Aerial view of the Ida Lewis Yacht Club (Photo Credits: PJ Dougherty)
When a city is as old as Newport, Rhode Island, which was founded in 1639, many of the buildings and structures of the city have had to function for many different purposes over time. This blog has noted how many buildings have been recognized as National Historic Landmarks and how even more have been added to the National Register of Historic Places, which is nearly as high of a recognition. Today, Newport Harbor is home to five different yacht clubs. These range from the extremely stately Harbour Court clubhouse of the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) to much more humble facilities. One of the most interesting of those facilities is home to the Ida Lewis Yacht Club (ILYC), which was named for the lighthouse and island constructed in the 1930’s used by Ida Lewis, one of America’s earliest female “superheroes.”
The original light house was constructed in 1853 on the Lime Rock, the largest of a series of outcroppings about 900 feet from the Newport shore. It started as a tiny house used for the lighthouse keeper when they had to stay overnight and tend to the facility. Hosea Lewis took the post of the first keeper in 1853 and held the position until his death in 1911. His daughter Ida provided her capable assistance to him during this time, slowly taking on more and more of the responsibilities from her father. At the time of his passing, Ida became the first female lighthouse keeper in the country. As early as 1869, she started to become famous for her daring saves of seamen lost in the waters of the harbor. Harpers Weekly and the New York Tribune called her the “Heroine of Lime Rock”, and published tales of the 18 lives she is officially credited with saving.
The functional lighthouse lost its purpose as automatic and electrical light replaced the gas and oil lights of earlier periods. By the 1920s the remnants of the rock outcroppings were sold to the “Narragansett Bay Regatta Association”, which was compromised of a group of experienced yachtsmen. In 1928, the officially christened a new facility called the “Ida Lewis Yacht Club” in honor of the longtime lighthouse keeper and American heroine.
A long wooden walkway was constructed to connect the rock outcroppings to the shore, while docks for members boats were built off the walkway over time. During the America’s Cup eras and before the NYYC purchased Harbour Court, the facility let the club share the grounds and had their burgee fly off the auxiliary flagpole. In 1988, the facility was added to the Registry of Historic Places for its historic importance.
Even though it is a modest facility, the ILYC represents an important chapter of Newport history when brave men and women like Ida Lewis were tasked with keeping seamen safe and occasionally having to step in to save them during dangerous and stormy conditions. Today the yacht club is an exceptional example of adaptive reuse and a lovely place to dock a boat or watch a sunset from the middle of the beautiful Newport Harbor.
Ross Cann, RA, AIA, LEED AP, is an author, historian, and practicing architect living and working in Newport, RI. He holds degrees with honor in Architecture from Yale, Cambridge, and Columbia Universities. He is an avid sailor and race committee member. He is also a longstanding member of the ILYC and its Racing Committee.