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The Center for Newport History

A New Home for the Newport Historical Society

"The 40,000 gross square foot new home for the Newport Historical Society shares a one acre site in the historic heart of Newport, Rhode Island, with the town’s original Quaker Meeting House of 1699. The center takes the form of a faceted horseshoe, enclosing a courtyard which opens toward the existing Meeting House. The outer edge of the building nestles into a corner of the site. This siting reestablishes the historic building facade line along two existing streets, holds the new building comfortably clear of the Meeting House and adjoining archeological buffer zone, and creates a small public green space at the street intersection. The Center’s front door is located adjacent to this small park and opens onto Marlborough Street, the more active of these two streets. A museum store and visitor’s information desk open onto the entrance lobby, as does a broad naturally-lit stair, which leads half a flight up to the Center’s principle level where both a suite of exhibit galleries and a research library face a paved courtyard. On the lower level, a one hundred seat auditorium and children’s learning center are conveniently located next to this open stair. Collection storage and a variety of support facilities, including conservation labs, occupy the remainder of the floor. The building’s upper level houses a members’ lounge, photography and other special galleries, the graphics collection, and the Center’s administrative offices.

"The building takes its artistic cues from the breadth of Newport’s architectural heritage. It combines a stone base, clapboard siding and a pitched, wood shingle roof with divided light windows recalling both the town’s eighteenth century residences, and the late nineteenth century Shingle and American Queen Anne style buildings that grew out of this earlier tradition."

Project Narrative, June 11, 1999
Robert A.M. Stern, Architects

The Center for Newport History

The Center for Newport History will give the Newport Historical Society the appropriate climate controlled space for exhibition, storage, access, and use of its nationally important museum , photographs and graphics library , and special library collections. As currently configured, the new building will provide 5,000 square feet for collection storage–enough for the current collection and 70% expansion over time. Our plans for the new building include a carefully designed and installed HVAC system, extensive use of compact storage, and well thought-out placement of functionally related spaces, such as processing and conservation areas and a graphics work room.

The Center for Newport History will increase our ability to balance the two seemingly contradictory aspects of our responsibility to care for this nationally important resource–conservation and access. By designing the spaces for greater security and climate control, and for efficient functioning, the building will help us gain a greater degree of control over the collections, and make them much more accessible and meaningful to a wider public.

Exhibits

With the completion of the Center for Newport History, the Newport Historical Society finally will have a place to provide visitors with an understanding of some of the most important aspects of Newport County’s past. The Museum of Newport History at the Brick Market will continue to function as the Society’s permanent exhibit, providing an overview of the area’s rich history. The six changing exhibit galleries in the Center for Newport History, along with spaces in the Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House and the Great Friends Meeting House , will provide space to more fully explore aspects of Newport’s history in the following exhibits:

The People and History of Newport: A Gallery for Changing Exhibits : Important themes will be explored in this gallery, including the history of the neighborhoods of Newport, the various ethnic and religious groups that have called Newport home, epic historical events, major institutions, important individuals, and the history of the other towns in Newport County.

Liberty of Conscience and Religion: Newport as the Birthplace of the American Way : This multi-part exhibit will allow the Society to explain fully Newport’s tradition of religious toleration, which is its most important contribution to the American political and social system. The exhibit will explore liberty of conscience and religion in Newport and its role as a model for the development of a national policy of toleration and separation of church and state. One part of the exhibit will be located in the Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House, which will be moved to the adjacent lot on Touro Street and restored. Another section of the exhibit will be in the Great Friends Meeting House, and the final section will be in the second floor galleries of the Center for Newport History. This exhibit is being designed in collaboration with other houses of worship throughout the area.

Kids and History : This will be an interactive, hands-on discovery space located near the Community Education auditorium. Here, children visiting on their own, with their parents, or with school groups can see special exhibits, will take part in programs designed to help them get the most out of their visit to the Center for Newport History, and can touch, manipulate, and learn directly from objects in the Society’s Educational Collection.

Photography Gallery : The Society’s collection of over 250,000 photographic and graphic images will be used in a constantly changing series of exhibits to document everything from the everyday life of ordinary citizens, to the most dramatic events and powerful people in American history.

The Furniture Makers of Newport and Colonial America : This exhibit will explore the social, cultural, economic, and religious background of the remarkable concentration of furniture makers in Newport. It will give the visitor an awareness of the importance of craftsmanship in colonial America, the special skills and aesthetics of Newport makers, and an understanding of the forms and details that distinguished Newport from other furniture-making cities, such as Boston and New York.

