Newport Rhode Island was established as an agricultural community in 1639. It rapidly evolved into a shipbuilding center and became one of the country’s first and largest seaports.
Newport’s Tie to the Sea
The seaport engaged in a range of trades, including slave trade. Its ships moved British manufactured goods to West Africa. There, it picked up slaves to ship to the Caribbean. From the Caribbean, it returned to Britain with sugar and other commodities. While the city profited greatly from shipping, its fortunes reversed when the British occupied the city during the Revolution and France occupied it for a few years after.
Its deep-water port, however, made it a perfect candidate to become the site of the Naval Academy during the Civil War. It later became home to the Naval Training Center and Naval War College. In the early 20th century, it became the principal base of the Atlantic Fleet. (Fort Adams, which guarded the harbor, is now a State Park.) It is still the base of the Naval Underwater Warfare Center and numerous naval education and training facilities.
Newport’s Colonial Past
Many remnants of the city’s colonial past and nautical heritage remain both near the wharves and throughout the town. It has over 320 renovated, pre-revolutionary buildings–the largest concentration of colonial-era homes in the country. Several of its buildings played roles in the country’s history.
This is particularly true of the 1739 Old Colony House. The Declaration of Independence was read from its balcony. George Washington met with French General Rochambeau in its chambers to discuss military cooperation. The structure is now the fourth oldest statehouse in the country.
Meanwhile, the city’s Artillery Company, which was formed in 1741, remains the oldest military organization in the country. Even the city’s 1673-era White Horse Tavern (the oldest in the nation) got into the revolutionary act, hosting meetings of the Colonial legislature.
Other particularly interesting historic buildings include the:
- 1747 Athenaeum and Redwood Public Library.
- 1762 Brick Market Building which now houses the Newport Historical Society.
- 1763 Touro Synagogue, the oldest, and only Colonial Jewish synagogue. It has a beautiful interior if you are there when it is open.
- 1864 John N. A. Griswold House, a National Historic Landmark designed by Richard Morris Hunt as the first American Stick Style building.
- 1879 Parkgate building, which was used as a private home before serving as the Civil War headquarters of the US Naval Academy. (The academy was moved from the border state of Maryland to the more secure site in Newport before returning to Annapolis after the civil war.) The building has since been sold to and is currently used by the Newport Lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Newport was also the home port of the Navy’s Cruiser Destroyer Force Atlantic before it was moved to Norfolk. However, Newport is still home to the Naval War College and the Naval Justice School.
And this does not even include the roughly 300 beautifully restored and maintained 18th-century buildings that are spread across the city or the dozens of mere 20-room palaces built in and around the Gilded Age.
Remnants of the Gilded Age
The city’s primary claim to fame, however, came in the mid-19th century when the Vanderbilts, the Astors, and other of the country’s financial and societal elites anointed the city as one of their preferred summer playgrounds. They built elaborate, 40-50-room “cottages” that line the city’s Bellevue and Ochre Point Avenues. Those who couldn’t afford such gilded luxury, made due with one of the hundreds of more intimate 15-20-room “shacks” scattered through the rest of the city.
This solidified Newport’s reputation as a resort town and established it as a center for what were then elite sports including yachting and tennis. (The city is now home to the Sailing Museum and the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the latter of which is a beautiful, 1880 “American Shingle Style” building by McKim, Mead, and White.) The city’s allure continued into the 20th century. The grand, Victorian Hammersmith Farm, for example, was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s childhood home. Both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy vacationed there.
Although Newport is no longer the favored playground of America’s rich and famous, its location on an island still makes it a major sailing center and summer vacation spot. Most of the Bellevue Avenue cottages, for example, have been restored to their Gilded Age beauty and touring them has become a favored tourist activity. About ten are now open for tours in the summer.
Touring The Breakers
When in Newport, a big tourist attraction is visiting the “cottages” where the rich summered. Most of the “cottages” do not open until June so plan accordingly. On this trip, we visited The Breakers. While the cottage is impressive enough from the outside, it hardly prepares one for the luxury of the main floor entertainment rooms.
The original wood-framed Breakers estate was built in 1877. In 1892 it burned down and was replaced with the current stone building. The first floor of this famed Richard Morris Hunt building is literary over the top with its hand-cut marble walls, mosaic and painted ceilings, gold fixtures, and platinum finishing which looks like silver but does not tarnish. The library is paneled in mahogany. Like other Gilded Age mansions, The Breakers tried to combine the majesty of classical architecture with modern conveniences of electricity, central heating, and hot and cold running water.
The second floor contains family (one for each parent and each of seven children) and six guest bedrooms. Compared to the downstairs, they are positively restrained compared with the elaborate downstairs rooms. They appear comfortable and discretely elegant, albeit with a few luxuries such as tubs–including the parent’s elaborate marble bathtub—each of which has four faucets, hot and cold for both fresh or seawater. The thick marble tub, we learned had to be filled with hot water and emptied four times before it was warm enough for Cornelius.
The tour ended in the huge kitchen with its wall-to-wall cast iron stove and the even larger, two-level butler’s pantry in which the china and silverware (the latter of which was stored in locked compartments. We also learned that the house required 40 servants. Aout 20 of them remained at the cottage year-round, while the others traveled between New York and Newport, as required. While the home remained in the Vanderbilt family through the 1930s Depression, it became too expensive to maintain. The house and its furnishings were leased to the preservation society for $1 per year for tours before it was sold to the Society for a nominal amount in the 1940s.
