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Old Meets New in Newport

Story and photos by Carol Sorgen

Having once lived in Annapolis for several years, I’ve long had a fondness for small, Colonial, coastal towns, and one of my favorites has always been Newport, Rhode Island. With its glistening harbor, its well-preserved Colonial streets and homes, its many attractions?from the Newport Jazz Festival to the International Tennis Hall of Fame?to the breathtaking Cliff Walk and Bellevue Avenue with its concentration of American “castles,” Newport is a treasure that beckons to be explored.

Newport, an island city located 30 miles south of Providence and 80 miles south of Boston, was settled in 1639 by a small group of religious dissenters from Massachusetts, giving the city a reputation for religious tolerance. With an ideal location for trade at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, Newport was guaranteed commercial success and became a prosperous city during the Colonial era, specializing in furniture-making, fishing, and candle-making. By the beginning of the 18th century, Newport had become one of five major ports in North America and a center for shopping and trading, with more than 150 independent wharves and hundreds of shops along what is today known as Thames Street.

At the end of the 19th century, Newport earned a new distinction as the summer retreat for the wealthiest families in the country and has long been called “America’s First Resort.” The summer “cottages” of families like the Vanderbilts and the Astors became their escape from their urban?and more hectic?life the rest of the year.

Despite its many economic booms throughout its long history, Newport has retained its small size that makes it such an ideal walking city. You can stroll along the city’s many narrow cobblestoned street and trace the history of the city through its architectural development. Many of the buildings are National Historical Landmarks and were designed by such renowned architects as Richard Upjohn, Richard Morris Hunt, and firms like McKim, Mead & White. Newport is also home to some of the older buildings still in existence in the United States, including the White Horse Tavern, built in 1687, and the United States’ first Jewish house of worship, Touro Synagogue, built in 1763.

While the sense of history in Newport is ever-present, the city doesn’t live completely in the past. Arts festivals, such as the famed jazz, folk, and Newport Music Festival, which celebrates classical music, bring in musicians and music lovers from all over the world. Some of the best independent film productions are screened during the Newport International Film Festival.

With its seaport location, it’s no wonder that Newport is also a sailing mecca. In the 1930s, the New York Yacht Club brought the famed America’s Cup to Newport where it stayed until 1983 when the Australians captured the title. The Newport Regatta brings in sailors from around the world to compete in racing competitions. And for those who prefer their sports on dry land, Newport offers such attractions as the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Polo Series.

Start your visit to Newport with a stroll of the downtown area. There are more than 200 pre-Revolutionary buildings that remain in Newport, more than in any other city in the country; most are private residences, however, so as tempting as it may be, don’t just walk in!

Among the sights you can visit, however, are:

* The Artillery Company of Newport (, 401-846-8488), considered to house one of the finest collections of foreign and domestic militaria in the United States, with more than 100 countries represented. The command, Rhode Island Militia, which was chartered in 1741, is the nation’s oldest miltary organization still in continuous service under its original charter.
* Friends Meeting House (, 401-846-0813)is the oldest surviving religious structure in Newport, built in 1699. Until 1905, the Meeting House was home of the New England Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends. The Quakers were Newport’s dominant religious group for the first 100 years of the Colony’s history; as late as 1730, more than half of Newport’s residents were members of the Society of Friends.
* Hunter House (, 401-847-1000) was the Revolutionary War Headquarters of French Admiral de Ternay. Today, Hunter House showcases Newport’s original and famous Townsend-Goddard furniture, silver, and portraits of the period, along with a restored 18th-century garden.
* International Tennis Hall of Fame (, 800-457-1144) is the world’s largest tennis museum and features interactive exhibits, videos, and popular memorabilia of tennis champions?past, present, and future. The Hall of Fame is known as Newport’s “Sporting Mansion” and is an outstanding example of Victorian shingle-style architecture. Not just a museum, the Hall of Fame sits on six acres and features 13 grass tennis courts, all open to the public.
* International Yacht Restoration School (, 401-848-5777) provides a glimpse into the classic yachts of yesteryear as students learn to restore these masterpieces. You can tour the Coronet, the most historic American grand yacht still in existence
* Museum of Newport History (, 401-841-8770) offers an overview of Newport’s long history and architectural variety. The city’s history is told through objects, paintings, and more contemporary interactive computers and videos.
* Museum of Yachting (, 401-847-1018) is housed in a 19th-century brick building on the waterfront, and relates the history of yachting through photos, paintings, memorabilia, and various vessels.
* Redwood Library and Athenaeum (, 401-847-0292) is the oldest lending library in the United States, founded in 1747, and is housed in the oldest library building in the country, built in 1750. The library is still an independent subscription library and also houses an outstanding collection of 18th and 19th century portraits, 19th century sculpture, antique furniture, and rare and unique books. Lectures, performances, seminars, and exhibitions are offered for the public and members alike.
* Touro Synagogue (, 401-847-4794) is the oldest synagogue building in the country. The congregation was established in 1658 by descendants of Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal who came to America seeking a haven from religious persecution. The synagogue was designed by colonial architect Peter Harrison (who also designed the Redwood Library) and dedicated in 1763, and is considered one of the best examples of 18th-century architecture in the United States.

