Where Past is Present
You don’t need a time machine to experience 18th-century Newport — just pay a visit to The Point.
By Bob Curley
Even in the heart of “historic” Newport, there are places where you have to squint really hard to imagine what things looked like in Colonial times. But if you can see past the paved streets and cars in The Point section of Newport, you’ll find the 18th century all around you — and bits of the 19th century, too.
The area that constitutes The Point — also known as Easton’s Point, because the neighborhood streets were laid out by Newport founder Nicholas Easton in 1725 — contain the greatest concentration of Colonial-era homes in the United States. Street after tree-named street is lined with clapboard houses, many modest by modern standards, but once owned by prosperous merchants.
Many of The Point’s original inhabitants were Quakers who worshipped at the Great Friends Meeting House, which still stands on the edge of the neighborhood on Farewell Street. Like the ca. 1699 structure, the old Quaker homes were minimally adorned. But The Point hardly lacks architectural interest. In fact, one of the great myths about the neighborhood is that it’s some sort of Colonial time capsule preserved under glass, says Ross Cann, founder of Newport’s A4 Architecture, who has done extensive study on the architecture of The Point.
Homes of the Point
- Ann Webber House, 33 Washington St.
- Hunter House, 54 Washington St.
- Sanford-Covell House, 72 Washington St.
- Bigelow Carriage House, 79 Second St.
- Goddard House, 81 Second St.
- Edith Corey House, 30 Walnut St.
- Saint John the Evangelist Church, 61 Poplar St.
- Christopher Townsend House, 74 Bridge St.
- King’s Arms Tavern, 6 Cross St.
- John Langley House, 28 Church St.
“The neighborhood is primarily Colonial-era properties from the time that it was settled by the Quakers. But there are also some very nice Victorian homes, especially on Washington Street,” Cann says.
Nor are all of the homes original to the neighborhood: As early as the Colonial era, houses were picked up and moved to The Point from other parts of Newport to make way for development. Preservationists like those in the Newport Restoration
Foundation (NRF) did the same in the 20th century to save historic homes from the wrecking ball.
One thing you notice right away on a walking tour of The Point is the abundance of plaques nailed to the sides of houses. Some simply identify the name of the original owner and the (actual or estimated) date of construction. But others indirectly hint at why the historic character of this community persists at all.
By the middle of the 20th century, The Point had devolved into a rather rough-and-tumble working-class
neighborhood, with many of its historic homes dying a slow death by neglect. A local civic organization, dubbed Operation Clapboard, reversed the tide of decline by acquiring and restoring more than 80 homes in The Point (those are the ones with the white plaques with the acorn logo) while the NRF built on this effort by acquiring another 27 historic homes in the neighborhood.
Some noteworthy buildings also have markers showing that they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of these is the 1748 Hunter House at 54 Washington St., which is a logical place to start a historic and architectural walking tour of The Point. Not only is this waterfront property one of the few houses in the neighborhood that’s ever open to the public, but it’s a gorgeous example of the fine Georgian-style homes built by The Point’s wealthier residents in the mid 1700s. When the house’s Loyalist owners fled the city during the Revolutionary War, it became the Newport headquarters for Admiral de Ternay, commander of the French fleet, who rather than sailing to victory over the British ended up dying of typhus here.
Just a few doors down is another National Register entry representing an entirely different era in Newport history. The Sanford-Covell House at 72 Washington St. was built in 1870 in Victorian style, with a muraled interior inspired by the villas of ancient Pompeii. The summer home of a wealthy breeder of thoroughbred horses, the house was operated as a bed and breakfast for many years and more recently listed for sale at a cool $6.9 million. The 1797 Ann Webber House at 33 Washington St. is more representative of Colonial building styles in The Point, with its gambrel roof and “five bay” layout — a two-story home with five upstairs windows aligned above four downstairs windows and the front door.
The architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White earned fame designing shingle-style homes like Newport’s Isaac Bell House and the Newport Casino before moving on to mega projects like the
Rosecliff mansion and the original Pennsylvania Station in New York. Before he hit the big time, however, founding partner Charles McKim designed the Bigelow Carriage House at 79 Second St. In The Point. “It’s Queen Anne style, but on the cusp of shingle style,” says Cann.
The architectural allure of The Point isn’t all about residences. Built in 1720, the house at 6 Cross Street was originally the King’s Arms Tavern, with a huge central chimney venting fireplaces that once warmed travelers and tankard-sipping residents within its walls. At the other end of the epistemological spectrum is Saint John the Evangelist Church, a late-19th century Gothic Revival church at 61 Poplar St. that’s open for self-guided tours as well as worship services.
The 1807 John Langley House at 28 Church St. was actually moved twice by the NRF in order to preserve it, while the ca. 1725 Edith Corey House (a rare Colonial home named for a woman) at 30 Walnut St. was relocated from the corner of Willow and Washington Streets in the 18th century. “People didn’t just tear down houses back then — they were too valuable, so they would just raise and move them,” explains Cann.
The Townsends and Goddards were perhaps the most famous Colonial inhabit ants of The Point, known
worldwide for the fine cabinetry that bears their family names. Goddard House, initially sited on Washington Street, was later moved to 81 Second St., where it still stands.
Another family home was also raised — although not moved — for a more depressingly contemporary reason: climate change. The Christopher Townsend House at 74 Bridge St. sits at the lowest point in The Point and has repeatedly flooded in recent years. The combination house and furniture workshop was sold by the NRF to private owners, who have elevated the structure several feet to keep the water out.
You can see the taller version of this historic home on a sunny stroll through the neighborhood or on a walking tour led by the Newport Historical Society