Thames and Mill Streets, Newport, RI

The southeast corner of Pelham and Mill Streets in Newport, around 1885. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

 

The scene in 2017:

 

The first photo shows a mix of old, wood-frame commercial buildings on the east side of Thames Street, just south of Mill Street. The building on the left may have been the oldest in the scene, and probably dated back to the mid or late 18th century, with a large gambrel roof that commonly seen in Newport buildings of this era. It may have originally been built as a house, but by the time the first photo was taken it housed a variety of businesses, including the Newport Daily Observer newspaper, which had its offices in the storefront on the left side, and Edward Otto’s tailor shop, which was located on the right side. At the corner of the building, there is also a large sign for Child & Co. photographers, which had their studios here in the building.

Just to the right is a tall, narrow commercial building with a large clock hanging from the second floor. According to the National Register of Historic Places inventory, it was built sometime between 1741 and 1758, but was renovated in the 1850s. It does not seem clear how much is left from the original 18th century structure, but it was likely a single-family home that, like many other colonial-era Thames Street buildings, was converted into commercial space in the mid-19th century. By the 1860s, the ground floor of the building was the site of H.W. Pray’s watchmaking and jewelry business, and in 1873 the business was acquired by Edwin C. Blaine. He was still running the business here when the first photo was taken, and the watch sign became a longtime feature here on Thames Street.

To the right of Blaine’s store was another old commercial building that probably dated to the 18th or early 19th century. The building is too far from the camera to read any signs, but city directories of the mid-1880s show that it was the home of Richard Swan’s piano and organ business. However, the old building was demolished soon after the first photo was taken, and in 1894 it was replaced by the current three-story brick building. Known as Music Hall, it was owned by liquor dealer Dennis W. Sheehan, and early tenants included James A. Eddy’s grocery store and William H. Hilton’s hairdresser shop.

Of the three buildings in the first photo, only the Blaine building in the middle is still standing. Blaine operated his shop here until his death in 1904, and his son Joseph W. Blaine subsequently took over the jewelry business. He would run it for nearly 50 years, before finally selling it in 1952, a year before his own death. The store would remain here for many more years, still bearing the Blaine name, before finally closing sometime in the 1970s, after more than a century in business. However, the building is still there, with an exterior that is essentially unaltered. Even the storefront is mostly unchanged, and a large clock still hangs from the second floor, as a reminder of the watch and jewelry business that was once here.

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.

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.

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.

Old Colony House, Newport, Rhode Island

The Old Colony House at Washington Square in Newport, around 1885. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The building in 2017:

In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, Newport was one of the most prosperous ports in the American colonies, and perhaps no building better symbolized this than the Colony House. Located at the eastern end of the Parade, now Washington Square, it was constructed between 1739 and 1741 to house Rhode Island’s colonial legislature, which at the time alternated sessions between the colony’s five county seats. It was designed by architect Richard Munday, who had previously built Newport’s Trinity Church, and the exterior was heavily inspired by Christopher Wren, the British architect who had transformed London in the aftermath of the Great London Fire of 1666. On the interior, the first floor consisted of an open hall, while the second floor had three rooms, including a Council Chamber on one side and a Chamber of Deputies on the other side, where the colonial legislature met.

The Colony House remained in use until the American Revolution, when the British occupied the city from 1776 to 1779. During this time, the building was used as barracks for British soldiers, and following the occupation it was used by the French as a hospital. Both the war and the British occupation caused considerable harm to Newport’s commerce, and the city never fully regained its prewar prosperity. However, Newport remained one of the state’s five capitals, and the Colony House continued to be used by the state legislature.

One particularly important meeting occurred in May 1790, when delegates to the state’s ratifying convention gathered here to vote on whether to ratify the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution had been written nearly three years earlier, and had gone into effect in 1789, but Rhode Island was the last of the original 13 states to hold out on ratifying it. Here, the delegates met for three days before moving to the larger Second Baptist Church for the last three days of the convention, where they ultimately voted to join the union as the 13th state, by a razor thin margin of 34 to 32.

Rhode Island’s unusual arrangement of five state capitals continued until 1854, when Newport and Providence were designated as the two capital cities, with legislative sessions alternating between the Colony House in Newport and the Old State House in Providence. Dual capitals were not unheard of during this time – Connecticut had a similar arrangement with Hartford and New Haven until 1875 – but Rhode Island continued this practice until 1900, when the state government was consolidated in Providence and a new State House was built there a few years later.

Although no longer a state capitol, the Colony House was used as the Newport County courthouse from 1900 to 1926, with the District Court on the first floor and the Superior Court on the second floor. After its use as a courthouse, the building was renovated by Norman Isham, an architectural historian and Rhode Island native who was responsible for restoring a number of historic buildings in Newport.

