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.

Marlborough Street, Newport, Rhode Island

Looking west on Marlborough Street from Farewell Street in Newport, around 1911. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

This scene on Marlborough Street includes several notable Newport landmarks, with the most significant being the White Horse Tavern on the far right. This building is perhaps the oldest in the city, dating back to before 1673. It was just a two-story, two-room house at the time, but it was later expanded, and by 1687 it was being operated as a tavern by William Mayes, Sr. His son, William Mayes, Jr., had a career as a pirate before returning to Newport, retiring from piracy, and taking over the operation of the tavern in 1703. Within a few years, though, his sister Mary and her husband, Robert Nichols, owned the property, and it would remain in the Nichols family for nearly two more centuries.

In the years before the Colony House was built in the 1730s, the colonial legislature often met here at the White Horse Tavern, which acquired its current name around this same time. Some 40 years later, it was used to house British soldiers during the American Revolution, and after the war the building was expanded to its current size, including the addition of the large gambrel roof. It would continue to be owned by the Nichols family until it was finally sold in 1895. The first photo was taken only about 16 years later, and at this point it had been converted into a rooming house.

The White Horse Tavern was already an old building in 1807 when the other prominent landmark in this scene, St. Paul’s Methodist Church, was completed. Long known for its religious tolerance, Rhode Island was among the first places where Methodism took root in America in the late 18th century. However, the Newport congregation caused a considerable stir in the Methodist community when they built this church. Although similar to other New England churches of the era, it was far more elaborate than the plain meeting houses that early Methodists worshipped in. It is considered to be the first Methodist church in America to have a steeple, bell, and pews, and early Methodist leader Bishop Francis Asbury is said to have “lifted his hands with holy horror when he first saw it and predicted that a church which began with a steeple would end with a choir and perhaps even an organ.”

Bishop Asbury was ultimately proved right in his prediction about the organ, with the congregation installing one in the church in the 1850s. However, an even more significant change had come about 15 years earlier in 1842, when the entire building was raised eight feet and a new, full-story foundation was built beneath it to make space for a parish hall. Otherwise, the exterior of the church has not significantly changed, although the building was heavily damaged by a fire in 1881. However, it was subsequently restored, and the first photo was taken about 20 years later.

In more than a century since the first photo was taken, most of the historic buildings on both sides of Marlborough Street have been demolished. Even the White Horse Tavern itself was threatened with demolition. Badly deteriorated and neglected more than 50 years after it became a rooming house, it was nearly demolished in the 1950s to build a gas station here on the corner. Instead, though, it was purchased by the Preservation Society of Newport County, who restored it and reopened it as a tavern in 1957. It remains in operation today, and is marketed as America’s oldest tavern. Further down the street, St. Paul’s Methodist Church is also still standing, and still houses the same congregation. The 2017 photo shows it in the midst of a restoration project, but otherwise it is largely unchanged from the first photo, and both it and the White Horse Tavern are now contributing properties in the Newport Historic District, which is a National Historic Landmark district.

Brick Market, Newport, Rhode Island

The Brick Market on Thames Street, opposite Washington Square in Newport, in 1890. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Downtown Newport is renowned for its many colonial-era buildings, but one of the finest is the Brick Market, located along Thames Street at the western end of Washington Square. It is a prominent architectural landmark, and is one of only a handful of surviving buildings that are known to have been designed by Peter Harrison, one of the first formally-trained architects in America. Born in England in 1716, Harrison came to Rhode Island in 1740 but returned to England a few years later, where he studied architecture. Upon returning to the colonies, he designed several prominent buildings in New England, including King’s Chapel in Boston, Christ Church in Cambridge, and the Redwood Library and Touro Synagogue here in Newport.

The Brick Market was the last of his confirmed works, and is shows the influence that English architecture had on his designs. The building’s design was based on the Old Somerset House in London, with Harrison copying elements such as the arcade on the lower floor, the pilasters on the upper floors, and even the alternating arched and triangular window pediments. He designed the Brick Market in the early 1760s, and construction began in 1762. However, financial difficulties delayed the construction, and it was not completed until 1772.

Upon completion, the building consisted of an open-air market on the ground floor, similar to other contemporary New England marketplaces such as Faneuil Hall, while upper floors were used for offices and dry goods storage. However, over the years the building’s use changed several times, starting in the 1790s when the upper section was converted into a theater. Then, in 1842, the building was converted into Newport’s city hall, which included removing the third floor and replacing it with seating galleries. It was still in use as city hall when the first photo was taken in 1890, and it would remain so for another decade, until the current city hall was completed in 1900.

By the early 20th century the Brick Market was in poor condition, but it was restored in the 1920s by Norman Isham, an architectural historian and professor who specialized in preserving colonial-era buildings in Rhode Island. The building is now owned by the Newport Historical Society and operated as the Museum of Newport History, where it stands amid modern shopping plazas. All of the other historic buildings on the west side of Thames Street between Marlborough Street and Memorial Boulevard have since been demolished, and today the only other building still standing from the first photo is the one on the far left, at the corner of Thames and Touro Streets. Known as the Henry B. Young Building, it was built in 1861 but was heavily altered in the 20th century, including the removal of the top floor, and today it bears little resemblance to the building from the first photo.