Washington Square

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 a small colonial village that was made prosperous by its excellent harbor and access to shipping and trade. At the heart of this colonial community were LongWharf, which represented the mercantile spine of the city, and Washington Square, which has the community’s civic hub.  Some of the 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.

After a long period of decline, Washington   Square has largely been restored through the efforts of private individuals, foundations and the commitment of local political leaders. Two of three phases of construction are now complete, which have installed wide bluestone sidewalks, 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 1950’s looking structure it had become to the brick clad beauty that it originally was built as.

This coming weekend, a group called the Washington Square Roots Initiative is celebrating the Square’s rejuvenation as a civic and commercial center for the city. The name of the group, which was conceived by local architectural historian and author Cheryl Hackett, was selected to remind us that Washington Square is at the “root” of Newport’s history and that the growth of Newport came along the “routes” that radiate out from this central place.

A walking parade on the morning of Sunday July 4th has been arranged for Newporters and visitors alike to trace the path of a parade that was first held in 1810, exactly two hundred years ago. This parade will finish along the path of LongWharf, following the route that General Rochambeau took to meet General George Washington at the Colony house in July 1780. It was from this same building that the Declaration of Independence was first read to the citizens of Rhode Island and on this coming July Fourth at Noon, there will be a dramatic reading of this document that lies at the heart of our American democratic condition. Canons will be fired and a community party in EisenhowerPark will be held to celebrate the architectural and political heritage.

In 1781 the nearly 5000 French forces under General Jean-Batiste de Rochambeau decamped from Newport to join the Continental Army to face the British. There is a 680-mile trail that traces the path of Washington and Rochambeau from Newport to Yorktown, Virginia where the American and French forces fought and accepted the surrender of the British forces. This route was made a National Landmark Trail in 2009 and the “Washington-Rochambeau   Revolutionary Route” begins right in Washington Square and is marked by signs bearing the “W3R” symbol.

Parades are wonderful traditions that remind us that the armies that gave this country its independence once marched on foot. It is hoped that many will join in this architectural parade and that, each year, the July Fourth celebration of Newport’s unique history will grow in importance and size. There are very few truly authentic places in America that have lasted from the colonial era but Newport’s Washington Square is one such place and is, therefore, well worth honoring and celebrating this coming weekend!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, June 30, 2010.

WashSq Postcard c1910 Parade 500