Rhode Island: Newport Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Newport is fifteen miles long and four miles across, with a population of thirty thousand. Founded by William Coddington, Newport became a colonial center of trade. It was occupied by the British between December, 1776, and October, 1779. Starting in the early 1800’s, the town became a summer retreat for wealthy socialites. Initially, it attracted Charlestonians; later, Bostonians. By the 1890’s, Newport was famous for its opulent summer mansions built for New York multimillionaires. These Gilded Age mansions were largely sold or little used following the Great Depression, but several have been restored and opened to the public.

Site Office

Newport Convention and Visitors’ Bureau

23 America’s Cup Avenue

Newport, RI 02840

ph.: (401) 849-8098

Newport was settled in 1639 by a group of religious refugees from Boston, including William Coddington and eight other prominent leaders. Coddington’s faction had originally settled in Pocasset, a town on the north end of Aquidneck Island, but discovered that its harbor was too shallow for large ships. A perfect harbor was located at the southwest end of Aquidneck, where it would be possible to develop a commercial port and engage in coastal trade. While Coddington established Newport, three men and women established similar communities elsewhere: Roger Williams in Providence, Anne Hutchinson in Pocasset, and William Arnold in Pawtuxet. From 1636 to 1690, these diverse neighbors struggled to maintain unity while providing a refuge for the emigrants who left the rigid churches in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth.

Assisted by English merchants, Coddington helped Newport’s original settlers build ships and wharves for the purpose of trading goods with the Caribbean colonies. He also set up farms that produced some of the city’s leading exports–sheep, cattle, and horses. In 1639, there were ninety-three residents in Newport. The city would become a thriving center of British-American commerce by the late seventeenth century. Newport differed from most American settlements in its cosmopolitan atmosphere, primarily a result of its broad trading practices and religious tolerance. The Quakers and Jews who discovered a haven in Newport during the 1600’s made significant contributions to the city’s economy and culture.

Prosperity in the Eighteenth Century

Newport’s maritime success reached its pinnacle in the mid-eighteenth century when more than five hundred ships used the city’s port for trading. Rum was the leading export of Rhode Island. By 1750 the colony had thirty-three distilleries–twenty-two in Newport–which processed molasses imported from the Caribbean. Newport’s prosperous image was tainted, however, by smuggling, slavery, and piracy. In a notorious but lucrative system called the triangle trade, molasses, rum, and slaves were shipped between the West Indies, Newport, and West Africa. An import duty of three pounds on each slave was spent on paving the city’s streets, though the practice was discontinued in 1720. Thereafter, Newport, like many other colonies, preferred to use public lotteries as a means of raising revenue for urban improvements. In 1764 a lottery paid for more streets; in 1767 the Anglicans paid for their church spire with a lottery, and the Baptists held a lottery to pay for the parsonage of the Reverend James Manning and his pupils. In 1842, after several scandals, the state constitution outlawed lotteries.

Cultural advancements followed the urbanization of Newport. In 1727 James Franklin, nephew to Benjamin, used the city’s first printing press to publish a codified version of the colony’s laws. In 1732 Franklin created Newport’s first newspaper, the Rhode Island Gazette, though it failed after several months. By 1758 Newport was prosperous enough to support a weekly newspaper, the Newport Mercury. Except for its suspension during the British occupation, the Mercury remained in print for well over a century.

Prominent Residents

In 1726 carpenter-architect Richard Munday built Trinity Church, one of the finest colonial churches in America. He modeled the design after the Old North Church in Boston, itself fashioned after Christopher Wren’s London churches. Using bricks imported from Britain, Munday also built Colony House in 1739. Rhode Island’s first colonial and state government was seated at Colony House, though Newport and Providence alternated as the state capital. From the second-floor balcony, officials read several major proclamations, such as the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776. During a legislative session at Colony House on May 4, 1776, Rhode Island became the first American colony to renounce allegiance to the king. During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers who were stationed at the building destroyed much of the interior, and the French later converted it into a hospital. In 1780 Colony House served as the location for Rhode Island’s first Catholic mass, a funeral for Admiral de Ternay.

In 1729 George Berkeley, dean of Londonderry Cathedral, decided to settle in Newport. Accompanied by a group of distinguished scholars, he intended to build a farm as a means of providing food for a university in Bermuda. Berkeley lived in Middletown, just outside Newport, in a residence called Whitehall, and tried to stir interest in the Church of England through his sermons at Trinity Church. He donated seventy-five books to the public library, founded an intellectual society, and wrote Alciphron: Or, The Minute Philosopher (1732) while in Newport. His keen observations regarding America’s religious tolerance and increasing independence were recorded in several letters and poems.

