Perry Mill, Newport, RI (2)

The Perry Mill, looking north along Thames Street from the corner of Fair Street in Newport, around 1902. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

As discussed in the previous post, the Perry Mill was built in 1835, on Thames Street in the southern part of downtown Newport. It was originally a textile mill, and was one of several such mills built during this period, in an effort to revive the city’s struggling economy. Newport’s shipping business had fallen on hard times since the American Revolution, and the Perry Mill was an attempt to compete with New England’s rapidly-growing industrial cities. However, Newport’s location on an island in the middle of Narragansett Bay proved a barrier to railroad transportation, and its fledgling manufacturing base never achieved the prominence of nearby mainland cities such as Providence and Fall River.

Despite this, Newport’s economy did ultimately recover, largely through becoming a Gilded Age summer resort community. By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, some of the wealthiest families in the country had summer homes here in Newport, although most of these were to the south of the downtown area. This section of Thames Street remained decidedly working-class, as shown by the businesses here, which included a coal dealer on the left, a flour and grain dealer on the ground floor of the Perry Mill, and a grocer in the building just beyond the mill.

Today, much of this scene has changed, particularly the buildings just beyond the Perry Mill, which were demolished in the mid-20th century to build America’s Cup Avenue. The mill building itself also underwent some changes, with the removal of the gabled roof and fourth floor. For many years, the property was owned by General Electric, but it was subsequently converted into retail use, and the upper part of the building was reconstructed. The brick section on the left side is also a 20th century addition, but otherwise the only noticeable sign of change is the slightly different shade of stone between the three lower floors and the fourth floor.

Perry Mill, Newport, Rhode Island

The Perry Mill, seen from the corner of Thames and Cannon Streets in Newport, around 1914-1916. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was taken sometime in the mid-1910s, during the construction of the present-day Newport Post Office. It shows a group of commercial buildings, most of which were probably built around the mid-19th century, and the signs advertise for a variety of businesses, including B. Richards Gents Furnishings in the building to the left, and a fish market and Lee Yun Laundry in the buildings to the right. There also appears to be a barber shop in the storefront just to the left of the fish market, as indicated by the striped poles on the exterior.

However, the most prominent building in the first photo is the Perry Mill, which stands diagonally across the intersection in the center of both photos. It was built in 1835 as a textile mill, at a time when Newport had been experiencing several decades of economic stagnation. The city’s once-prosperous shipping industry had been badly hurt by the American Revolution, and never fully recovered. By the early 19th century, much of New England’s economy had shifted from trade to industry, and inland manufacturing centers had begun to eclipse colonial-era seaports such as Portsmouth, Salem, and Newport.

Architecturally, the Perry Mill was very different from most other New England mills of this period. Instead of a brick exterior, it was built of stone, and featured details such as lintels over the windows, quoins on the corners, and a fanlight just underneath the gable. It was the work of Scottish-born stonemason Alexander MacGregor, and was one of the few major building projects in Newport during this period. However, despite hopes that the mill would revive the city’s economy, Newport never became a major industrial center. Its location on an island, which had benefitted its merchant fleets, proved a liability in the age of railroads, and Newport would not see widespread prosperity until the second half of the 19th century, when the city reinvented itself into one of the country’s most exclusive summer resort communities.

The mill was still standing in its original appearance when the first photo was taken, but at some point in the 20th century it was heavily altered with the removal of the gabled roof and fourth floor. From 1943 to 1984, the building was owned by General Electric, but it was subsequently converted into retail space, and now houses shops and restaurants. As part of this renovation, the upper part of the building was reconstructed, and the only noticeable evidence of this change is the slightly lighter-colored stone above the third floor.

Today, the Perry Mill stands alone in this scene, with none of the other buildings surviving from the first photo. The post office, which was barely under construction when the first photo was taken, is still there, but the rest of the area has dramatically changed. In the mid-20th century, the four-lane America’s Cup Avenue was built along the waterfront of Newport, running along the west side of Thames Street for part of its route. This meant that many Thames Street buildings had to be demolished, including the ones on the right side of the first photo. However, just before reaching the Perry Mill, America’s Cup Avenue makes a sharp left turn, becoming Memorial Boulevard West. This was constructed around the same time, and involved demolishing all of the buildings on the south side of Cannon Street, including the one on the left side of the photo. As a result, the Perry Mill was spared by these projects, and it remains a prominent landmark along Newport’s waterfront.

