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.

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.

First Baptist Church, Newport, Rhode Island

The First Baptist Church, seen from the corner of Spring and Sherman Streets in Newport, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Settled in the 1630s as a haven for religious minorities, Rhode Island is home to some of the oldest Baptist congregations in the United States, including Roger Williams’s First Baptist Church in America, which was founded around 1638 in Providence. Around the same time, Baptist minister John Clarke started holding services in Portsmouth, on the northern end of Aquidneck Island, but he subsequently moved to Newport, on the southern end of the island, where he lived for the rest of his life. Here, he founded what would become the First Baptist Church of Newport, and he became an important figure in colonial Rhode Island, including obtaining the Rhode Island Royal Charter from Charles II in 1663.

Also known as the Second Baptist Church in America, this congregation would occupy several different meetinghouses over the next few centuries, first on Tanner Street and then, starting in 1737, at this lot on Spring Street, near the corner of Sherman Street. The 1737 church stood here until 1846, when the current Greek Revival-style church building was constructed, but the old church was moved to Sherman Street and stood there until it was demolished in 1929. In the meantime, in 1885 the church built a Queen Anne-style parsonage, which is seen here on the left side of this scene.

The 1846 church building remained mostly unchanged until 1938, when Rhode Island was hit by a Category 3 hurricane. Newport avoided a direct hit, but the storm still caused considerable damage, including destroying the original steeple of the First Baptist Church. A few years later, in 1946, the church merged with the Second Baptist Church, which had been formed as an offshoot of the First Baptist in 1656. The combined congregation, named United Baptist Church, sold the Second Baptist building and used the proceeds to restore this church, which was rededicated in 1950.

The restoration included a new steeple, which is of the same design as the original but smaller, which gives the building a somewhat disproportional appearance today. Otherwise, very little has changed in this scene, although it is hard to tell in the 2017 photo because of the large tree – perhaps the same one from the first photo – that mostly obscures the view of the church. Both the church and the parsonage are now contributing buildings in the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

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.

Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island

Marble House on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The house in 2017:

The Industrial Revolution, and the Gilded Age that followed, brought about the rise of vast personal fortunes, and perhaps no family better exemplified this than the Vanderbilts. The family’s wealth originated with Cornelius Vanderbilt, a working-class ferry operator from Staten Island who went on to become the richest man in the country through ruthlessly competitive practices in the steamboat and railroad industries. By the time he died in 1877, his estate was valued at nearly $100 million, almost all of which went to his son William.

However, despite their enormous wealth, the Vanderbilt family struggled to gain acceptance into New York society. Perceived by established New York aristocrats as being an uncouth, ill-educated member of the nouveau riche, Cornelius Vanderbilt had cared little for society’s approval, or for ostentatious displays of wealth. However, subsequent generations of the family, particularly his grandchildren, craved this acceptance, and spent vast amounts of money to attain it.

William H. Vanderbilt died in 1885, only eight years after his father, but in the interim he had managed to double his inherited wealth. It had been Cornelius’s intention to keep the family fortune intact by not dividing it between multiple heirs, but William ignored his father’s wishes and left the bulk of his $200 million estate to his two oldest sons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William K. Vanderbilt. As the oldest son, Cornelius received slightly more, but William inherited around $65 million, equivalent to around $1.8 billion today.

In 1875, a few years before his grandfather’s death, William K. Vanderbilt had married Alva Erskine Smith, a socially-ambitious southern belle whose family had lost much of their fortune in the aftermath of the Civil War. Once married, she wasted little time in working to bring social respectability to the Vanderbilt family. She and William built a massive Châteauesque mansion on Fifth Avenue, and held a lavish costume ball to celebrate its opening in 1883, with guests from New York’s most prominent families, including former president Ulysses S. Grant. Along with their primary residence, Alva also built a summer home, Idle Hour, on Long Island.

However, Alva’s truly lavish spending did not begin in earnest until after William inherited the $65 million from his father in 1885. The following year, she ordered the construction of a yacht, which was, of course, named the Alva. It was the largest private yacht in the world at the time, and its 285-foot length was comparable to some of the largest ships in the US Navy at the time. However, even the yacht, plus the Fifth Avenue mansion and Long Island summer home, did little to satisfy Alva, who aspired to join the many other prominent New York families who had seaside “cottages” here in Newport.

The elder Vanderbilt brother, Cornelius, had already joined Newport society, purchasing The Breakers, a large wood-framed mansion that had been built by tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard IV in 1878. With this in mind, Alva hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a house that would surpass anything that had previously been built in Newport. The house was a birthday present for Alva from William, and money was no object in its design or construction. The result was a Beaux-Arts style design that was influenced by Hunt’s early years at the École des Beaux-Arts in France, and was based on both French and classical Greek architecture. Hunt was the first American to graduate from the École des Beaux-Arts, and Marble House was among the earliest examples of the Beaux-Arts style in the United States.

Named Marble House, for its prolific use of its namesake stone, the house was completed in 1892, at a cost of $2 million ($55 million today) for the structure itself, plus another $9 million ($250 million today) that Alva spent to decorate the interior. It was the finest house in Newport, and among the finest private homes in the country, but it would soon be upstaged by the other side of the Vanderbilt family. Only months after Marble House was completed, The Breakers was destroyed in a fire, and the ashes had hardly cooled before Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt hired Richard Morris Hunt to design a new house of their own. The new Breakers was completed in 1895, becoming the ultimate symbol of Newport’s Gilded Age elegance and surpassing Marble House in every way except for the price; at $7 million it actually cost significantly less to build.

Notwithstanding William’s $11 million birthday gift to Alva, their marriage was not happy. In 1895, only three years after Marble House was completed, Alva divorces William, citing infidelity. At the time, such extramarital dalliances were certainly not unheard of among wealthy men, and were passively tolerated by New York society, but divorces were considered to be major scandals. Despite this, though, Alva retained her prominence in society, and also received a significant settlement in the divorce, including ownership of Marble House.

In the same year as her divorce, Alva’s oldest child, Consuelo, married Charles Spencer-Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. Alva had long envisioned Consuelo marrying a member of the European nobility, in order to solidify the family’s social status. In that regard, the marriage was a success for both parties, with the cash-poor Duke of Marlborough receiving a sizable dowry, while Vanderbilts now had a duchess for a daughter. However, Consuelo’s marriage was as loveless as her parents’ had been, and she and the duke separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921.

In the meantime, Alva remarried in 1896 to Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a prominent New York banker whose Newport home, Belcourt Castle, was located nearby. After his death in 1908, Alva was in possession of two Newport mansions, and retained ownership of both until 1932, when she sold Marble House shortly before her death the following year. By this point, Newport’s ostentatious Gilded Age mansions had fallen out of fashion, and she sold the house to Frederick H. Prince for just $100,000, less than one percent of its original construction costs 40 years earlier.

Frederick H. Prince was a stockbroker from Boston, and he owned Marble House for over 20 years, until his death in 1953. A decade later, his family sold the property to the Preservation Society of Newport County, who purchased it with funds provided by William and Alva’s youngest child, Harold, who was nearly 80 years old at the time. Today, very little has changed in the house’s exterior appearance, and it is still owned by the Preservation Society, which operates it as a museum along with several other Newport “cottages,” including The Breakers. Because of their historical and architectural significance, both of these iconic Vanderbilt homes are now designated as National Historic Landmarks, and they are both part of the Bellevue Avenue Historic District.