Newport’s Irish Masons – “Irish Stonemasons Helped Build City’s Iconic Landmark”

We are now going through the first prolong economic downturn marked by mass migration from parts of the world even more economically challenged. Since the city’s founding in 1639, Newport has seen numerous cycles of boom and bust and waves of migration that matched those cycles. It is important to remember that the Declaration of Independence read so boldly from the Colony House in 1776 took decades to become reality. In the War of 1812, more than thirty years after the War for Independence, the British marched on Washington and burned the original White House. The decades after the Revolutionary War were particular hard on Newport and it was not really until well after the War of 1812 that Newport began to recover. One reason was that the defenses of the US were reconsidered and it was determined that the Coastal fortifications needed to be greatly strengthened. This was particularly true for Newport, one of the most important harbors and trading ports on the east coast.

Fort Adams was originally built in 1799 with a complement of just 12 canons. Beginning in 1824 the original Fort Adams was leveled and a large new fort begun to the latest design incorporating space for 468 cannons. This work was done under Joseph Gilbert Totten, the foremost military engineer of his day, to carry larger canons that would reach to the middle of the Bay were they could be met by complementary fire from other forts on Goat, Rose and Conanicut Islands. The enormous undertaking required the labor of skilled stone masons, which were in short supply in the United States. At the same time, large numbers of skilled Irish masons were looking to emigrate to America and many of them ended up in Newport to conduct what was a major “stimulus project” and military investment of the time period: the construction of what was hoped would be an impenetrable coastal defense network.

Although the new Fort Adams was first garrisoned in 1841, construction work on the fort continued through 1857. The fort was actively stationed through five American conflicts but never was called on to fire a shot in anger. At its height in 1941, the fort had 3000 troops assigned to it.  During the time of it operation, armament design advanced exponentially so that canons could fire not just hundreds of feet but tens of miles, and the fort (like so many generations of military advancement before it) became obsolete for the purpose it had originally been constructed for. Following World War II, its usefulness as a military fortification steadily decreased and it was handed from Army control in 1953 to the Navy, which used it for housing. In 1965, it was turned over to the state to become a public park. After a long period of neglect and decline the Fort is once again being restored and made useful again. It has lately been in the news as the possible venue for preliminary races leading up to the America’s Cup. It has long been the site for other large gatherings like the Jazz and Folk festivals, which the Fort has hosted for many decades. Historic Fort Adams is currently operated by the Fort Adams Trust under agreement with the State.  The mission of the Trust, a nonprofit organization, is to restore the Fort and keep it open to the public.  To date the Trust has raised over $8 million for restoration and stabilization projects from public and private sources.

Not only was the construction of Fort Adams responsible for a large part of the economic activity in Newport through the period of its construction, but the workers who came to Newport changed the complexion and makeup of the community. Saint Mary’s Church, the 125-foot high brownstone monument located at Memorial and Spring Street, is an important case in point. The construction of this large church, designed by Patrick Keeley in 1848, showed the increasing wealth and presence of the Roman Catholic community in the city. Although the construction of the church was funded in part by wealthy parishioners who summered in Newport, Ron Onorato in his AIA Guide to Newport, reports that the priest of St. Mary’s stated in the first baptismal register that “St Mary’s congregation started with Fort Adams.” This declaration refers to the fact that many of the masons on the project were connected to the construction work at Fort Adams and contributed their skill and labor as masons when money was in short supply. At the time of its construction, the church counted 600 members out of a city population that was only 9000 people at the time! It does not seem at all coincidental that it was in this same church that the first and only Roman Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, was married and that he chose Hammersmith Farm, the plot of land immediately adjacent to Fort Adams for his summer respites.

Fort Adams was once the economic savior of Newport and led to in part to the creation of a strong Irish-American community here in the city. It will be interesting to see if this great 130-acre complex can be made to work for the 21st century to once again help bring energy, vitality and money back to the City by the Sea!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. Maya Lin was a Teaching Assistant in an architectural history class that Mr. Cann took while studying at Yale. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, March 10, 2011.

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