The Architectural Heritage of Newport Rhode Island : Newport has a dazzling array of some of the most spectacular architecture anywhere in America, from the humble vernacular buildings of the 17th century through the glory of the colonial era, into the Gilded Age and beyond. In the changing exhibits in this gallery, the Society will provide visitors to the Center for Newport History with an introduction and orientation to the city’s nationally important collection of historic buildings, which form an outdoor museum of architectural history.

Treasures from the Permanent Collection : A series of small, domestic scale alcoves throughout the exhibit facility will be designed to make the Society’s permanent collection much more accessible to the general public and will form the basis for greatly expanded use of the Society’s collections in educational programming.

Library and Special Collections Reading Rooms

Research is a critical element of the Center for Newport History, and the building is being designed to facilitate this activity through traditional means and using the latest in technology. Researchers are looking for information, and the building will serve as an information storage and retrieval system. The collections will be stored securely, but the access to them will be quick and easy. The reading rooms and areas for museum collection access will total 2,000 square feet. The library reading room will be inviting, comfortable, well equipped, and lined with open stacks of reference works. Set within the general reading room will be a more secure area designed for use of the Society’s internationally important special collections. Plans include an integrated computer system to help researchers find the information the collections contain in the Center for Newport History, as well as over the Internet through our web site.

The easy access to and careful protection of the collections in the Center for Newport History will foster interest, while exhibits and educational programs will alert scholars to the richness of our collection.

As research activities are facilitated by the new building and encouraged through an expanded set of programs aimed specifically at scholars, inevitably there will be more material submitted to the Society for its line of publications , in Newport History and as discrete monographs. Finally, the computer system planned for the Center for Newport History will also enable us to utilize our Internet web site for publication. Exhibit text, lecture notes, and other written material will be some of the content-rich features of the site. Readers of Newport History and other Society publications will have access to these materials and be able to respond easily.

Historic Sites

The completion of the Center for Newport History will also provide a convenient center for the interpretation of our historic sites and the surrounding neighborhoods. Located on the perimeter of the grounds of the Friends Meeting House, the Center for Newport History will be within two blocks of each of our historic sites. The sites the Society owns or is responsible for are:

The Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House (1660s)
The Great Friends Meeting House (1699)
The Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House (1730)
The Newport Colony House (1739)
The Museum of Newport History at the Brick Market (1762)

The Center for Newport History will be the hub of this complex of buildings, which is vitally important to understanding all aspects of Newport’s colonial era. Having our administrative headquarters in such close proximity to these sites will help us safeguard them and help many more visitors enjoy and learn from them.

Education

Above all, the specifically designed educational facilities within the Center for Newport History will enable us to provide educational programming for all age levels, taking advantage of permanent collections and changing exhibits and building on our policy of dovetailing the development of exhibit and programming themes, thereby enriching both. The proximity of program spaces to the reading rooms will enable us to integrate research into many educational programs. A large entry exhibit space at the heart of the new building will serve as an orientation space, allowing the staff to prepare visitors for viewing the exhibits and to discuss exhibit content and themes afterwards. A community education room, with facilities for "distance learning" via the Internet and video conferencing and containing a projection booth, will seat up to 120 people, accommodating most of the Society’s educational programs.

The State of Rhode Island mandates curricula units on local history in the fifth grade, but most teachers do not have the resources to teach this material effectively. With the proper spaces, we can address these pressing needs and opportunities with increased effectiveness. The Center for Newport History will allow us to hold sessions in close proximity to our collections and historic sites. It will give teachers full access to our holdings and our staff’s expertise as we join forces to improve the teaching of local history in schools throughout Newport County, Rhode Island and the region.

Education takes place at many levels, and audiences respond to an endless variety of teaching methods. Long committed to addressing the diverse needs of its existing audience and reaching out to new ones, the Center for Newport History will provide the Newport Historical Society with urgently needed facilities and a much stronger, more visible forum for its educational activities.

* * *

The Center for Newport History and the increased endowment, which is part of our capital campaign, will enable us to more effectively preserve our priceless educational resources, including our collections and historic sites, facilitate scholarship, provide new levels of access, allow us to interpret important but overlooked aspects of Newport’s past, create opportunities for learning, and fully realize the Newport Historical Society’s enormous educational potential for the residents of Newport County and the world beyond.