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.

Thames and Pelham Streets, Newport, RI (3)

Looking south on Thames Street toward the corner of Pelham Street in Newport, around 1885. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The scene in the first photo shows a mix of commercial buildings on the east side of Thames Street, from the corner of Pelham Street to Green Street a block away in the distance. Starting on the left side is the United States Hotel, which is explained in further detail in a previous post. Built in 1836 on the site of the earlier Townsend’s Coffee House, it was one of Newport’s leading hotels of the mid-19th century, and in the first photo the building also housed William P. Weeden’s “Ladies & Gent’s Restaurant” on the left and William T. Rutherford’s cigar shop on the right.

In the middle of both photos is the Newton Building, which is also explained in more detail in a previous post. This Romanesque-style commercial block was built a few years before the first photo was taken, and housed several businesses including the Adams Express Company and Frank L. Powell’s pharmacy. Just beyond the Newton Building, in sharp architectural contrast, was an 18th century house that had been converted into commercial use around the mid-19th century. It had been the childhood home of Elizabeth Champlin Mason, and it was where, in 1811, she married Oliver Hazard Perry, the Newport native who would later achieve fame as a naval hero in the War of 1812.

To the right of the former Mason house is the brick, three-story Savings Bank of Newport Building. The bank had been established in 1819, and occupied several different locations before this building was completed in the mid-1870s. When the first photo was taken, the building also housed the Aquidneck National Bank. However, in the early 1890s this bank moved across Green Street to the newly-built Kinsley Building, a two-story, Romanesque-style stone building that can be seen in the distance of the 2017 photo.

In more than 130 years since the first photo was taken, Thames Street has undergone some dramatic changes, most notably in the late 1960s when all of the buildings on the right side of the street were demolished to build America’s Cup Avenue parallel to Thames Street. Some of the older buildings on the left side have also been demolished or altered beyond recognition, including the United States Hotel. It closed in 1918, and sat vacant for the next 15 years until the top three floors were removed in 1933. The current building on the site appears to be the surviving first floor of the United States Hotel, although there are no recognizable details left from the first photo.

Further in the distance, the Mason house was demolished in the late 1950s to build a parking lot, but the two late 19th century buildings on either side of it – the Newton Building and the Savings Bank of Newport Building – are still standing, with few significant exterior alterations. Although built a few years after the first photo was taken, the Kinsley Building is also still there, and all three of these buildings are now part of the Newport Historic District, a National Historic Landmark district that was established in 1968, encompassing much of Newport’s historic downtown area.

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 Green Streets, Newport, RI

Looking north on Thames Street from Green Street in Newport, around 1885. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

These photos were taken a block south of the ones in the previous post, and some of those buildings can be seen in the distance on the left side. Closer in the foreground, in the block between Green and Pelham Streets, the first photo shows three commercial buildings. The one at the corner of Pelham Street, known as the Newton Building, was also featured in a previous post, and was built shortly before the first photo was taken. Just to the right of it was a smaller wood-frame building that dated back to the late 18th century and was likely the oldest building in the first photo. Finally, in the immediate foreground of both photos, is the Savings Bank of Newport, which was built in the mid-1870s.

The wood-framed building in the center of the first photo was built sometime prior to the 1790s, and was owned first by Philip Robinson, then by Robert and William Stoddard, and in 1791 it was sold to Christopher Champlin, a prominent merchant. His daughter Margaret and her husband, Dr. Benjamin Mason, lived here in this house, where they raised four children, including their daughter Elizabeth. In 1811, Elizabeth married naval officer and Newport native Oliver Hazard Perry, in a ceremony that was held here in this house. Perry would subsequently achieve fame as a hero in the War of 1812, and upon returning to Newport he was reunited with Elizabeth here at her parents’ house. Perry died relatively young in 1819, but this house remained in Elizabeth’s family for many years, with her mother Margaret living here until her death in 1841.

By the time the first photo was taken, this section of Thames Street has become predominantly commercial, and the former Mason house had been altered with a storefront on the first floor. It was flanked on both sides by modern commercial blocks, including the Savings Bank of Newport, which appears prominently in the foreground of this scene. Established in 1819, the bank had several different locations in the city before building this brick, three-story Italianate building at the corner of Thames and Green Streets in the mid-1870s. As seen in lettering on the windows in the first photo, the bank shared it with the Aquidneck National Bank, which later moved into its own building on the other side of Green Street in the early 1890s.

More than 130 years after the first photo was taken, there have not been many significant changes in this scene. Several of the buildings in the distance have either been demolished or drastically altered, and the historic Mason House was demolished in the late 1950s and replaced with a parking lot. However, both the Newton Building and the Savings Bank of Newport Building are still standing, with few significant changes aside from the altered first-floor storefront on the bank building. Both of these buildings, along with the rest of the downtown area, are now part of the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Thames and Pelham Streets, Newport, RI

The southeast corner of Thames and Pelham Streets in Newport, in 1895. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Known as the Newton Building, this Romanesque-style commercial block was built sometime between 1883 and 1893 at the corner of Pelham and Thames Streets. The first photo was taken when the building was still fairly new, but it shows the damage that it had sustained during a hailstorm. Nearly every pane of glass is broken on the upper floors of the Pelham Street side, and several people can be seen in the second-floor windows, looking at the photographer. At the time, the building’s commercial tenants included the Adams Express Company and the New York and Boston Despatch Express Company, along with Frank L. Powell’s pharmacy at the corner storefront.

More than 120 years after the first photo was taken, this building remains remarkably well-preserved, aside from minor alterations to the storefront and the addition of a fire escape on the left side. The paint does hide some of the original details, though, since Romanesque-style architecture usually featured unpainted stones of varying colors, but overall it stands as a good example of late 19th century commercial architecture. Along with the rest of the neighborhood, the Newton Building is now part of the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

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.