Spring Street from Prospect Hill Street, Newport, Rhode Island

Looking north on Spring Street from the corner of Prospect Hill Street in Newport, around 1888. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Downtown Newport has a remarkable collection of historic buildings from the 18th and early 19th centuries, but few street scenes have remained as well-preserved as this block of Spring Street. Aside from the addition of pavement and telephone poles, there are hardly any differences between these two photos, which were taken nearly 130 years apart. However, these buildings were already old when the first photo was taken, so it has been nearly 250 years since there were any major changes to this scene.

Most of the buildings in this scene date back to the mid to late 18th century. Starting in the foreground, at the corner of Spring Street and Prospect Hill Street, is the Lyn Martin House, which was built sometime between 1758 and 1777. The next two houses were also built during this same time period, including the Robert Brattle House at 209 Spring Street, and the Benjamin Howland House further in the distance at 205 Spring Street. Just beyond the Howland House is the Cremin House at 199 Spring Street, which was somewhat newer than its neighbors, having been built around 1785-1790. However, the newest building along this section of Spring Street is the William N. Austin House, which is barely visible on the far right side of the scene. It was built in 1883 at the corner of Spring and Pelham Streets, and replaced a very modest colonial-era building that once stood on the site.

With the exception of the Austin House, all of these buildings date back to Newport’s golden age as a prosperous seaport in the 18th century. However, the American Revolution caused irrevocable harm to Newport’s shipping industry, and the city experienced a long economic decline throughout the first half of the 19th century. As a result, though, there was very little new development in the city during this period, which may have helped contribute to the survival of so many colonial-era buildings, including these ones along Spring Street.

By the time the first photo was taken around 1888, Newport has reinvented itself as one of the nation’s premier resort communities, with the Vanderbilts, Astors, and other Gilded Age families spending their summers in palatial seaside homes. Most of this development was occurring in the southern part of Newport, leaving the downtown area largely intact as a quaint reminder of the city’s past. There are a few signs of progress, including the trolley tracks on Spring Street, but otherwise the scene looks much the same as it would have been a century earlier.

Today, all of the buildings from the first photo are still standing, with only a few significant alterations. The most obvious of these is the addition of the porch on the left side of the Martin House, but other changes include the dormer windows atop the neighboring Brattle House. Further in the distance, there are no noticeable changes to the Howland House, but it is now operated as the Howland House Inn. Along with much of the surrounding area, these buildings are now part of the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Samuel Bours House, Newport, Rhode Island

The house at 175 Spring Street, just south of Mill Street in Newport, around 1932. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo shows a group of buildings on the west side of Spring Street, just south of the corner of Mill Street. Of these, the oldest might be the Jonathan Gibbs House, which was built around 1771 and still stands on the left side of the scene. However, its much larger neighbor in the center of the photo was probably built around the same time, and was definitely here by 1777, when it was owned by the merchant Samuel Bours. Its architecture is similar to many other colonial-era homes in Newport, with Georgian-style details and a gambrel roof, although it had a rather unusual main entrance, which was located on the side of the house instead of facing the street.

By the early 19th century, the house was owned by Samuel’s son, John Bours. This period coincided with the economic decline of Newport, though, and in subsequent years this former merchant’s house became the home of working class residents. The 1880 census shows two families living here, with carpenter George A. Brown living in one unit with his wife Mary and their son Orin, and florist Carl H. Jurgens living in the other unit with his wife Louise and three children.

The Brown family continued to live here in the house for many years, and the 1910 census shows George, Mary, and Orin all still living here. Orin was 39 years old and working as a mailman by this point, and he lived here with his wife Nellie and their four young children. The first photo was taken a little over 20 years later, in 1932. Nellie had died a year before, but Orin was still living here, and he also rented part of the house to Norwegian-born fisherman Henry Monsen and his wife Josephine.