Abraham Redwood, a member of Berkeley’s literary entourage and a wealthy Quaker merchant, endowed the Redwood Library in 1747. Peter Harrison, Rhode Island’s best architect, designed the library’s edifice in the manner of Andrea Palladio. It opened in 1750 and is now the oldest library in continuous use in the United States. The Brick Market and Touro Synagogue are also Harrison designs. Built in 1763, Touro Synagogue is the oldest Jewish house of worship in America. Its congregation was established by Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, led by Isaac de Touro of Amsterdam. The synagogue’s austere exterior protects an elegant interior, where a gallery is supported by twelve Ionic columns representing the tribes of Israel. The Brick Market was located at the head of Long Wharf, the busiest Newport wharf throughout the colonial period, and a port for the French fleet during the Revolution. Harrison’s British-style design has upper-floor storage rooms above a market area.

For merchants, Thames and Washington Streets were the most popular sites for building waterside homes in the mid-1750’s. Though many of these colonial houses were destroyed during the British occupation of Newport, Hunter House remains standing to this day. Completed in the mid-1750’s by a merchant named Jonathan Nichols, Hunter House is considered to be one of the finest colonial dwellings in the United States. It is located on Easton’s Point, the north end of the harbor where marine trading was heaviest. After Nichols passed away in 1757, the property was sold to Colonel Joseph Wanton, Jr., who added a southern addition and a second chimney. A confirmed Loyalist, Wanton was exiled from Newport after the British occupation of 1776 to 1779, when many homes were destroyed and two-thirds of the residents fled the island. It was believed that Wanton’s political ties saved his house. The French used the dwelling as a lodging for two years; thereafter it deteriorated, like much of the town, until William Hunter bought it in 1805.

Coming of the Revolutionary War

Just as Newport was achieving international economic success, Rhode Island began spearheading the revolutionary effort in 1764. Indeed, the colony’s strong economy precipitated its urgent call for political freedom. In 1764, the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act, a strict tax on trade with foreign sugar islands. The Crown enforced the duty by patrolling Narragansett Bay with naval ships. The first British vessel, the Squirrel, reached the coast of Newport in December, 1763, followed by the St. John. In July, 1764, Rhode Island became the first colony to resort to armed resistance when Newport gunners fired on the St. John. Several of its crew tried to capture a deserter in Newport but were mobbed, and gunners fired upon the ship again as it tried to leave the harbor.

When Britain threatened to pass another Sugar Act, Stephen Hopkins, the governor of Rhode Island, wrote an argument to the Board of Trade. “The Rights of the Colonies Examined,” his remonstrance, was the first official document asserting colonial rights. Newport’s citizens emphatically supported Hopkins, although a small group of Tories, “the Newport Junto,” defended their king and Parliament. In 1765, the Stamp Act was passed, and the leaders of the Junto, Martin Howard, Jr., and Dr. Thomas Moffat, were hanged in effigy in Newport. The General Assembly of Rhode Island declared the legislation null and void because it violated basic charter rights. After the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, colonists celebrated the victory under the Newport Liberty Tree. In 1774, Rhode Island became the first colony to call for a Continental Congress, which announced an embargo on all British imports. Britain responded, however, by stationing ten ships off the coast of Newport, an action that virtually eliminated further resistance in Newport. Nonetheless, on May 4, 1776, Rhode Island became the first colony to renounce allegiance to the king, a day now celebrated as “Rhode Island Independence Day.”

With revolution, however, came war. In December, 1776, a large British fleet invaded Newport Harbor, and six thousand troops easily captured the city. During Britain’s three years of occupation, colonial shipping stopped and half the people of Aquidneck fled the island, most seeking refuge in Providence. In spring 1778, George Washington organized a relief effort that utilized the American force of General John Sullivan and the French fleet of Comte Jean Baptiste d’Estaing. However, the French vessels arrived twelve days before Sullivan’s troops landed on Aquidneck. By then, a British fleet of thirteen ships had forced d’Estaing to leave Newport Harbor and withdraw to Boston. Without sufficient strength, Sullivan decided to abort the mission and retreat from Newport. By October, 1779, Britain chose to end the occupation, moving its soldiers to more strategic locations in the south.

