“Newport: The Museum of Architecture”

 Newport might rightfully be considered the “Metropolitan Musem of American Architecture” in that it is the repository of some of the most important works by some of this country’s most important architects.  Futhermore, it has the distinction of having a good many buildings from each era of architecture – from the settlement of North America by Europeans in the seventeenth century through the art deco period of the 1920’s.  From that rich early period until the mid 1980’s the dept of the local architectural creation was notably less and yet there are still a few representational examples of many periods present if one knows where to look.

Why is the study of architectural styles different than studying other art forms like painting or literature? One important distinction is that architecture is a cooperative undertaking and it is therefore more representative of broader cultural trends.  A writer or painter can use their own imagination to create a wholly new and noval vision.  The architect must however work within the zoning and building codes of a local municipality.  They are limited to the construction technology available at the time.  They must find a client whose economic need gives purpose to the builing.  Because buildings must often coexist with previous construction, their aesthetic qualities are often influenced by that need for compatibility.  In short, although buildings are certainly goverened by the aesthetic vision of their owners and architects, they are truly the byproduct of the social, philosophical, political, economic, and technologic forces present at the time of their cration as well.  They are the crystallization of their respective eras.  In the same way that archeologists are unable to uncover a great deal about the Mayans or inhabitants of Pompeii by examining the buildings they left behind, we have the opportunity to better understand our ancestors here in America by looking closely (and thinking deeply) about the architecture of their eras.

Starting Saturday April 17th, a four class course will be offered at the Newport Art Museum which will undertake a broad review of the evolution of architectural style in America by looking at the different buidings that exist here in Newport.  This class will examine not just the formal differences between, for example, the Georgian and Federal styles, but will try to explore the political and social transformation that made these changes happen.

The setting for the class will be the JNA Griswold house, which was designed by Richard Morris Hunt returning in 1864 from France where he was the first American born graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Art – the most imporant school of architecture of its time.  Hunt would become the most notable architect of the last half of the nineteenth century and this Griswold house provides insights into later projects like the Breakers and the Metropolitan Museum in New Your.  The style of the house was novel and it is occasionally described as the first structure in the “Stick Style” – perhaps the first time Americans dared to design in a style that was purposefully original and not purely imitative of European precedents.

Living amisdt a treasure trove of architectural monuments, it would be easy for Newporters to become complacent to the beauty and importance of the buildings that surround them.  It is hoped that those who are able to take time to undertake this brief course of study of some of the city’s architectural highlights will become ambassadors for these wonderful buildings and guardians of their futures, even as Newport grows and changes – as every living thing must.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, holds degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia and is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, April 9, 2010.

Map Newport Aerial 1878 HistHill