Benjamin James Building, Newport, RI

The northeast corner of Thames and Franklin Streets in Newport, around 1885. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The building in 2017:

Newport has many fine examples of architecture from a wide variety of styles, ranging from the colonial era to the 20th century. However, there are comparatively few examples of Federal-style architecture, which was common throughout the northeast in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This era coincided with a stagnation in Newport’s economy, which lasted from the American Revolution until the 1830s, when the city started to become a popular resort community. As a result, there was a limited amount of new construction, and none of Newport’s great architectural landmarks date to this period.

This modest commercial block, located at the corner of Thames and Franklin Streets, was built toward the end of this period, with the National Register of Historic Places inventory listing it as having been built in 1827 by Benjamin James. The early history of the building seems unclear, but by 1860 the ground floor was the home of William Alderson & Co., a wholesale tobacco and alcohol store. An 1860 advertisement in the Newport Daily News listed a wide variety of tobacco, pipes, cigar cases, snuff boxes, and related merchandise. In addition, the advertisement listed “Fine old Wines, Champagnes, Syrups, Cordials, Bitters, &c., fine old Brandies, Hollands, Gin, Wolfe’s Genuine Aromatic Schiedam Schnapps, and Liquors generally.” They were also “Agents for the Columbian Brewery Co.’s Pale and Amber Ale and Porter,” and offered “Goods delivered to any part of the city free of expense.”

By the end of the 1860s, the tobacco shop here was owned by John D. Richardson, “dealer in Havana and domestic cigars, fine meerschaum and briar pipes, tobacco, snuff, and smokers’ articles of all descriptions,” as listed in the 1869 city directory. Richardson was in his late 30s at the time, and during the 1870 census he and his wife Abby were living in an apartment above the store, along with their 12-year-old son John, Jr. According to that same census, Richardson did not own any real estate, but he had a personal estate valued at $2,000, equal to nearly $40,000 today.

The Richardson’s later moved into their own house at some point in the 1870s, but John was still running his business here in this building on Thames Street when the first photo was taken around 1885. The photo also shows a drugstore here in this building, in the storefront on the left side. Opened in 1885 by Charles M. Cole, the store sold “Drugs and medicines, a complete assortment of hair, tooth and nail brushes, perfumes, soaps, etc.,” as indicated in that year’s city directory. Like Richardson had previously done, Cole also lived in an apartment above the store, although by 1890 he and his wife Ella were living in a house elsewhere in Newport, along with their young son Norman.

John D. Richardson died in 1891, but his family remained in the cigar business for many years. The firm later became Richardson & Tilley, and operated out of this building until at least 1929, the last year that the company appears in the city directory. Cole, however, remained in business in this building for nearly 50 years, running his drugstore in the storefront on the left side until his retirement in 1933, two years before his death at the age of 77. In an article about his retirement, the Newport Mercury and Weekly News noted that “In all the years the structure has remained with no alteration, except a front installed by Mr. Cole some years ago, the old paneling and ornamentation remaining in its original form.”

Today, more than 130 years after the first photo was taken, the building’s exterior still has not significantly changed. There have been some minor changes, such as a large window on the right side, and the some of the old details, such as the window lintels, have been removed. The drugstore and the cigar shop are long gone, but the building itself still stands well-preserved, and it is now part of Newport Historic District, a National Historic Landmark district that was established in 1968 in downtown Newport.

Thames and Pelham Streets, Newport, RI (2)

Looking north on Thames Street from the corner of Pelham Street in Newport, in August 1906. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

As with an earlier post, the first photo here shows Thames Street decorates in patriotic bunting for the Newport Carnival, which was held in August 1906. The building on the right side, at the corner of Pelham Street, was the United States Hotel, which had been one of the city’s finest hotels when it was built in 1836. Originally owned by the Townsend family, the hotel had replaced the earlier Townsend’s Coffee House, which was built in 1785 and had been a popular gathering place for Newport’s leading citizens in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The United States Hotel enjoyed similar success in the mid-19th century, and for many years it was the site of the state legislature’s “‘Lection Day” celebrations. Held on the last Tuesday of May, this was the day when the results of the statewide April elections were announced and the winners were inaugurated, and the occasion was a major holiday here in Newport.