No tour of Newport would be complete without?at the very least?a walk or drive down Bellevue Avenue with its tree-lined brick walkways and Colonial gas lights. If you do have the time, plan to visit several of the imposing “cottages” that line the avenue. The Breakers (, 401-847-6544) is the most palatial of the summer homes and was built in the late 1890s for Cornelius Vanderbilt. The 70-room mansion overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and is a monument to opulence, with its lavish use of alabaster, marble, mosaics, and antique woods. While the Breakers is the largest of the mansion, Marble House (, 401-847-1000) is perhaps the most ornate, known for its gold ballroom. Marble House was a gift from William Vanderbilt to his wife, Alva, in 1892. Apparently such a gift wasn’t enough to keep Mrs. Vanderbilt home and in 1895, she divorced her husband and married Oliver Perry Belmont. Her new residence didn’t exactly pale in comparison though; she became the mistress of Belcourt Castle (, 401-846-0669), built in 1894 and based on Louis XIII’s hunting lodge. Belcourt is home to a full-size gold coronation coach and one of the largest collections of antiques and treasures in Newport. It is also the only Newport mansion with owners in residence.

There are a number of other mansions to visit, including Astors’ Beechwood Mansion (, 401-846-3773), which offers a 45-minute guided tour given by professional actors in costume replicating Newport high society; Chateau-sur-Mer (, 401-847-1000), one of the country’s finest examples of lavish Victorian architecture and design; The Elms (, 401-847-1000), modeled after the early 18th-century Chateau d’Asnieres near Paris, with a formal sunken garden; Kingscote (, 401-847-1000), built in 1849 and considered the country’s first summer cottage; Rosecliff (, 401-847-1000), which overlooks the famous Cliff Walk and the Atlantic Ocean, and was modeled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles; and Rough Point (, 401-849-7300), former home of tobacco heiress Doris Duke.

As you might imagine, you probably won’t be able to visit all the mansions in one visit; if you only have a day or two in Newport, choose one or two (any more than that and your eyes will just glaze over from all that opulence!). A copy of the book, Newport Mansions: The Gilded Age, published by the Preservation Society of Newport County and available in museum stores and bookshops, will fill you in on the cottages you missed this time around and give you a starting point for your next trip.

From any road running east off Bellevue Avenue, stroll along the spectacular 3 ?-mile path known as Cliff Walk. This picturesque path has views of many of the mansions on one side and the rocky coastline on the other. Take note however; there are no restrooms or services along the path, and in many places it is unpaved, making it difficult for small children and those who can’t get around easily.

And speaking of getting around easily?Newport is best explored on foot, on bikes, or by motorcoaches or harbor cruises. There’s no real need to use your car?and the narrow Colonial streets can clog easily.
Consider these options instead:

* A narrated motorcoach tour of Ocean Drive and Bellevue Avenue.
* A scenic harbor cruise on any of the sail?or motorboats available along the waterfront.
* A walking tour of the historic district of Newport.
* Bike rentals.
* Trolley/bus service to all points of interest in Newport, offered by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA).

Newport doesn’t lack for accommodations, including hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts; reservations are a must though, especially during the summer season.
Some popular?and with good reason?choices:

* Hotel Viking (, 800-556-7126), a member of the Historic Hotels of America, is 75 years old and newly restored. It’s located in the middle of the Historic Hill district, just minutes from the mansion of Bellevue Avenue.
* Newport Marriott Hotel (, 800-458-3066) is located in the heart of Newport, close to the mansions and downtown, and with an enviable position overlooking the harbor.
* Newport Harbor Hotel and Marina (, 800-955-2558) also enjoys views overlooking the harbor or Queen Anne Square. If you plan to sail to Newport, the hotel offers a 60-slip marina.
* Castle Hill Inn and Resort (, 888-466-1355). A private Victorian waterfront estate, is located a short drive from the center of town but offers beautiful oceanview guest rooms and beach cottages.
* Cliffside Inn (, 800-845-1811) was once the home of artist Beatrice Turner. The 16-room inn features fireplaces, whirlpools, steam baths, all in a setting of artwork and antiques. Save room for the popular afternoon tea available to guests.

For more information on Newport, contact

*the Newport County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau

*the Rhode Island Tourism Division

*the Newport Historical Society

*The Preservation Society of Newport County

Newport in a Nutshell?What to Do

* Enjoy the spectacular beauty of Newport’s scenic Cliff Walk
* Re-live the “Gilded Age” at one of Bellevue Avenue’s elegant “castles.”
* See the city-by-the-sea from the sea with a harbor cruise.
* Visit America’s oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue (and look for George Washington’s seat).
* Browse through books dating as far back as the mid-15th century at the Athenaeum, America’s oldest library.
* Bike along the magnificent coastline of Ocean Drive.
* Watch master craftsmen at work at the Yacht Restoration School.
* Enjoy afternoon tea at the Cliffside Inn, named “one of the great tea rooms of America.”
* Just wander?Newport’s quaint cobblestone wharves are filled with interesting and unique shops, art galleries, and restaurants.

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