Newport, Rhode Island
Established in 1639 by a small band of religious dissenters led by William Coddington and Nicholas Easton, the city by the sea became a haven for those who believed in religious freedom. Newport’s deepwater harbor at the mouth of Narragansett Bay ensured its success as a leading Colonial port, and a building boom produced hundreds of houses and many landmarks that still survive today. These include the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House and the White Horse Tavern, both built during the 17th century, plus Trinity Church, Touro Synagogue, the Colony House, and the Redwood Library, all built in the 18th century. British troops occupied Newport from 1776–1779, causing half the city’s population to flee and ending a golden age of prosperity. The economic downturn that followed may not have been so great for its citizens but it certainly was for preserving Newport’s architectural heritage, as few had the capital to raze buildings and replace them with bigger and better ones. By the mid-19th century the city had gained a reputation as the summer playground for the very wealthy, who built enormous mansions overlooking the Atlantic. These so-called "summer cottages," occupied for only six to eight weeks a year by the Vanderbilts, Berwinds, Astors, and Belmonts, helped establish the best young American architects. The presence of these wealthy families also brought the New York Yacht Club, which made Newport the venue for the America’s Cup races beginning in 1930 until the 1983 loss to the Australians. The Gilded Age mansions of Bellevue Avenue are what many people associate most with Newport. These late-19th-century homes are almost obscenely grand, laden with ornate rococo detail and designed with a determined one-upmanship. Pedestrian-friendly Newport has so much else to offer in a relatively small geographical area— beaches, seafood restaurants, galleries, shopping, and cultural life. Summer can be crowded, but fall and spring are increasingly popular times of the year to visit.
Many of Newport's shops and art and crafts galleries are on Thames Street, Spring Street, and at Bowen's and Bannister's wharves. The Brick Market area—between Thames Street and America's Cup Avenue—has more than 40 shops. Bellevue Avenue just south of Memorial Boulevard (near the International Tennis Hall of Fame) contains a strip of high-end fashion and home decor boutiques and gift shops.
Redwood Library & Athenaeum
In 1747, Abraham Redwood gave 500 pounds sterling to purchase a library of arts and sciences; three years later, this Georgian-Palladian-style building opened with 751 titles. More than half the original collection vanished during the British occupation of Newport, but almost all of it has been recovered or replaced. Paintings on display include five portraits by Gilbert Stuart. Look for the portrait of the Colonial governor's wife whose low neckline later led to the commissioning of Stuart's daughter Jane to paint a bouquet over her cleavage. A guided 35-minute tour is offered daily at 2 pm.
In 1658, more than a dozen Jewish families whose ancestors had fled Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition founded a congregation in Newport. A century later, Peter Harrison designed a two-story Palladian house of worship for the congregation. George Washington wrote a famous letter to the congregation in which he pledged the new American nation "would give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." The oldest surviving synagogue in the country, it was dedicated in 1763 and its simple exterior and elegant interior remain virtually unchanged. A small trapdoor in the platform upon which the Torah is read symbolizes the days of persecution when Jews were forced to worship in secret. The John L. Loeb Visitors Center has two floors of state-of-the-art exhibits on early American Jewish life and Newport's Colonial history. The last synagogue tour is generally an hour before the visitor center closes.
The 70-room summer estate of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, president of the New York Central Railroad, was built in 1895. Architect Richard Morris Hunt modeled the four-story residence after the 16th-century Italian Renaissance palaces. This mansion is not only big but grand—be sure to look for the sculpted figures tucked above the pillars. The interior includes rare marble, alabaster and gilded rooms, with open-air terraces revealing magnificent ocean views. Noteworthy are a blue marble fireplace, rose alabaster pillars in the dining room, and a porch with a mosaic ceiling that took Italian artisans six months, lying on their backs, to install.