By the time the first photo was taken, the ‘Lection Day festivities were a thing of the past, and the state legislature no longer met here in Newport. The United States Hotel has long since been eclipsed by more fashionable Gilded Age hotels, and it had gone through a succession of ownership changes since the Townsend family sold the property in 1858. In 1896, for example, it was being run by George E. Houghton, who declared in a full-page advertisement in the city directory that the hotel had been “thoroughly renovated and refurnished,” and offered “steam heat, electric bells, and table unsurpassed,” and overall it was “the best $2.50 hotel in New England.” When the first photo was taken less than a decade later, though, the hotel was being run by Wulf Petersen, who advertised that it was “lately renovated and under new management,” and was “open the entire year.”

Aside from the United States Hotel, the other historically-significant building in the first photo was the one just beyond it to the left. Built in 1817, this elegant Federal-style building was the home of the Rhode Island Union Bank, which later became the Union National Bank of Newport. The building was designed by Asher Benjamin, a prominent and influential early 19th century architect whose works can be found across New England. However, despite his prolific career, and Newport’s reputation for outstanding architectural works, this bank was Benjamin’s only known commission in the city. Part of this may be due to the fact that the early 19th century was somewhat of a lull in Newport’s prosperity; the city’s shipping industry had never fully recovered after the American Revolution, and its renaissance as a wealthy resort community would not start for several more decades. Consequently, there was limited demand for new buildings, and little need for Asher Benjamin and other architects of his era.

The Union National Bank was still located here when the first photo was taken, and the building was also the home of the People’s Library, which was located on the right side of the building. When the People’s Library – later renamed the Newport Public Library – was established in 1869, the concept of public libraries was still in its infancy in the United States. Members-only libraries, such as Newport’s own Redwood Library, had existed since the 18th century, but it was not until the mid-19th century that public libraries began to take hold, particularly here in the northeast. The library moved into the storefront on the right side in 1870, and would remain here for more than 40 years, until moving out in 1914.

In the years after the first photo was taken, this scene underwent significant changes. The United States Hotel closed in 1918, and remained vacant for many years. Badly deteriorated, it was finally demolished in 1933, leaving only the first floor. This surviving section appears to still be standing, having been incorporated into the present-day commercial building, but all traces of the original hotel building are long gone. In the meantime, bank building to the left was demolished in the 1950s, but like its neighbor it appears part of the first floor survived, and still stands in the present-day scene. However, despite these dramatic changes in the foreground, the two buildings in the distance on the left have survived relatively unchanged, and today they form part of the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island

The Touro Synagogue on Touro Street in Newport, sometime between 1870 and 1890. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The synagogue in 2017:

Rhode Island was established by colonists seeking religious freedom, and for many years it was a haven for a variety of religious minorities. Some of the first Jewish settlers in the present-day United States arrived in Newport as early as 1658, and by the mid-18th century there was a sizable Jewish community here, drawn by both religious tolerance and business opportunities in the thriving seaport town. The decades prior to the American Revolution were Newport’s heyday as a commercial port, and one of the most prosperous merchants was Aaron Lopez, a Jewish immigrant from Portugal who arrived here in Newport in 1752.

Together with Rabbi Isaac Touro and other leading Jews in Newport, Lopez helped to establish this synagogue, and they hired architect Peter Harrison to design the building. Considered to be the first professionally-trained architect in the American colonies, Harrison designed several other buildings in Newport, including the Redwood Library on Bellevue Avenue and the Brick Market at Washington Square, and he also designed Christ Church in Cambridge and King’s Chapel in Boston. His synagogue, though, is considered by some to have been his finest work, since it demonstrated his ability to blend classical architecture with the specific requirements of Jewish tradition.

The synagogue was completed in 1763, right at the peak of Newport’s prosperity. However, the American Revolution began just over a decade later, causing a severe disruption of trade as well as a long British occupation of the town. Newport never fully recovered its prewar prosperity as a seaport, and many of the Jewish residents left during the war. Rabbi Touro fled to Jamaica at the start of the British occupation in 1776, and Aaron Lopez also left around the same time, moving first to Portsmouth and then to Providence and to Massachusetts. He lost much of his fortune in the war, and he ultimately died in 1782 while on his way back to Newport, when his horse and carriage fell into a pond in Smithfield.