The Colony House was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and today it still stands here as one of the best-preserved Colonial-era public buildings in the country. Unlike some of its more famous contemporaries, such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Old State House in Boston, it has not undergone significant changes, and survives as a masterpiece of Georgian-style architecture. The building is still owned by the state of Rhode Island, and it is currently operated as a museum by the Newport Historical Society.

Newport Tower, Newport, Rhode Island

The Newport Tower at Touro Park, around 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This stone tower is generally considered to be among the oldest existing structures in Newport, as well as one of the oldest in the entire state. However, the actual age of the tower has been the subject of much speculation over the years, leading to a number of alternate theories regarding its origins. Conventional historical evidence suggests that it was built in the 1670s as a windmill, but others argue that it is actually much older, with construction variously being ascribed to Vikings, the Knights Templar, medieval Portuguese explorers, and even the Chinese.

The most credible explanation is that the tower was once a windmill that had been built by Benedict Arnold (1615-1678), the colonial president and governor of Rhode Island whose great-grandson of the same name was the notorious traitor of the American Revolution. The tower appears to have been built on his property at some point in the early 1670s, and was mentioned in his 1677 will as “my stone built Wind Mill.” The overall design, with a stone exterior supported by arches on the ground floor, is also consistent with contemporary English windmills, such as the Chesterton Windmill in Warwickshire, which gives further credence to the fact that this tower was a 17th century windmill.

Despite this credible evidence, over the years many have suggested alternate explanations, with probably the most widespread theory claiming that it was built by Vikings during their pre-Columbian explorations of North America. Long considered to be myths, the Norse stories of trans-oceanic explorations were not given much serious attention until 1837, when Danish historian Carl Christian Rafn proposed that these ancient sagas were based on actual voyages to North America. He included the Newport Tower, as well as the nearby Dighton Rock in Massachusetts, as evidence of Norse settlement of the area, and the theory was further popularized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1841 poem “The Skeleton in Armor,” where he writes:

There for my lady’s bower
Built I the lofty tower,
Which, to this very hour,
Stands looking seaward.

As it turned out, Rafn was correct about Norse settlement in North America, with archeological evidence verifying that Vikings briefly established a colony in Newfoundland. However, the southward extent of Viking exploration is unclear, and there have been no other definitive archeological finds beyond Newfoundland. There is no evidence that Vikings carved the mysterious Dighton Rock, and the connection to the Newport Tower seems equally spurious. Additionally, the tower bears little resemblance to anything in Norse architecture, while strongly resembling other 17th century English windmills.

Other alternate theories have included speculation that it was built by medieval Scottish Knights Templar, by 15th century Chinese explorers, or by early 16th century Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real. However, all of these theories, including the Viking one, face a number of challenges. Newport was settled by Europeans in 1639, and the island had been thoroughly explored more than a century earlier by Giovanni da Verrazzano, yet there are no surviving accounts of this tower, which would have undoubtedly stood out to early settlers as being highly unusual if it had been there when they arrived. In colonial-era documents,s such as Arnold’s will, it is referred to only as a stone mill, and it would not be for another two centuries after Newport’s establishment that people such as Rafn began to question its origins.

Along with the historical evidence, scientific evidence has also cast serious doubt on the alternate theories and further bolstered the windmill theory. An 1848 study compared the mortar in the tower to that of other 17th century buildings in Newport, and found the samples to have essentially the same composition. Nearly 150 years later, radiocarbon dating futher verified this, finding that the mortar dates back to sometime between 1635 and 1698. Along with this, archaeological digs in the vicinity of the tower have found plenty of 17th century artifacts, but absolutely nothing from earlier centuries.

The tower, along with the surrounding property, was donated to the city in 1854 by Judah Touro, a wealthy New Orleans businessman and philanthropist whose father, Isaac Touro, had been the rabbi of Newport’s Touro Synagogue. This land, located between Mill Street, Pelham Street, and Bellevue Avenue, became Touro Park, with the tower serving as its centerpiece. By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the tower’s alleged Viking connections were already well-established, and at least one contemporary guidebook, the 1916 A Guide to Newport, mentioned both the Viking and windmill theories, but more strongly argued in favor of the former. Certainly, the romantic appeal of the tower as a place where Viking warriors defended their settlement is far greater than that of a windmill where Benedict Arnold’s ancestors ground cornmeal, but the historical, archaeological, and scientific evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

Today, very little has changed in this scene, nearly 130 years after the first photo was taken. The park’s landscaping is essentially the same, and the tower is still surrounded by a short iron fence, with no changes to the tower itself. Although most likely not a Viking ruin, nor an artifact from some other previously-unknown visitors, the tower is undeniably an important historic landmark as a rare surviving 17th century windmill and one of the oldest structures in the state. Along with the rest of the neighborhood, it now forms part of the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark district in 1968.