Orin Brown subsequently remarried to his second wife, Fannie, and he lived here in this house until his death in 1953, at the age of 83. Then, in 1969, the house was purchased by the Newport Restoration Foundation, which also acquired the neighboring Jonathan Gibbs House in the same year. Also in 1969, the organization purchased the c.1811 Alexander Jack, Jr. House, which had previously stood on Levin Street. The house was moved to the corner of Spring and Mill Streets, adjacent to the Bours House, and is visible on the right side of the 2017 photo. All three of these houses were restored in the early 1970s, and they are now part of the Newport Historic District, which is a National Historic Landmark district.

Spring and Mill Streets, Newport, Rhode Island

The northwest corner of Spring and Mill Streets in Newport, around 1928. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo shows an evidently abandoned building that once stood at the corner of Mill and Spring Streets in Newport. It was probably built at some point in the second half of the 18th century, as it shares many common architectural features of this period, most notably the gambrel roof. Many surviving Newport buildings have a similar style, including the somewhat smaller White Horse Tavern building, which was originally constructed in the 17th century but was expanded to its present-day appearance a century later.

The 1777 map of Newport shows a building standing here at the corner, although it is unclear whether it was this particular building or an earlier one. Either way, the building was here by the 19th century, and the 1876 city atlas shows that the property belonged to Theodore R. Helme. His occupation was variously listed as a mason, carpenter, auctioneer, and grocer, and he also owned the commercial block that still stands on the opposite side of the street, at 148-160 Spring Street. He died around the turn of the 20th century, but the 1907 city atlas shows that his widow Ruby still owned this property, along with the one across the street.

The first photo shows that the building had several storefronts on the ground floor, and the upper floors were presumably divided into apartments. However, by the time the photo was taken in 1928, the building had fallen into serious disrepair. The upper floors were clearly empty, with hardly any surviving windows, and the storefronts also appear to have been vacant. The sign above the stores is completely illegible, and the only things visible in the windows are posters advertising for a circus on Wednesday, May 31. If the 1928 date of the photo is accurate, these posters must have been there for a long time, because the last time May 31 had fallen on a Wednesday was in 1922, and it would not do so again until 1933.

Based on its condition in the first photo, this building likely did not survive beyond the 1930s at the latest. The neighboring building on the far right side has also since been demolished, and today the area is a park adjacent to Trinity Church. Only the top of the church spire is visible in the first photo, but the entire building can now be seen from this angle. It was completed in 1726 and it features a design that is very similar to that of Old North Church in Boston, which was built only a few years earlier. Although the other buildings from the photo are gone, the nearly 300-year-old church is still standing, and in 1968 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its architectural and historical significance.

Spring Street from Church Street, Newport, Rhode Island

Looking north on Spring Street from the corner of Church Street in Newport, around 1887. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

These photos were taken directly across Spring Street from Trinity Church, and show the west side of the street, on the block between Church and Mary Streets. A small portion of the churchyard is visible on the far left side of the scene, with an assortment of commercial and residential buildings beyond it. Most of the buildings from the first photo are still standing today, with remarkably few exterior changes, but the one significant difference between the two photos is the building in the foreground, at the corner of Church Street. The first photo shows a colonial-era, gambrel-roofed house that was probably built in the early or mid-18th century. It was probably constructed as a house, but by the late 19th century it included a storefront on the Spring Street facade, which was occupied by the L. Schaefer shoe repair shop. However, the building was demolished sometime around the turn of the 20th century, when the present-day building was constructed on the site.

Further down the street, most of the buildings are still standing. Starting closest to the foreground is the blue and white John Preston Mann House, which was built around 1827. Next to it, with the mansard roof and two-story bay window, is the William B. Sherman House, which was built around the 1860s and is now the Outlook Inn. Further in the distance, barely visible in both photos, is the gambrel-roofed Samuel Barker House. This elegant house was built around 1714, and stands as probably the oldest recognizable building in this scene, predating most of its neighbors by more than a century. Today, all of these buildings, including the turn-of-the-century corner building, are now contributing properties in the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.