Postwar Recovery

After the war, Newport made a slow economic recovery, and it would take one hundred years for the population to reach its former level of eleven thousand people. Continued hostility from England prevented Newport from regaining its dominance in commercial shipping. More important, as the railroads developed, America’s reliance on maritime trade gradually waned. During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, Newport regained economic power as a summer resort. Between 1750 and 1850, Newport’s first wave of summer visitors consisted of southern slaveholders and Caribbean planters who were attracted to the area’s comfortable climate and stimulating social life. Because most of the American families came from Charleston, Newport became known as the “Carolina Hospital.”

The Catherine Street Hotel was built in the mid-1820’s, and the first summer houses went up in the following decade. In 1839 a cottage was built by Richard Upjohn for George Noble Jones, a plantation owner from Georgia. Later named Kingscote, the Gothic revival home is a symbol of Newport’s pre-Civil War architecture, when comfort rather than show predominated. Decorative woodwork, pointed gables, and an aviary over the entrance convey a gentle, airy feel. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Newport was a center of abolitionism. A slaveowner, Jones had to leave the city and sell his cottage to the King family. In 1881 Stanford White added the dining room; the red slate roof was added in 1886.

Ocean House, the city’s first great hotel, was built in 1844, directly across from Kingscote. Between 1825 and 1855, Newport hotels attracted hordes of guests and gossip columnists. By the mid-1850’s, however, the summer cottage industry dominated Newport’s social scene, causing the larger hotels to close. With the assistance of several property owners and local boosters, a real estate entrepreneur named Alfred Smith bought up several farms, subdivided the land, and constructed dozens of cottages on Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive. Smith sold and rented the real estate by searching for clients at hotels. William S. Wetmore, a China-trade merchant from New York, hired Seth Bradford to build the most impressive cottage of the 1850’s, Chateau-Sur-Mer, an Italianate stone villa. Wetmore hosted Newport’s first great party at the chateau, inviting three thousand guests.

The Literati

In 1840, the second wave of summer residents, the Boston literary set, began rolling into Newport. During the Civil War, many Southerners left the area, selling their property to people from New York and Boston. Among the famous writers and intellectuals who gathered here to socialize were Henry James, Sr., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George Bancroft, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Julia Ward Howe. The artists included John Singer Sargent, John La Farge, and William Morris Hunt. The Bostonians used Newport as an intellectual retreat rather than a setting for building opulent summer houses. Of Newport’s twelve summer houses in 1852, only four were built by Bostonians. Before 1870, the Bostonians’ recreational activities centered on the Ocean House Hotel, the Redwood Library, the Art Association of Newport, and the Newport Reading Room.

The Newport cottages developed their eccentricities during the early 1870’s. Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the Henry Marquand House, otherwise known as Bric-a-brac Hall. Hunt also enlarged the 1852 Victorian villa Chateau-Sur-Mer. Hunt added a French ballroom, a roofed carriage entrance on the north side, and replaced the sloping gambrel roof with a steeper mansard roof. The alterations were so dramatic that observers believed the original house had been torn down. The imposing stone structure served as an omen of the massive estates to come, but its rugged style was unique to Newport; one architectural historian described the chateau as a battering ram.

In 1879, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., owner of the New York Herald, was rejected from Newport’s leading men’s club. To regain his stature in Newport society, he built a casino across from his Bellevue Avenue cottage. For decades, cottagers swarmed into the Newport Casino to socialize, dine, listen to concerts, and play tennis. New York architects McKim, Mead, and White designed the establishment, which created a vogue for informal resort architecture modeled after the British Queen Anne style. Within five years, however, the quaint Victorian cottages of the mid- to late nineteenth century would be dwarfed by massive neoclassical mansions unrivaled anywhere in America.

The Gilded Age

Newport became the Queen of Resorts during its third era, known as the Gilded Age (1875-1920). After the Civil War, enormous fortunes were built upon ventures in coal, railroads, oil, and finance. Wealthy New Yorkers tried to model their lifestyle according to European standards set during the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution. Though Americans lacked the status of royal titles and tradition, they created a new aristocracy by living in domestic splendor. According to historian Thomas Gannon, “Much of the opulence . . . of the time was due to a new definition of ‘wealth.’ Where once the accumulation of a million dollars defined wealth, the new fortunes, built on coal, railroads, oil, and finance, were measured in tens and hundreds of millions.”

Samuel Ward McAllister was the driving force behind the movement of New Yorkers to Newport. As a child, McAllister lived in Newport with other southerners. He became a wealthy lawyer in San Francisco, married the daughter of a millionaire in 1853, moved to New York, and bought a summer home in Newport. In the 1870’s, as an adviser to Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, McAllister convinced New York’s elite (which he dubbed the Four Hundred) to spend the summers in Newport. The cottagers spent money on everything from expensive jewelry to gold-encrusted carriages pulled by English thoroughbreds. Summer wardrobes of well-dressed women consisted of eighty to ninety dresses, one for each social event.