Although The Breakers was the largest and most opulent of the Gilded Era cottages, it is hardly the only one that offers summer tours. Among the most popular of these are:
- Marble House is another Richard Morris Hunt home for another Vanderbilt family (William and Alva). It was modeled after Versailles.
- The Elms is a 1901 Stanford White-designed neoclassical cottage of a coal industry titan. It was based on another grand French chateau.
- Rosecliff was designed and built for an Irish immigrant family that was one of the heirs of the Comstock Load silver fortune. It is a terra cotta building that was inspired by Versailles’s Grand Trianon. It stood in for Jay Gatsby’s mansion in the 1974 film.
The Cliff Walk
This 3.5-mile footpath takes you above the cliffs lining Narragansett Bay and behind the Gilded Age cottages. While most of the trail is paved, some parts are gravel and others require walking over a series of flat boulders. It provides views of the cliffs and shoreline and across the bay to the other shore. Inland views provide relatively unobstructed views of the backs of cottages including The Breakers, Rosecliff, Beechwood, Marble House, and several others that now belong to Salve Regina University plus a Chinese teahouse that is on the Marble House grounds. A lovely walk whose outlets provide access to those cottages that are open for tours.
Ten Mile Drive
This pretty drive goes through the southern part of the island. You go by yet more “cottages”, along the pretty, rocky coastline, and by historic Fort Adams (which is supposed to be the largest, best fortified fort in the country) and the elegant Eisenhower House, the president’s summer White House.
Short Detours to Jamestown and Wakefield
Not too far away, and worth the drive are detours to the small, Wakefield and Jamestown historic districts and the towns themselves. Of note are:
- Umbrella Factory (Charlestown) is a collection of small arts, candle and other handmade product shops that is set among pretty gardens and a bamboo forest. It has chickens, geese and peahens strolling the grounds (in addition to goats and an emu in fenced in area). Although we didn’t see any products which were of particular interest, the grounds, gardens, and forest are very nice.
- Glass Station Gallery (Wakefield) has a nice selection of very pretty bowls, plates and vases.
- Jamestown’s resort area, with its resort hotels and some lovely shore-side homes.
Newport Restaurants and Rooftop Bars
- White Horse Tavern is the oldest tavern in the country, having operated continuously since 1673. While it still looks like a tavern, it is now one of the best fine dining restaurants in the city. We enjoyed all three of our dishes beginning with seared foie gras (which we got as an add-on to our meals rather than as a separate composed dish). Our entrees were pan-seared scallops with fingerling potatoes and chermoula, and crispy duck breast with pomegranate seeds, ginger, and carrot emulsion. Both dishes came with a mélange of delicious vegetables, many of which came from the restaurant’s own garden. Our wine was a 2019 Anthill Farms Pinot Noir from Mendocino’s Compche Ridge Vineyard. A delicious meal.
- Stoneacre Brasserie. We ran across this place on one of our walks. Upon seeing the restaurant and menu, we canceled our reservations at a highly regarded restaurant, 22 Bowen. Although we will never know whether Bowen may have been better or worse, we greatly enjoyed StoneAcre. Beginning with focaccia and a marinated cucumber amuse, we had three very good dishes: RI mussels steamed with curried tomato, guajillo, fennel and basil; smoked trout deviled eggs; and butter-poached clams, mussels, shrimp with celery root, leeks, and salsify. Our wine was a Sonoma 2019 Anthill Farms Pinot Noir. Another very satisfying meal.
- Matunuck Oyster Bar (Wakefield, RI) is a fantastic oyster bar on Point Judith (home to much of the state’s fishing fleet and many of its fish piers). The restaurant has a wonderful menu, great views (especially from its roof deck), its own oyster processing and shucking station, and based on our limited experience, delicious food. It started as an oyster farm, that rapidly expanded to serve a number of restaurants in the region. It built its own “pond-to-table” restaurant and created an organic farm to provide its own produce. Our lunch consisted of three delicious courses beginning with a plate of Matunuck’s own, raw, briny Westerly oysters, a fried oyster appetizer, and followed by an entrée of fried whole belly clams with cole slaw and fries. While Joyce had iced tea, Tom splurged on a Two Roads, Cloud-Sourced Hazy IPA. Our only regret—we couldn’t eat more. In addition to the dishes we had, we were tempted by the steamed littlenecks, sautéed scallops, steamed mussels, and some of fish dishes. This is a very popular place for good reason.
- Midtown Oyster Bar where we had lunch of very tasty steamed littleneck clams. More disappointing was the Rhode Island-style lobster roll with butter-poached meat which we found to be tasteless and probably frozen.
- The Moorings Seafood Kitchen and Bar was a lunch spot that overlooks the city’s harbor. We split two dishes beginning with a crab salad and tuna parfait with mango, pickles, red onion, and blue tortilla chips. We then moved on to fried calamari which seemed to have more fried peppers than it had calamari. Both were acceptable but were far from memorable. This being said, Tom did enjoy the local, Tilted Barn “Grow” IPA.
Our plan was to follow our dinners with birds-eye views from the city’s two hotel rooftop bars—one at the top of the Black Pearl and the other on the roof of the Viking Hotel. But as we should have expected, both were closed until June. Lucky for us that both have very nice, well-stocked bars on their first floors. No views, but nice atmosphere and nice drink selections.
Newport Area Wineries
And if you are interested in wine tasting in the area, see our blog on Rhode Island Wineries.