Museum of Newport History

While in Newport, I visited the Museum of Newport History in the Brick Marketplace. It was my first time visiting this little museum and I was quite impressed. Like most tourists, I usually visit the mansions and know quite a lot about Gilded Age history. Colonial Newport is new to me.

Newport was founded by seekers of religious toleration. From 1639 when the Newport charter was signed, Newport was home to Anabaptists, Antinomians, Quakers, Jews, and others could worship without fear of persecution.

Great Friends Meetinghouse (Quaker)

Great Friends Meetinghouse (Quaker) is the oldest surviving house of worship in Rhode Island, dating to 1699. This building was the largest and most recognizable building in town during the colonial period. It was expanded in 1705 and 1729.

Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish congregation in Rhode Island and one of the oldest in the U.S.A. It was dedicated in 1763.

Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish congregation in Rhode Island and one of the oldest in the U.S.A. It was dedicated in 1763.

By the beginning of the 18th century, Newport was a thriving seaport : one of five leading ports in America. Newport flourished as a center of business and cultural activity. Enslaved Africans contributed to this success and the museum does not shy away from discussing this difficult topic.

Newport was not only a thriving seaport, it was home to many types of businesses, including the newspaper business.

18th century Newport businesses

18th century Newport businesses

The Newport Mercury newspaper was founded by Benjamin Franklin’s brother James and continued by James’ wife Ann, after his death. The museum features an exhibit set up to look like an early printing office. This 17th century printing press was instrumental in passing along news to colonial Newporters and was also a source of income. This press was owned by James Franklin and was targeted by the British during the Revolutionary War and they used to print official documents and newspapers. It has survived for 4 centuries standing as a testament to the power of the written word.

A Colonial era printing press

Late 1600s printing press owned by James Franklin

Colonial newspaper (reproduction)

Colonial newspaper (reproduction)

Printed by Ann Franklin, the Copy of Some Queries was printed in 1739.

Printed by Ann Franklin, the Copy of Some Queries was printed in 1739.

By the middle of the 18th century, a new middle class had emerged in Newport. In the 1750s, the parlor symbolized a new concern with refinement and gentility. It was often remade in the latest style. This room is where guests were received and the family’s finest objects were displayed. This middle class parlor shows off a family’s locally made furniture. The c. 1750 table features drop-leaves to expand for use and put down for storage. The museum believes this piece was made in either the Townsend or the Goddard furniture shops. The provenance is traced back to Henry Marchant  (April 9, 1741 – August 30, 1796), a lawyer, judge, delegate to the  Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779, and signer of the Articles of Confederation for Rhode Island. Henry Marchant may have placed this table in his law office.

A middle-class room

A middle-class room

The chest-on-chest may have been made by John Townsend (1732–1809) for Peleg Clarke, a merchant in the tea trade working in Newport and Boston. The Townsends were the most well-known cabinet makers in Newport. They made cabinets, chairs, and other furniture. Job Townsend (1699–1765) and his brother Christopher (1701–1787) started the family furniture business.  John Townsend (1732–1809), the son of Christopher Townsend and Patience (Easton) Townsend is belived to have made this chest-on-chest. Chest-on-chests were often showcased in a family’s parlor serving as repositories for linens, papers, and other important items.

The lovely portraits on the walls are Captain Isaac Stelle (1714-1763) and Penelope Godson Stelle, his wife. Captain Stelle was a merchant, chandler, Warden of Trinity Church, and Captain of the Newport County Regiment. Captain Stelle was an active participant in the Triangle Trade. The portraits were done by Robert Feke (c.1705 or 1707 – c.1752), one of the best known portrait makers in colonial America. He lived in Newport for a short time before his death in 1742 and painted only nine paintings.

There was also a section on the French in Newport. This French map shows the defenses in Narragansett Bay where the allied forces were in January 1781. The red line shows where the French took advantage of the natural geography of Newport harbor to fire on the British.

In 1778, the French sent an expeditionary fleet under the command of Comte D’Estaing to aid the Americans, arriving in Newport on July 29, 1778.The plan of action included simultaneous naval and land engagements. The plan failed, due to the arrival of British reinforcements and a freak storm that damaged D’Estaing’s ships. Aquidneck remained in the hands of the British until 1779.

French map showing the defenses in Narragansett Bay.

French map showing the defenses in Narragansett Bay.

Charles-Henri Hector d’Estaing (1729-1794)

Charles-Henri Hector d’Estaing (1729-1794)

Charles-Henri Hector D’Estaing was from a noble French family who had ties to the Crown. Following the recognizance of American independence, the Crown appointed d’Estaing as first commander of the fleet sent to aid American forces in New York and New England. Arriving in Narragansett Bay on July 29, 1778, d’Estaing decided to engage the British fleet offshore. This was a costly error. He should have added to the land forces prior to the Battle of Rhode Island. D’Estaing’s made one strategic blunder after another and was recalled back to France in 1780.

Diorama depicting the arrival of the French in Newport.

The arrival of Rochambeau and his troops. Diorama by Mme. Fernande Metayer, Paris, 1976.