With most of Newport’s Jewish population gone, the synagogue closed in 1791 and remained vacant for the next 60 years. However, it was not completely forgotten, and Isaac Touro’s sons, Abraham and Judah, both left large bequests to maintain the building. These funds enabled restoration projects in the 1820s and 1850s, as well as the granite and cast iron fence, which was built around the property in 1842. Beginning in the 1850s, the synagogue was used intermittently, as Newport started to become a popular summer resort community. In 1883, around the time that the first photo was taken, the synagogue was finally reopened on a permanent basis, nearly a century after the original congregation had left Newport.

Nearly 135 years later, this scene has not undergone any significant changes. The building is still an active synagogue, and it stands as a reminder of Newport’s former preeminence as a seaport and its tradition for religious tolerance. Architecturally, it is still well-preserved, and stands as one of the few surviving works of one of the country’s most important early architects. The building was designated as a National Historic Site in 1946, and in 1968 it became part of the Newport Historic District, a National Historic Landmark district.

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.

Oliver W. Mills House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 148 Deerfield Road in Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

This brick, Federal-style house was built in 1824, and was originally the home of Oliver W. Mills, who built it shortly before his 1825 marriage to Anna Phelps. Mills was a farmer, but he was also a brickmaker, and he produced the bricks that were used in the construction of his house. His was one of many small-scale brickworks that operated in Windsor during the first half of the 19th century, and by 1850 Mills employed three workers and produced 300,000 bricks per year. He and Anna went on to live here for the rest of their lives, and they had five children: Oliver, Helen, Mary, Alfred, and Arthur.

The younger Oliver inherited this house after his father’s death in 1866, and during the 1870 census he was living here with his mother, plus his wife Sarah and their two young children, Annie and Oliver. He was listed as a farmer, with real estate valued at $11,400 and a personal estate of $2,085, for a net worth of over $250,000 in today’s dollars. The subsequent census, in 1880, provides a more detailed account of the farm’s productivity, which included eight acres of tilled land, 22 acres of pastureland and orchards, and 100 acres of woodland. In 1879, the farm had a diversified output that included 400 pounds of butter, 800 dozen eggs, 100 bushels of corn, 30 bushels of rye, 200 bushels of potatoes, and 4,000 pounds of tobacco.

Sarah died in 1899, and Oliver in 1901, but the house would remain in the family for many more years. His son Oliver inherited the property, and lived here with his wife Catherine and their daughter Marguerite. Like his predecessors, he ran a farm here, but he also worked for many years for the National Biscuit Company, the company known today as Nabisco. Marguerite became a kindergarten teacher, and was later involved in a number of community organizations, ranging from the Windsor Historical Society to the Garden Club of Windsor. She and her parents were still living here when the first photo was taken, but Oliver died soon after, in 1943. Catherine died 10 years later, and Marguerite remained here as the fourth and last generation of the Mills family to live here, owning the house until her death in 1985.

Today, most of the former Mills farm has been developed. Logans Way, a short cul-de-sac, is now located directly behind the house, with an industrial development further in the distance. Just to the left of the house, high voltage power lines now cross the property. However, the house itself is still standing, and remains an excellent example of brick, Federal-style architecture. Very little has changed in its appearance since the first photo was taken about 80 years ago, and the house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Amos Eno House, Simsbury, Connecticut

The house at 731 Hopmeadow Street in Simsbury, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

This house was built in 1822 as the home of Elisha Phelps, who belonged to one of the leading families of Simsbury. His father, Noah Phelps, was a lawyer and judge who served as an officer during the American Revolution, and later served as major general in the state militia. Likewise, Elisha became a lawyer, graduating from Yale and from Litchfield Law School before being admitted to the bar in 1803. He married his wife, Lucy Smith, in 1810, and they had five children, although their first two died in infancy.

