Washington Square: Birthplace of Newport

Newport has been many things over its lifetime: a Gilded Age resort, a post World War II Navy town, and today, an important destination for historic tourism. But at one time Newport was an early colonial settlement that was made prosperous by its excellent harbor and access to shipping and trade. At the heart of this colonial community were Long Wharf, which represented the mercantile spine of the city, and Washington Square, which was the community’s civic hub.  Some of America’s most important Colonial-era buildings still exist around Washington Square. These include Richard Munday’s Colony House (1739), which served as the part-time home of the Rhode Island legislature until the beginning of the 20th century, and Peter Harrison’s Brick Market (1772), which was the place that traders and seamen brought their goods to be sold and traded.

Washington Square, over the last decade, has largely been restored through the efforts of private individuals, foundations and the commitment of local political leaders. This work includes the installation of wide bluestone sidewalks, replica 19th century design street lamps, cobble-lined crosswalks to promote pedestrian traffic and a central fountain modeled on a horse trough that once sat at the foot of the square.  At the same time many of the buildings around the Square have gotten major renovations to bring them closer to their historic character. The Opera House Theatre in particular has been transformed from a plywood covered building 1950’s looking structure it had become back to the brick clad structure it was originally built.

This year Newport is celebrating its 375th birthday as the town was founded on the site of the freshwater spring, which was critical to giving life to a saltwater bay settlement on the shore of and wild and rugged landscape.  The records of the founding explicitly identify the Spring as central to the location and reason for the founding of the community: “It is agreed and ordered that the Plantation now begun at this South west end of the island, shall be called Newport… and that the Towne shall be built upon both sides of the spring, and by the sea-side Southward.” Where is this spring that gave rise to Newport and gave the name to Spring Street? It is buried beneath the Coffey gas station at the intersection of Spring and Binney Streets. In the early days of the colony not only did people come to the spring to fetch their own water but they brought their livestock and horses to drink as well. Undoubtedly, over the years the spring would have been the place to set up a blacksmith to shoe horses and the area became a central transportation hub. Wagons would have been fixed and, with the invention of the “horseless carriage,” these shops would have been converted to the repair and servicing of automobiles and eventually became the two gas stations that are located on the nearby sites. This is the natural progression of how what was once Newport’s most precious resource, fresh water, came to be buried between underground gas tanks.

An effort has long been afoot to restore the spring that once gave rise to the founding of Newport. Surrounded by churches of different denominations, including the county’s oldest standing synagogue, the Quaker meeting house, the colony house where Rhode Island’s first site of Catholic services were conducted for the French advisors to the American Revolution and houses of worship for a dozen other faiths, the area is a natural symbol of the open welcome that Newport provided to people of different faiths at a time when this was extraordinarily unusual. The 1663 Colonial Charter of Rhode Island, written and skillfully guided through diplomatic obstacles by Dr. John Clarke declared “that our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned .” This charter, perhaps for the first time in human history, guaranteed the inhabitants of Rhode Island freedom of conscience and religion even in the face of opposition from future monarchs. It is often claimed the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections are largely modeled on the Rhode Island charter clauses guaranteeing religious freedom.

First begun with the Washington Square Roots group and now taken up by the Newport Spring Leadership Committee, the effort to restore the spring and return it to communal use has recently taken another bold step forward. The group has succeeded to signing a purchase and sale agreement with Neil Coffey, the owner of the site, and the first payment to him has been made, but much more money must be raised to close the deal and to provide funds for the renovation of the location into something that will benefit Newporters and visitors for generations to come. Lilly Dick, chairman of the Washington Square Advisory Commission that led the restoration of the Washington Square area, is again leading the charge in this matter.

Washington Square was traditionally the center of life in Newport and the Colony House was not just Newport’s civic center but also one of the rotating capitals for Rhode Island until the current state house was constructed and dedicated in 1901. It is from the Colony House that the original declaration of independence was read to two thousand Newporters in 1776 by Captain John Handy. This tradition has been carried on by the Sons of Liberty since that time until the present day. At the urging of the Washington Square Roots group, the Sons returned to the Colony house five years ago and each year the numbers coming to hear the dramatic reading has grown each year. On July 4th at 9:45am there will be a procession from the grave of Dr. William Ellery, Newport’s signer of the Declaration, to Washington Square. Bike Newport is organizing a children’s bicycle parade to join this group.  At 10am, the Newport community Band will be performing a concert of patriotic favorites from the steps of the Court House and at 11am there will be a spirited reading of the Declaration of independence, which pledged the 56 signers “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”in the fight to be free of tyranny, from the very place is was originally reader to the people of Newport some 238 years ago. It is important to remember at the time they wrote this pledge the odds of their success were judged to be slim and the future was precarious. As part of the celebration, the Newport Historical Society is opening an exhibition at the Colony House on July Fourth of photographs by Lew Keen entitled “Past Meets Present” that seamlessly integrates historical and modern views of Newport.

What differentiates Newport from other communities of its size are its tremendous history, its important architecture and its central importance in the establishment of the ideal of religious tolerance. All of these will be celebrated on July Fourth and are promoted by the efforts underway to restore the spring around which Newport first sprung 375 years ago. It is hoped that you will make the time and effort to be part of both of these important and fruitful efforts!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport.