Thames Street from Church Street, Newport, RI

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

The scene in 2017:

The occasion for the patriotic flags and bunting covering the buildings in the first photo was the Newport Carnival, which was held in August 1906. It was a significant event, with both the New York Yacht Club and the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic fleet in Newport at the time, and the carnival featured parades, concerts, automobile, motorcycle, and yacht races, and rowing contests between the battleship crews. Prominent visitors included President Theodore Roosevelt’s son Archie, who arrived with Joshua Slocum aboard the Spray, a yacht that Slocum had successfully sailed around the world nearly a decade earlier.

The first photo shows a variety of commercial buildings on either side of Thames Street, a major north-south road that runs along Newport’s waterfront. Some of the buildings in the distance can also be seen in the first photo of the previous post, and housed businesses such as a book and stationery store, a printing company, an electrician, an employment agency, and the Army and Navy YMCA. Closer to the camera, the businesses in the foreground of this scene included the Hall & Lyon apothecary shop, John Rogers’s music shop, and the Newport One Price Clothing Company. On the far right side of the photo, there is also a sign for bowling, pool, and billiards on one of the second floor windows.

The majority of the buildings on Thames Street in the first photo were wood-framed, with two or three stories, and many dates back to the early or mid-19th century. Probably the oldest in this scene was the one in the center, where the One Price Clothing Company was located. It was built in 1785 as the home of George Champlin, but around the 1850s it was apparently converted into a commercial block, with a new Italianate-style facade that matched architectural tastes of the era. This same Italianate style can also be seen in the two buildings on the right, which were both constructed in the late 1850s for the Caswell & Hazard Company, an apothecary that later went through a variety of name changes, eventually becoming Hall & Lyon by the time the first photo was taken.

Thames Street did not significantly change until the late 1960s, when the large-scale redevelopment of the waterfront, including the construction of America’s Cup Avenue, led to the demolition of almost everything on the west side of the street. Today, the four-lane America’s Cup Avenue is just to the left of this scene, dividing the center of Newport from its waterfront area, but the east side of Thames Street has survived largely unscathed. Some of the buildings further in the distance were demolished in the 20th century, but most of the ones in the foreground are still standing. These buildings are now contributing properties in the Newport Historic District, a National Historic Landmark district that was established in 1968 and encompasses the many well-preserved 18th and 19th century buildings in downtown Newport.

Thames Street from Cotton Court, Newport, RI

Looking north on Thames Street, from the corner of Cotton Court in Newport, around 1908. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

At the turn of the 20th century, Newport’s Thames Street featured an eclectic mix of low-rise commercial buildings that were built throughout the 19th century in a variety of architectural styles. Of the three buildings in the foreground of the first photo, the oldest was probably the one in the middle, which likely dated back to the early 19th century and may have originally been a single-family home. By the time the first photo was taken, the ground floor housed A.E. Burland & Co. electricians, along with an employment agency for male and female servants. Just to the right of it, at the corner of Cotton Court, was the Hammett Building, a three-story Italianate building that was built around 1850. In the first photo, it housed Simon Hart’s book, stationery, and picture framing shop, with Ward Printing Company on the second floor.

The third building prominent building in this scene, on the left side of the photo, was much newer than the other two. Known as the Horgan Building, it was built in 1896 with an ornate Classical Revival design that contrasted with the more modest wood-frame buildings around it. When the first photo was taken, the ground floor housed the McMullin-Holmes 5 and 10 cent store, while the two upper floors were the Army and Navy YMCA, which served the military personnel stationed at the nearby naval base here in Newport. The YMCA had moved into this building in 1903, but would subsequently move into a much larger building at Washington Square, which was completed in 1911.

In more than a century since the first photo was taken, Thames Street has seen some dramatic changes, particularly on the west side, but the east side has retained some of its 19th century buildings, as seen here. The older building in the center is long gone, and the lot is now occupied by a modern commercial building that is set back from the street. The Horgan Building on the left is still standing, although it has undergone significant alterations, most notably the removal of the top floor. Only the Hammett Building on the right side still bears a close resemblance to its appearance in the first photo, although it has also been remodeled over the years, including a new storefront and a completely different window arrangement.

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.