Discovering Newport: Part I.

Surrounded by a yacht-filled harbor, Newport is a beautiful seaside city with a plethora of outdoor activities and places of significance. There is always something to discover in Rhode Island! I guess that’s why their logo “Discover Rhode Island” is extremely fitting! This first part contains different structures and buildings that I find to be architecturally unique or historically important in Newport.

One of the many things I love about living on the coast is having the ability to enjoy the numerous lighthouses scattered along the seaside. They are beautiful beacons of light that stand tall on rocky and sandy grounds, drawing in both boats and people from all over. Castle Hill Lighthouse is located on Narragansett Bay in Newport, Rhode Island at the end of the historic Ocean Drive. It is an active navigation aid for vessels entering the East Passage, between Conanicut Island and Aquidneck Island.

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Not far from the water protrudes the 150 foot tall bell Tower of Trinity Church that is also an important navigation aid for mariners in Newport Harbor. Referred to as a “wedding cake steeple” because of its three distinct tiers, it is topped with a gilded weathervane shaped like a bishop’s mitre. The clock still strikes daily on the hour.

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Trinity Church was founded about 1698, a late-comer to the Newport church community that already included Quakers, Baptists, and Sephardic Jews. Entry into the church is through the Tower Room that contains what is thought to be Trinity’s first steeple bell. Dated 1702, it bears the broad arrow indicating Crown property.

The inside of the church is absolutely stunning! A kind woman who worked there took the time to show us around the church, relaying important facts and the history of the building. 

The unique wood box pews served several purposes in the colonial church. In winter, the high walls and raised floors kept out drafts and held in the heat from hot coals in containers that parishioners brought from home. Pews were decorated as the owners wished. Some large families joined two pews together. Most importantly in an era before cash donations, the sale of pews was a requirement for membership that provided capitol for the parish, plus a regular income from the annual pew tax. For the owner, the privately owned pew offered a permanently reserved seat that could be passed on. Many pews were owned by descendants of original owners well into the 20th century. During the 18th century, everyone attended Sunday church services.

Household servants and slaves sat in narrow pews. On the ground floor, legends from various periods ascribe the use of the two raised pews in the back of the sanctuary to prisoners and to nursing mothers. At one point vestry members sat there. Two pews reserved for the elected wardens of the parish are identified by gold-tipped scepters called “nodding rods” that were once used to wake people who fell asleep during the long services.

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Tucked on the floors of the pews and along the alter rail are “kneelers” that are handmade. Each one is uniquely stitched with images of Bible stories, church symbols, emblems of the US Armed Forces, and family crests.

** Pews of Special Interest: Pew 1 (last one in the north aisle) was owned by Trinity Church’s builder, Richard Munday. Pew 81, known as the “Distinguished Visitor’s” pew, has seen such notables as General George Washington during the American Revolution, Queen Elizabeth II in 1976, Prince Andrew, Princess Margaret, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and 3 U.S. presidents! The kneelers in Pew 81 have the seal of the President of the United States and the monogram of Queen Elizabeth II. **

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The pulpit is the only three-tiered, center aisle, wine-glass pulpit left in America- if not the world. The sermon is still given from the highest point, reached by ten steps- one for each of The Ten Commandments. An enormous wooden “sounding board” hangs over the pulpit to help project the preacher’s voice.

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Many of the small-paned windows throughout the church have the original 18th century wavy blown glass. Since the late 18th century, Trinity Church families have memorialized loved ones in marble, bronze, silver, and slate plaques on the walls of the sanctuary. They honor founders, military heroes, educators, vestrymen, philanthropists, and magnates of industry and finance. Naval heroes Oliver Hazard Perry and his younger brother Matthew Perry were baptized at Trinity in 1795.

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Another towering building found in Newport is St. Mary’s Church. This historic Roman Catholic church was where Jacqueline Lee Bouvier and John F. Kennedy were married on the morning of September 12, 1953. The couple often spent weekends and summers in Newport, where her family owned property.

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This next elevated structure is not like the others; it has no navigational purpose and no proven historical importance. Yet, it exudes a sense of mystery and uncertainty, which oddly still attracts many onlookers. But what exactly are we looking at?

Known as the Newport Tower, the structure stands on eight legs linked by arches and all constructed of uncut native stone that was carefully and masterfully mortared together. Holes in the stone seem to indicate that wooden beams were once used to create a second floor inside the building but the wood is long gone. There are also four windows and a fireplace built into the east wall. The tower does not look like any other structure in New England.

It is said to be the remains of a windmill built in the 17th century but it has also received attention due to speculation that it is actually several centuries older and would thus represent evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. Others have claimed to have found a celestial alignment to the upper windows, implying that the stand was some sort of ancient observatory. Or maybe Benedict Arnold built it? Or was it Henry Sinclair? The Knights Templar? Norse Vikings? The Chinese? Perhaps the shipwrecked Corte-Real Brothers? The stories and speculations are never-ending.

As of now, no conclusive evidence exists to point to the real builders of this structure or the purpose for which it was built.

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No building is believed to be more typical of colonial Newport than the White Horse Tavern, with its clapboard walls, gambrel roof and plain pediment doors bordering the sidewalk. Inside, its giant beams, small stairway against the chimney, tiny front hall and cavernous fireplaces are the very essence of 17thcentury American architecture. The White Horse Tavern is the “oldest operating restaurant in the U.S.” and is acknowledged as the 10tholdest in the world. And because of that it is deemed a National Historic Landmark, having served guests since 1673.

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In 1652 the White Horse Tavern was originally constructed as a two-story, two-room residence for Francis Brinley. In 1673 it was acquired by William Mayes Sr. and converted to a tavern. For almost 100 years, this large and comfortable tavern was the meeting place of the Colony’s General Assembly, Criminal Court and City Council. In 1702 William Mayes succeeded his father as innkeeper and was granted a license to sell “all sorts of strong drink.” William was a notorious pirate that operated in the Red Sea and returned to Newport with his bounty. Openly welcomed and protected by the townspeople, the privateer caused much embarrassment to officials of the British Colony. Mary Mayes Nichols, William’s sister, and her husband, Robert, shortly followed as innkeepers and for the next 200 years, with one brief interruption, the Tavern remained in the Nichols family.

In 1708 The Tavern became “home of the businessman’s lunch” as councilors dined here and charged their meals to the public treasury. In 1730 Jonathan Nichols became tavern keeper and gave the White Horse Tavern its name. In 1776 Walter Nichols, the new proprietor, moved his family out of the Tavern and out of Newport rather than live with the Hessian mercenaries billeted there by the British. When he returned after the war ended, he added the gambrel roof and addition. For the remaining years, White Horse Tavern changed hands and went through a renovation to avoid demolition. There have only been 9 owners of the tavern in its 350-year history!

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Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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