, and the two buildings still stand side-by-side at the eastern end of Washington Square.

Although no longer used as either a state house or as a county courthouse, the building is still owned by the state, and has been a part of several important events over the years. In 1957, President Eisenhower – who spent several summers here in Newport while serving as president – gave a short speech from the front steps here, and 40 years later both the exterior and interior of the building were used for scenes in the 1997 film Amsted, which was set in 1840s New Haven but filmed here in Newport because of the city’s well-preserved historic downtown.

Today, the Colony House is considered a landmark of Georgian-style architecture, and it is one of the best-preserved public buildings of its era in America. The building was already around 140 years old when the first photo was taken, and nearly 140 years have elapsed since then, but there is essentially no difference in its appearance between the two photos. In recognition of this, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and the building is currently operated as a museum by the Newport Historical Society.

City Hall, Newport, Rhode Island

City Hall on Broadway, at the corner of Bull Street in Newport, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

City Hall in 2017:

For much of the 19th century, Newport’s city hall was the Brick Market, a historic colonial-era marketplace that had been repurposed for municipal use in 1842. However, by the end of the century the Brick Market was in poor condition and too small for the growing city, so in 1898 the city asked local architects to submit designs for a new city hall. The winning design, of only two that were submitted, was the work of John Dixon Johnston, and featured an unusual blend of Romanesque architecture, which was already declining in popularity by this point, and Second Empire architecture, which had not been in style in about a quarter century.

City Hall was completed in 1900, at the corner of Broadway and Bull Street, and stood here for the next 25 years until it was badly damaged by a fire in 1925. The building was subsequently restored, but with a very different appearance. Designed by architect William Cornell Appleton, the renovations included the removal of the Mansard roof, with a new fourth floor built in its place. The original tower was also removed, and a new one was built in line with the front facade, instead of being over the front entryway like the original one was. Overall, the new design gave the upper part of the building a Colonial Revival-style appearance, in contrast to the very different Romanesque style of the lower floors.

Today, the building still stands in its modified 1925 appearance, and it still serves as Newport’s city hall. Further in the distance, the school on the far left side of the scene is also still there, and is actually a few years older than city hall, having been built in 1894 as the Townsend Industrial School. Significantly expanded from its original size, the building is now Thompson Middle School, and both it and City Hall are now part of the Kay Street–Catherine Street–Old Beach Road Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

First Baptist Church, Newport, Rhode Island

The First Baptist Church, seen from the corner of Spring and Sherman Streets in Newport, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Settled in the 1630s as a haven for religious minorities, Rhode Island is home to some of the oldest Baptist congregations in the United States, including Roger Williams’s First Baptist Church in America, which was founded around 1638 in Providence. Around the same time, Baptist minister John Clarke started holding services in Portsmouth, on the northern end of Aquidneck Island, but he subsequently moved to Newport, on the southern end of the island, where he lived for the rest of his life. Here, he founded what would become the First Baptist Church of Newport, and he became an important figure in colonial Rhode Island, including obtaining the Rhode Island Royal Charter from Charles II in 1663.

Also known as the Second Baptist Church in America, this congregation would occupy several different meetinghouses over the next few centuries, first on Tanner Street and then, starting in 1737, at this lot on Spring Street, near the corner of Sherman Street. The 1737 church stood here until 1846, when the current Greek Revival-style church building was constructed, but the old church was moved to Sherman Street and stood there until it was demolished in 1929. In the meantime, in 1885 the church built a Queen Anne-style parsonage, which is seen here on the left side of this scene.

The 1846 church building remained mostly unchanged until 1938, when Rhode Island was hit by a Category 3 hurricane. Newport avoided a direct hit, but the storm still caused considerable damage, including destroying the original steeple of the First Baptist Church. A few years later, in 1946, the church merged with the Second Baptist Church, which had been formed as an offshoot of the First Baptist in 1656. The combined congregation, named United Baptist Church, sold the Second Baptist building and used the proceeds to restore this church, which was rededicated in 1950.

The restoration included a new steeple, which is of the same design as the original but smaller, which gives the building a somewhat disproportional appearance today. Otherwise, very little has changed in this scene, although it is hard to tell in the 2017 photo because of the large tree – perhaps the same one from the first photo – that mostly obscures the view of the church. Both the church and the parsonage are now contributing buildings in the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Henry Bull House, Newport, Rhode Island

The Henry Bull House on Spring Street opposite Stone Street in Newport, around 1868. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The house around 1884. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

There is little in this building’s appearance to suggest that it is from the first half of the 17th century, but the earliest part of it was supposedly built in 1639, at the time of Newport’s initial settlement. It was the home of Henry Bull, who had immigrated to Massachusetts in 1635, where he lived in Roxbury for several years. However, a few years later he was excommunicated from the church for being a supporter of John Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson in the Antinomian Controversy, and he joined a group of fellow religious dissenters who moved to Rhode Island. Here, he settled first in Portsmouth, at the northern end of Aquidneck Island, but in 1639 he and eight other men left Portsmouth to establish a new settlement on the southern end of the island, which they named Newport.

Henry Bill built this house, or at least part of it, soon after his arrival. He went on to live in Newport for the rest of his life, serving in a variety of public offices over the years, including as a member of the colonial legislature and later as governor of Rhode Island. Fiercely independent, Rhode Island was one of the few colonies allowed to elect their own governors, rather than having them appointed by the king. The colony enjoyed significant freedoms during the reign of Charles II, but after his death in 1685 his brother, James II, began to take a more active role in governing the American colonies. Henry Bill was about 75 years old when he was elected governor in the midst of this crisis, and he served from 1685 to 1686. Shortly after Bull left office, James II consolidated the northeastern colonies into the Dominion of New England, and appointed Edmund Andros as governor of the entire region. However, this arrangement only lasted for three years before the Dominion of New England was dissolved, and Henry Bull was re-elected as governor of Rhode Island in 1690.

Prior to his death in the winter of 1693/1694, Henry Bull was the last survivor from Newport’s original group of settlers. As it turned out, his house was also the last of the original buildings in Newport, and stood here on Spring Street for more than 200 years after his death. It was significantly altered over the years, though, and the gambrel roof was probably not added until sometime around the mid-18th century. By the time the first photo was taken around 1868, the house looked to be in serious disrepair, but it underwent a significant renovation at some point before the second photo was taken 16 years later. This included rebuilding the left side of the front facade, replacing the two chimneys, and adding new dormer windows to the third floor. By this point, the house was generally recognized as the oldest existing building in Rhode Island, but it was ultimately destroyed in a fire on December 29, 1912, and the two current buildings on the site were probably built soon after.