The French returned victorious on July 11,1780 under the command of Comte Rochambeau.  They found a city destroyed after three years of British occupation.  Newport in 1780 was no longer a prosperous port. Newporters were weary of the long British occupation and welcomed the French with parades, proclamations and parties. Until June 1781, French officers were quartered in the homes of Newporters, living beside the people of Newport and becoming integral to the social tapestry in the city.

Newport's Liberty Square

Newport’s Liberty Square

Near the Brick Marketplace is Liberty Square. Dating back to the colonial period, this park was donated to the Newport Magistrates in the mid-18th century. Members of the Newport Artillery donated the square for the purpose of establishing a “Mustering Place,” where free men would assemble and speak freely .The square belonged to the people of the city; free from ownership by any corporation or individual. It remains a small reminder of how Rhode Island and Newport were at the forefront of establishing the freedoms we take for granted today.

Advertisements

Illuminating the American Revolution / French in Newport

Several weeks ago, a Revolutionary War reenactment was held at the Colony House in Newport, RI to welcome the tall ship Hermione.

One of five rotating capitals in early Rhode Island.

Newport was one of five rotating capitals in early Rhode Island.

The date: July 10, 1780. Newport had been occupied by the British for three years since December 1776 until the fall of 1779. The British brought chaos and destruction and over half of the town’s population fled. From July-August 1778 French forces under the command of of the comte d’Estaing attempted to help American troops and planned a siege of Newport from the British. First they miscalculated and then a large storm blew in so the French were forced to retreat. They tried again two years later. On July 11, 1780, the Marquis de Lafayette arrived on the Hermione with 5500 French troops to march with the Comte de Rochambeau.

Reenactors in the guise of townspeople gathered at Newport’s Colony House for a day of events. I tried to aim for the reading of the Town Council Proclamation, but due to getting carsick on the bus, had to sit down in the Visitors’ Center for awhile before walking over to Colony House. (Carsickness also prevented me from taking a water taxi to Fort Adams to see L’Hermione).

Newport citizens mingled with each other and guests speaking about the Revolutionary War time period in Newport from the perspective of their character.

Reproductions of colonial newspapers helped visitors get a feel for what was going on in New England at the time. The articles on the French arrival in Newport are especially fun to read.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

colonialnewspaper3The “townspeople” distributed candles to all the guests and led an illuminated procession across the square to the Brick Marketplace gift shop/museum. The candles managed to stay lit despite the ocean breeze.

“Three cheers for King Louis!”

In addition to the reenactment, Colony House had a display of archival material and museum pieces relating to the French in Newport. I especially liked seeing the original handwritten documents. It was amazing to read the actual documents that helped contribute to the formation of the United States.

A promissory note from the War department of the American Army of Rochambeau 26 August 1782

A promissory note from the War department of the American Army of Rochambeau 26 August 1782

Col. Henry Sherburne’s Military Logbook, 1778 displays an entry from August 8, 1778, the eve of the Battle of Rhode Island. Sherburne was in Tiverton, Rhode Island, the headquarters for the American troops. He recorded the hierarchy of command, including which regiments will be under Lafayette’s control. His handwriting is surprisingly easy to read for a time period when spelling was creative and handwriting vastly different from our own.

click to see full size photo and read Sherburne's log.

click to see full size photo and read Sherburne’s log.

click to read

click to read

A letter from Gen. Rochambeau to an unknown correspondent. 27 June, 1782

A letter from Gen. Rochambeau to an unknown correspondent. 27 June, 1782

The sign states :  “This letter describes the movement of the French and American troops and artillery along the York River in June 1782. . . . Writing from Williamsburg, this letter demonstrates Rochambeau’s concern for new defenses at Yorktown and a reinforcement of troops along the seaboard in the event of another British offensive.”

Reproductions of maps from the Library of Congress provide a better idea of what the city looked like in 1780, where the defenses were and where troops were located.

French map showing locations of French troops in Newport.

French map showing locations of French troops in Newport.

French map showing French squadron entering Newport under battery fire and forcing its way through on Aug. 8, 1778.

French map showing French squadron entering Newport under battery fire and forcing its way through on Aug. 8, 1778.

French map showing the different operations of the French fleet and American Troops commanded by Major Gen. Sullivan against the English land and sea forces from Aug. 9, 1788 to the night of Aug, 30-31when Americans made their retreat.

French map showing the different operations of the French fleet and American Troops commanded by Major Gen. Sullivan against the English land and sea forces from Aug. 9, 1788 to the night of Aug, 30-31when Americans made their retreat.

Colony House also had an exhibit of items from the Newport Historical Society, such as this silver spoon.

Rochambeau spoon

1730-1750. Sterling silver. L. 12-1/4 in. Acquired from Mrs. May H. Bowen, 1964.3.

