This past weekend more than 10,000 residents and tourists descended upon Washington Square and the Broadway district for the third annual Broadway Street Fair. Merchants set up stands, musicians performed at a series of stages, and food vendors and restaurants fed the hungry and thirsty throngs of people. This is very appropriate because, since Newport’s founding in 1639, what is now called Washington Square has been a center of community life. The historical records of the founding identify Newport’s freshwater spring that as central to the location and reason for the formation 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.” This spring has now been confirmed to be located at the intersection of Spring and Binney Streets and it is around this central location that the community began to grow.
Another critical milestone in the history of Newport was the signed of the Rhode Island charter by King Charles II in 1663. This document was negotiated by Newport Baptist minister John Clarke and is particularly noteworthy because it guaranteed religious freedom to the inhabitants of the colony. The charter states “it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted) to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained, and that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments” and thus churches of both Christian and non-Christian variety were permitted to flourish and grow in this Colonial outpost to a greater degree than almost anywhere else in the world at that time. It is no coincidence that the Quaker meeting house, places of worship of a dozen different religions the America’s oldest Synagogue are located close by to the Washington Square area.
Newport began is life 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 was 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 merchants brought their goods to be sold and traded.
Thankfully, Washington Square has largely been restored over the last decade through the efforts of private individuals, foundations and the commitment of local political leaders. This work includes the installation and widening of 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 Washington 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 it had become back to its original elegant brick facade. Work on restoring the interior is also well under way.
The Colony House, now managed by the Newport Historical Society, plays a central role in the history of Newport. The building 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 this edifice that the 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 and has grown considerably in recent years as civic leaders have tried to help make this re-enactment an important part of Newport’s celebration of Independence Day and a heartfelt and solemn complement to the traditional parades and fireworks of the day.
Newport has gone through many phases and transformations. First it was an early settlement which encouraged religious freedom. Later in the Colonial era, it became a prosperous trading port place where molasses was turned into rum and a center of American Government in the Rhode Island Colony. During the Revolutionary War it suffered a rapid decrease in population and physical destruction with a long period of recovery. Toward the middle of the Nineteenth Century, it became a summer retreat favored by southern landowner’s and bore the nickname “Carolina Hospital” in this period. During the Gilded Age, it became the playground for the very wealthy from Boston and New York to summer at was called “the Queen of Resorts.” During the First World War and the Great Depression, the city again suffered demolition and a loss of status as extreme wealth subsided moved elsewhere. During the Second World War Newport became an important naval station and place where the majority of American torpedoes used in the war were tested and manufactured. When the Navy pulled its ships out of Newport abruptly in the 1970’s the city’s prospects were again in doubt. Fortunately, by that point, the grand architectural treasures of more than two years began to make Newport a place of broad appeal to both tourists and to summer residents and historic tourism is now one of the city’s financial foundation stones. Today, with the restoration of the Square and surrounding buildings and the hard work of community members, Washington Square is once again a place of gathering and destination for residents and tourist alike drawing many thousands to the street fair and other similar events.
Who knows what the future holds for the City by the Sea, but its with it rich nautical assets and peerless architectural heritage, the city has strong foundations upon which the city leaders can build its future. The success of the street fair this past weekend is just one example of how Washington Square is part of the city’s process of re-inventing itself.
Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport for A4 Architecture. He is currently teaching a course on Washington Square in the Circle of Scholars program at Salve Regina University and serves on the Washington Square Advisory Commission.