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For those who’ve only seen Rhode Island’s most illustrious metropolis through the lens of an architectural day-tripper (or, if you’re of a certain age, as the legendary mecca of eponymous music festivals), the book Newport: The Artful City will be an eye-opener. I know it was for me. Though I’ve frequented Newport since the early 1970s, my introduction was by way of watercraft from yachts to Navy vessels and its ideal harbor—perhaps the only real way to meet a port. Only years later did I learn to appreciate the depth and many layers of built and social history that author John R. Tschirch and his collaborators unfold.
Described as an exploration of the city’s three centuries of historical evolution through its urban plan, spaces, and structures, Newport doesn’t waste words where remarkable images from the collections of the Newport Historical Society will tell the story. Indeed, if you’re a fan of striking, high-content archival graphics, from 18th-century oil paintings to 19th-century Daguerreotypes and glass-plate photographs (and what historic architecture devotee isn’t), Newport has a motherlode to offer, but these are more than just pictures of a gone world.
We learn for example that the islands and waterways known today as Newport were not an empty wilderness when first encountered by white explorers in the 1639, but a near-Eden packed with native Americans who enjoyed the bounties of sea and landscape as much as we do today. As part of Roger Williams’ Rhode Island Colony in the 18th century, it was second only to Providence as a refuge of religious tolerance (unlike the Massachusetts colonies that had expelled Williams). Though something of a haven for outcasts such as Quakers, Jews, and even Blacks, paradoxically, Newport also grew wealthy on the overseas trade in rum and human cargo.
The economic hiatus of the Revolution signaled an end to Newport’s dominance as a commercial harbor, soon to be eclipsed by Providence, Salem, and Boston to the north. Before it did, however, affluence brought architecture with a capital A to Newport in the form of colonial architect Peter Harrison and his mastery of Palladian-style buildings.
We get an inside view too of other surprising architectural luminaries who sailed in and out of the city. For example, Charles Follen McKim, one-third of the powerhouse firm that blessed the city with some of its best and most influential designs, actually did an extensive photographic study in the 1870s of Newport’s 18th-century buildings—many presented here in these pages—while trolling for ideas (roofs especially) to seed his vision of the Colonial Revival.
When Newport evolved into a resort from the 1840s into the early 20th century, and farmland along Bellevue Avenue was transformed into a patrician summer playground of mansions, it became the Who’s Who of top designers and their patrons of world renown today. We read that Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. did work on two Newport Estates and Morton Park in the 1880s, while his sons left their touch on over 30 projects, including a never-executed 1910s improvement plan to blend the historic past with modern amenities and chart the future of a growing city.
Newport was reinvented (some say ravished) by Urban Renewal in the 1960s. That brought not only the evisceration of much of the remaining colonial city but, thankfully the creation of the Newport Historic District in 1965 and the port’s new identity as a center of architectural and maritime tourism—a metamorphosis that, along with books like Newport: The Artful City, for which we are all the better.