Unlike other forms of artistic expression, architecture is best understood and enjoyed through use. Sometimes a work of architecture is used in very different ways over time. Fort Adams is one such structure. The enormous 6 acres enclosed “parade,” once designed to hold the troops and armaments that would repel hostile forces, has now become home to a series of arts performances including the Dunkin Donuts Folk Festival (August 4-5) and JVC Jazz Festival (Aug 11-12) that attract visitors from around the country and around the world to Newport.

It is important to remember that Newport in the Colonial era was one of the most populous and prosperous cities in the country. It was a major deepwater port, a center of shipping, and a place that required military protection. Fort Adams, which has gone through many modifications, was first begun in 1799. Built originally on a 130-acre site on a promontory projecting out into the Narragansett Bay, it was intended to provide protection to the Newport harbor. Named after John Adams, the United States’ second president, the original structure was a small and primitive fortification.  At the instruction of Congress, military engineer Joseph Totten undertook the redesign and expansion of the structure in 1824. Built using the “Third System,” Fort Adams is Totten’s masterpiece of fortification design. Heavy, soil-filled “ramparts” conceal brick-arched “casements,” where troops and armaments were housed. The structure was designed with 438 slots (or “embrasures”) through which canons could be fired.

The plan is an elaborate pentagon, with projecting “bastions” so that every wall face can be protected from another in the structure. The enormous project consumed the next thirteen years that Totten lived in Newport and he used the construction effort as an opportunity to train the first generation of American military engineers and as an opportunity to experiment with new armaments and design — a tradition carried on by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) located here in Rhode Island. Even though Totten left the Newport area in 1838 as he rose in the ranks (eventually becoming General Totten, the US Army’s chief engineer) work on the project continued until 1857. Although Fort Adams is not one of the largest coastal fortifications of the 19th century, it is often credited as being one of the most sophisticated in terms of its design.

But as fortification design was evolving, armament design was evolving much faster. In 1820, when the new Fort Adams was first conceived, an 18-pound iron ball fired from a smooth-bore cannon could travel only several hundred yards and with undependable accuracy. By the end of the construction of the Fort, shells being fired from rifled bores could travel far greater distances with greatly improved potential for destruction. The fall of Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia to the Union forces using new armaments on April 11, 1862, marked the start of the Civil War and the end of the “Third System” fortress design. By 1940, 16” shells could be fired more than 26 miles and the location of the Fort Adams became irrelevant to coastal protection and the structure was allowed to deteriorate.

To counteract the decay and loss of this important architectural and historical landmark, the Fort Adams Trust was founded in 1994 as a nonprofit organization, dedicated to stabilizing, restoring, and operating Fort Adams as a historic site. With the help of “Save America’s Treasures” grants and contributions from private citizens, much has been accomplished, but much more needs to be done. A bond issue to help restore the structure was narrowly defeated in 2006 but will hopefully succeed when next brought to the voters.

One way to support Fort Adams is to visit and take a tour of the structure or to attend a performance in the space.  In years past, Fort Adams was the setting for a site-specific performance created by the Island Moving Company, one of Rhode Island’s premier dance troops. This year the IMC will be performing “Flight of Steps”, a piece inspired by architectural space, at Fort Adams at 6:30 pm on the evenings of July 13-15 and 18-21, 2007. The blending of architecture and human use is what suits a historic structure best – even when a building has shifted from the act of making war, to the act of making art.


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Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is a historian, educator, and practicing architect living and working in Newport. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, July 8, 2007.