Aside from his law practice, Elisha Phelps had an extensive political career. He served in the state House of Representatives in 1807, 1812, 1814-1818, before being elected to Congress as one of Connecticut’s at-large representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served one term, from 1819 to 1821, before returning to the state legislature, where he served as Speaker of the House in 1821, and as a state senator from 1822 to 1824. He was subsequently re-elected to two terms in Congress, from 1825 to 1829, and then served for another year as the state’s Speaker of the House in 1829, before becoming the state comptroller from 1831 to 1837.

When Elisha and Lucy Phelps moved into this house in 1822, they had three surviving children. The oldest, John, was about eight years old at the time, and their daughters Lucy and Mary were about four and three, respectively. The three of them would spend the rest of their childhood here, and John would go on to attend Trinity College in Hartford, graduating in 1832. Like his father and grandfather, John became a lawyer, and in 1837 he moved to Springfield, Missouri, where he would become a prominent politician. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1845 to 1863, and as a colonel in the Union army during the Civil War. He was appointed by Abraham Lincoln as military governor of Arkansas in 1862, although the Senate never confirmed his appointment. However, he later went on to become governor of Missouri, serving from 1877 to 1881.

In the meantime, Elisha Phelps lived here in this house until his death in 1847, and his son-in-law, Amos Eno, inherited the property. Eno was also a Simsbury native, and had married Elisha’s daughter Lucy in 1836. However, the couple moved to New York City, where Eno established himself as a merchant and real estate developer. He invested heavily in Manhattan real estate, including building the Fifth Avenue Hotel at Madison Square in 1859. At the time, Madison Square was considered too far uptown for a fashionable hotel, but the location proved to be ideal as the city grew. He also owned land at Longacre Square, which was later renamed Times Square, and he owned a number of undeveloped lots on the Upper West Side. By the time he died in 1898, Eno’s various real estate investments were valued at over $20 million, or around $600 million in 2018 dollars.

Amos Eno’s primary residence was in New York City, but he maintained this house as his summer home, far removed from the heat, crowds, and smells of the city. During one such summer, in 1865, his grandson, Gifford Pinchot, was born here in this house. The son of James W. Pinchot and Amos’s daughter Mary, Gifford would go on to become perhaps the most notable of the many prominent descendants of Elisha Phelps. Like many of his ancestors, Gifford Pinchot attended Yale, graduating in 1889. He became a forester and conservationist, and in 1897 joined Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation-oriented Boone and Crockett Club.

In 1898, Pinchot was appointed as the nation’s Chief of the Division of Forestry, serving under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1905, the Division of Forestry was reorganized as the United States Forest Service, and he became the agency’s first chief. He would remain in this position until 1910, when William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor in the White House, dismissed him following a dispute between Pinchot and the Secretary of the Interior. Roosevelt took this dismissal personally, as Pinchot was a close friend, and the controversy helped lead to the 1912 split in the Republican Party, between Roosevelt’s progressive wing and Taft’s more conservative wing.

Pinchot would become a major figure in the progressive movement of the 1910s, and served as president of the National Conservation Commission from 1910 to 1925. He was also touted as a possible Progressive Party candidate for president in 1916, although Pinchot declined interest and the party ultimately endorsed Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes. However, Pinchot’s political career continued in his home state of Pennsylvania, where he served as governor from 1923 to 1927, and 1931 to 1935.

During Pinchot’s rise to national prominence, his birthplace here in Simsbury remained in his extended family. He spent many summers at the house during his childhood, and in later years would often visit his grandparents here. Amos Eno died in 1898, only a few months before Pinchot’s appointment to head the Division of Forestry, and his summer home in Simsbury was inherited by his daughter, Antoinette Wood. She made substantial alterations to the house, including having the original gabled roof replaced with a large gambrel roof, and adding a large wing to the rear of the house. She also hired prominent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park, to create new landscaping plans for the property.

Antoinette Wood owned the house until her death in 1930, only a few years before the first photo was taken. It would remain in the Eno family until 1948, when it was sold and became a restaurant, known as The Simsbury House. Then, in 1960, it was purchased by the town of Simsbury, and underwent extensive renovations in 1985. The house is now the Simsbury 1820 House bed and breakfast, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places, as both an individual listing and as a contributing property in the Simsbury Center Historic District.