See the backyards of Newport's famous oceanfront Gilded Age mansions while strolling along this 3½-mi public access walkway. The designated National Recreation Trail stretches from Memorial Boulevard at the west end of Easton's Beach (also called First Beach) southerly to the east end of Bailey's Beach. Along the way you'll pass Salve Regina University's Ochre Court, The Breakers, Forty Steps at Narragansett Avenue, Rosecliff and Marble House and its Chinese Tea House. Park on either Memorial Boulevard or Narragansett Avenue.
One of the most opulent of the Newport mansions, Marble House contains 500,000 cubic feet of marble. The house was built from 1888 to 1892 by William Vanderbilt, who gave it as a gift to his wife, Alva, for her 39th birthday. The house was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt who took inspiration from the Petit Trianon at Versailles. The Vanderbilts divorced in 1895 and Alva married Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to Belcourt Castle. After his death, she reopened Marble House, and had the Chinese Tea House built on the back lawn where she hosted "Votes for Women" rallies.
Completed in 1741, this National Historic Landmark on Washington Square was the center of political activity in Colonial Newport. The Declaration of Independence was read from its steps on July 20, 1776, and later British troops used this structure as a barracks during their occupation of Newport. In 1781, George Washington met here with French commander Count Rochambeau, cementing the alliance that led to the American victory at Yorktown. The Newport Historical Society manages the Colony House and offers guided tours.
Common Burial Ground
Among those buried in this graveyard, which dates back to the 17th century, are several governors, a Declaration of Independence signer, famous lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis, and Desire Tripp, whose unusual February 1786 gravestone commemorates the amputation of her arm. Many tombstones were made in the stone carving shop of John Stevens, which opened in 1705 and is still in operation.
As Newport's oldest house museum, this late-17th-century residence presents a window on the city's Colonial and Revolutionary history. The dark-red building was the site of the city's Stamp Act riot of 1765. After the British Parliament levied a tax on most printed material, the Sons of Liberty stormed the house, which was occupied by a prominent Loyalist.
Trinity Episcopal Church
George Washington once sat in the distinguished
visitor pew close to the distinctive three-tier wineglass pulpit. Completed in
1726, the church is similar to Boston's Old North Church, both inspired by the
designs of Sir Christopher Wren. Trinity's 1733 London-made organ is believed to
be the first big pipe organ in the 13 colonies. Among those buried in the
churchyard's historic cemetery is French Admiral D'Arsac de Ternay, commander of
the allied French Navy in Newport who was buried with special permission in 1780
as there were then no Roman Catholic cemeteries in New England.
Great Friends Meeting House
The oldest house of worship in Rhode Island reflects the quiet reserve and steadfast faith of Colonial Quakers, who gathered here to discuss theology, peaceful alternatives to war, and the abolition of slavery. Built in 1699, the two-story shingle structure has wide-plank floors, simple benches, a balcony, and a beamed ceiling.
Fort Adams State Park
The largest coastal fortification in the United States is at Fort Adams State Park, home to the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals. From mid-May through Columbus Day, the nonprofit Fort Adams Trust offers tours of the fort where soldiers lived from 1824 to 1950. You can explore the fort's overlooks and tunnels or walk along its impressive walls. The ciews of Newport Harbor and Narragansett Bay are exquisite. The fort is reputed to be haunted and is often open for ghost hunting tours in the days leading up to Halloween.
On the Sakonnet River, Third Beach is more peaceful than the nearby ocean beaches and is a great spot for families. It has a boat ramp and is a favorite of windsurfers. You'll find a mobile concession stand on weekends.
Amenities: parking (fee); lifeguards. Best for: swimming; walking; windsurfing.
This 1¼-mile-long sandy beach has a popular surfing spot on its west end. Surfboard and stand-up paddleboard rentals are available.
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (fee); showers; toilets. Best for: surfing; swimming; walking; windsurfing.
Also known as First Beach, Easton's Beach is a ¾-mile-long surf beach with a boardwalk, vintage carousel, aquarium, and playground. Public facilities include restrooms, indoor and outdoor showers, a skate park, an elevator and beach wheelchairs for persons with disabilities. The snack bar's twin lobster rolls are very popular and a great deal.
Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (fee); showers; toilets. Best for: sunrise; sunset; swimming; walking.