This is a spoon engraved with the Rochambeau crest and presented to Jabez Bowen, the deputy governor of the new state of Rhode Island and his family by Rochambeau to commemorate Rochambeau’s stay in Providence. It look just as beautiful as it must have in 1780. It must have been a great treasure for Mr. Bowen to save and pass down with the wonderful story. (Spoon, Joseph Gabriel Agard (French), ca. 1730-1750. Sterling silver. L. 12-1/4 in. Acquired from Mrs. May H. Bowen, Newport Historical Society1964.3.)

Panel displays also explained more background information. A sign displaying quotations from the diary of Baron Louis de Closen, an aide de camp to Rochambeau, was especially interesting. The Baron noted many differences between French and American manners. He saw Americans as more uncouth than the French, except for the women, of course! The courage of American men is also duly noted, despite their indifferent appearance and more slovenly manners.

Newport Through French Eyes

Thousands of French soldiers came to occupy the city. Many Newporters were excited to welcome the liberating strangers, but others worried the French would be a repeat of the British – bad guests. Those who were happy about the arrival of the French held an evening illumination in which citizens of Newport put candles in their windows on all the streets leading out of town. These quartering notices inform Newporters of the French occupation.

Quartering notices for citizens to house the French Army during the winter 1780-1781.

The French stayed in Newport until 1781. In March 1781, George Washington arrived in Newport and met with General Rochambeau to plot out their next move. Rochambeau and his troops left Newport and met up with Washington and his troops in Yorktown, Virginia, ultimately securing a victory over General Cornwallis and the British. Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown marked the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary War.

Marble House

Marble House exterior

I recently visited Marble House, one of the famous Newport mansions, built between 1888-1892 for Alva Vanderbilt as a 39th birthday present from her husband, William K. Vanderbilt. William originally gave Alva full control over the design of the house but she only agreed as long as he gave her the house outright. Alva was interested in issues of women’s rights and she saw her home as a reflection of herself and her role as a woman in a patriarchal society. Her home was essentially her branding; her way to make a mark on society the way businessmen and others great men became known.

Alva declared Marble House her “temple to the arts.” The house, designed by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt in the Beaux Arts style, is a showcase of the Vanderbilt wealth. According to the Newport Preservation Society, Hunt drew his inspiration from “two famous historic buildings dedicated to women: the Parthenon (5th century B.C.E., Athens, Greece), temple to Athena the goddess of wisdom and war, and the Petit Trianon (1760-1764, Versailles, France) built by Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour, a powerful figure in shaping 18th century European art and culture.” It was the first of the grand summer “cottages” that transformed Newport into the social center of the summer season.
Marble House classical frieze

The front of the house features a temple-front portico with Corinthian-style columns inspired by the east façade of the Louvre and faced in white Westchester marble.
Marble House frontMarble House column

A semi-circular fountain with grotesque masks spouting water spans the entire western facade. Around the exterior walls are various friezes inspired by classical mythology.
Marble House fountainMarble House frieze
Guests enter the house through French Baroque-style bronze doors featuring monogram “WV” set into an oval medallion. The doors were made at the John Williams Bronze Foundry in New York and on display before the house opened. The public was eager to get a glimpse of the elegant mansion but plans were kept secret and only the most sneaky of reporters could gleam details through underhanded methods.
Marble House gateMarble House monogram

The inside of the house is the very definition of opulence. Designed after le Petit Trianon by Jules Allard and Sons of Paris, the ground floor walls are made of the finest creamy Siena marble (with matching painted faux marble upstairs). The matching staircase features a wrought iron and gilt bronze staircase railing based on models at Versailles.

Alva Vanderbilt collected classical interiors from Europe. The stair hall features an 18th-century Venetian ceiling painting featuring gods and goddesses on the ceiling. The classical theme continues throughout the house, even into Alva’s lilac silk wallpapered bedroom, where the ceiling features a circular painting of Athena.

See some sample photos of the interior (not my personal photos) at My Pinterest Site

The back of the house features a marble portico with classic arched windows. More classical friezes adorn the exterior walls. The theme of women and children is prominent throughout.
Marble House backMarble House classical frieze
The grounds slope down to the Cliff Walk and the ocean below.
Marble House ocean viewWhen Alva Vanderbilt divorced William in 1895 and married his best friend, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont in 1896, she closed Marble House (except for the laundry) and relocated to Belcourt Castle. After Belmont’s death in 1908, Alva reopened Marble House and added the Chinese Tea House and hosted rallies for women’s suffrage. These women’s suffrage rallies were a place where working women could sit shoulder to shoulder with socialites and well-known figures such as Julia Ward Howe. For $5 they could tour the house.
Chinese Tea HouseIn 1914 Alva Belmont erected a Chinese tea house designed after ancient Chinese temples and guarded by stone lions. The tea house was used to host special events and features Chinese antiques.
Chinese Tea House interiorAlva Belmont closed Marble House permanently in 1919, and later sold the house to Frederick H. Prince. In 1963, her son Harold provided funding for the Preservation Society of Newport County to buy the house from the Prince Trust. The Trust donated the furniture for the house directly to the Preservation Society.

The architectural details are stunning. Every little thing is exquisitely designed.
Marble House lamp
To see more of my photos please visit my Flickr album Marble House