Newport Society

During this era, women dominated the social hierarchy of Newport. While their husbands worked in New York, women like Alice Vanderbilt faced the daunting task of managing palatial estates with enormous summer budgets ($100,000-$300,000). Keeping pace with Newport’s complex ceremonial events demanded talented and forceful administrators. Newport society became a symbol of America’s second-generation industrial elite, where money alone did not create status. Historian William McLoughlin explains the dilemma: “Class was established by an increasingly rigid code of conduct and behavior that took training and patience. Women’s role in this upper echelon of power was to create an aura of taste and refinement in the lavish expenditure of disposable wealth.”

Most men, unable to match their wives’ grace and charm at Newport’s social gatherings, formed men’s clubs or went sailing in yachts made by the renowned Herreshoff family of Bristol. The Herreshoffs also built the ships used in the America’s Cup races, which took place off the Newport coast after 1930. Their magnificent racing yachts won every cup from 1893 to 1937. Men and women engaged in various other sports: riding, coaching, tennis, and croquet; only women practiced archery, while only men enjoyed fishing, polo, and golf. Women were allowed to swim at Easton’s Beach in the morning but had to leave when men arrived in the afternoon. Daytime gatherings on the shoreline included picnics and chowder parties; at night, charades or amateur theatricals.

Marble House

The first celebrated, large-scale cottages, actually mansions, started with several late Gothic houses. More extravagant is the grand scale Marble House, an anniversary present from William K. Vanderbilt to his wife, Alva. The Vanderbilts joined Newport’s summer colony in 1888, but shrouded the construction of Marble House in secrecy. To minimize rumors, Vanderbilt kept his French and Italian artisans in isolated quarters and erected high fences around the project. It took four years and eleven million dollars to complete Marble House, which opened on August 19, 1892.

Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, Marble House was modeled after the Petit Trianon at Versailles, and resembles both the White House and the Temple of Apollo. The neoclassical mansion is fronted by a portico of four Corinthian columns that overlook a sweeping circular drive. Hunt used half a million cubic feet of white marble (weighing eighty-four thousand tons) to build Vanderbilt’s estate. Like most of the mansions that followed, Marble House was derivative, an imitation of European palaces.

The architecture of Newport’s golden age was unparalleled in extravagance, but it lacked an original American identity. Hunt, educated at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was well trained in the European tradition, which emphasized neoclassical and neobaroque design. Vanderbilt was so impressed with Hunt’s talent that he placed a relief portrait of the architect in the upper hall, right across from a portrait of the Versailles architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart. The Marble House attractions included a ten-ton, bronze entrance grille and the opulently ornamented Gold Ballroom, featuring carved gilded panels by Karl Bitter, a huge ceiling painting, and Greek figures seated atop a marble mantelpiece.

The Breakers

Completed in 1895, The Breakers is another architectural wonder. Hunt’s climactic achievement was designed for Cornelius Vanderbilt, William’s older brother and chair of the family’s railroad empire. At the time, Cornelius, grandson of the financier of the same name, was worth seventy million dollars, but he began his career earning fifty dollars a month as a bank clerk. A religious man, Vanderbilt spent much of his time on philanthropic activities and donated millions of dollars to charity. In August, 1895, more than three hundred guests were invited to the family’s housewarming party, which also served as the coming-out party for his daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt. It took only two years for hundreds of workers to construct The Breakers. Several rooms were designed and built by European craftsmen, then shipped and reassembled in Newport. As a strict precaution against fire, Vanderbilt used no wood and buried the heating plant several hundred feet away.

Covering nearly an acre and containing seventy rooms, The Breakers resembles the Italian Renaissance palaces of Turin and Genoa. Conceived on a monumental scale, the four-story limestone palace is a fitting symbol of the Vanderbilts’ vast accomplishments in business. Critics cite the arched double loggia nestled between the colossal end wings as the most striking exterior feature. The Great Hall, rising nearly fifty feet, is the most spacious room in Newport. Framed by Caen stone arches, eight sets of doors lead visitors from this hall to all the family and public rooms. The upstairs bathtub, weighing one ton and carved from a single piece of marble, dispenses hot or cold, fresh or saltwater. A two-story dining room is lined with twelve columns of rose alabaster capped by gilded bronze. Gray ionic pilasters and red velvet draperies decorate the music room.

Other Mansions

Later structures never surpassed the scale of The Breakers, but several mansions are equally interesting. The Elms, the residence of Edward Julius Berwind, is an unusually cool and detached work by Horace Trumbauer, a young architect from Philadelphia. Unlike Newport’s leading architects, Trumbauer lacked a Paris education; nevertheless, his 1901 mansion is a faithful recreation of the Chateau d’Asnieres near Paris. The interior, a symmetrical balance of windows, paintings, and mirrors, was filled with period furniture and tapestries from Allard and Sons of Paris. The Elms’s most distinctive feature is its grounds, a ten-acre park with manicured shrubs, bushes, and forty species of trees. An ivy-lined path leads visitors to a pair of gazebos that mark the entrance to the sunken gardens–a rich blend of begonias, English boxwood, statues, and fountains.

Stanford White of McKim, Mead and White was commissioned by Theresa Fair Oelrichs to design Rosecliff, a neoclassical masterpiece. Opened in 1900, the light, graceful mansion was modeled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles. Entablature, paired Ionic columns, and arched French doors front the H-shaped exterior. Rosecliff’s forty-by-eighty-foot ballroom was the largest in Newport. On August 19, 1904, Oelrichs hosted the White Ball, a lavish extravaganza to celebrate the Astor Cup race. The ballroom and vestibule were completely decorated in white, and the guests arrived in white dresses. To simulate Newport Harbor, a dozen mock ships were moored off the Oelrichs’s front lawn and bathed in white light. Scenes for the films The Great Gatsby (1974) and The Betsy (1978) were filmed in the Rosecliff ballroom.

The Wall Street crash of 1929 officially ended Newport’s heyday, though many aristocrats of the Jazz Age had already left the tiny resort, discovering new summer spots that catered to their motorcar lifestyle. Rising property taxes, coupled with the introduction of the income tax, made it impossible for individuals to finance the huge mansions. Moreover, it became bad taste to flaunt one’s wealth after the onset of the Great Depression, causing the upper class to seek recreation in foreign lands. The Four Hundred no longer rode the plush cars of the Fall River Steamship Line to Newport. Many Newport mansions were boarded up, vandalized, torn down, or destroyed by fire. The mansion of Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish was converted into middle-income apartments, while the French chateau Ochre Court became Salve Regina Catholic College. By 1950, only a few mansions remained in private hands.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Half a dozen mansions were preserved and restored thanks to the efforts of two women, Doris Duke of the Newport Restoration Foundation and Mrs. G. H. Warren of the Preservation Society of Newport County. The Preservation Society was organized in 1945 to rescue Hunter House, then began acquiring other mansions such as Rosecliff, The Elms, and The Breakers. Today, Preservation Society specialists work full time in maintaining the grandeur of the Gilded Age. Recent efforts have included the restoration of The Breakers’s stables, now open to the public.

The breathtaking palaces of Newport can be seen year-round along the rocky southern tip of Aquidneck–Bellevue Avenue, Ochre Point Road, and Ocean Drive. Less grand but more comfortable are the colonial mansions and homes in the old harbor area. Also worth visiting is Green Animals, one of the finest topiary gardens in the United States. Thomas Brayton started the complex in 1880 as a complement to his summer house on Cory Lane in Portsmouth. The garden contains eighty sculptured trees and shrubs, more than two hundred species of flowers, magnolia and grape arbors, and fifty different herbs.

For Further Information
  • Gannon, Thomas. Newport Mansions: The Gilded Age. Dublin, N.H.: Foremost, 1982. A large, magnificently illustrated edition with several pages of text and photographs dedicated to each mansion. Gannon also explores the lives of Newport’s most distinguished families.
  • _______. Newport, Rhode Island: The City by the Sea. 2d ed. Woodstock, Vt.: Countryman Press, 1992. An ideal publication for anyone planning to visit the island. This comprehensive travel guide covers everything from the historic mansions and colonial houses to nature preserves, specialty shops, and beaches. A revised and expanded edition of Gannon’s 1978 A Guide to Newport, Rhode Island.
  • Gavan, Terrance. The Barons of Newport. Reprint. Newport, R.I.: Pineapple, 1998. Deals with the Gilded Age, paying close attention to the lifestyle and politics of the upper class. Several pages are devoted to each of the most prominent individuals and families.
  • Grosvenor, Richard. Newport, City in Time. Wakefield, R.I.: Moyer Bell, 1998. A discussion of the buildings, art, and history of Newport.
  • McLoughlin, William G. Rhode Island: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Begins in 1636 with a study of Roger Williams and the settlement of Providence. Newport’s history is interspersed with stories about Rhode Island’s other settlements.
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