Less than half a mile from the Berthon offices in Newport, Rhode Island USA, on historic Bellevue Avenue stands The Redwood Library and Athenaeum. It is a jewel in the crown of our town and in 1747 when it was built, it was the first purpose built library in the USA and today is the oldest continuously operating one.
As an Athenaeum, it is a museum and research center as well as home to around 200,000 books, with early American history well represented as well as that of Newport and Rhode Island. It was originally a Newport community project with 46 sponsors with a single aim ʻto propagate virtue, knowledge and useful learning with nothing in view but the good of mankindʼ. This special building has served our community well and is still doing so today…
Its architect, Peter Harrison, was interestingly enough also a ship builder and captain, who arrived in Newport in 1739. His ship building skills were carried over to the design of the Redwood Library.
Its four columns resemble masts, and the two side wings the sails. This symbolizes the fact that ships were the conduit for the information and knowledge shared between the continents. It is said that some of the original beams were old ships’ beams, which can also be seen in buildings elsewhere in Newport. Recycling eighteenth century style! The exterior of the building is carved and painted wood, not stone. Each panel is about 6 foot square, and it has been a subject of much debate over the years whether housing flammable books in a flammable structure is such a good idea! The reasoning when the Redwood was built was that since America had plenty of wood, and at a time when city buildings and homes were mostly all built that way, Harrison wanted the Redwood not to be yet another stone monument, but instead, part of and familiar to the community living here. This type of wooden construction is also used in a building right next to our offices, Vernon House, now owned by the Restoration Foundation, and it is hard to tell that it isn’t stone.
The original shipment of 1338 books from London was a huge number. Subjects ranged from astronomy, theology, law, heraldry, English lineage, classics, gardening, surgery, maps, treaties on navigation, to carpentry and classical architecture. As Newport was developing from virgin wilds, can you imagine how it must have been to have a place like the Redwood that had books that you could borrow and read? Books were so valuable that members could borrow just one book a month for a maximum of a month, and they had to leave a promissory note to the value of the book. It was said that the Redwood “rendered the inhabitants of Newport, if not a learned, yet a better read, and inquisitive people, than any other town in the British colonies”.
SAILORS VALENTINE ARTIFACT
ORIGINAL PHOTO OF THE ROVENSKY ROOM
Over the past three centuries, various donors have created a rather eclectic collection. The museum holds an important compilation of portrait paintings including those by Gilbert Stuart and Charles Bird King, many artefacts, as well as two gallery spaces for rotating exhibitions. In some cases, the only remaining copy of a book can be found at the Redwood. Today modern publications sit next to a selection of the classics from the 1800s. There are childrens’ books, and historical research articles as well. The Redwood is a lending library today, free of charge to enter and with a modest yearly fee for membership. There is a lecture series as well as a summer concert series on the lawn, and quite frequently, a bride may be seen walking up the Redwood’s path.
The interior is stunning using natural lighting wherever possible, with arched ceilings, wonderful mouldings, and welcoming but private spaces for pondering life. Various portraits and sculptures are on display, and the display cases change frequently. There is an art gallery, exhibit space, and because the stacks are on castors, it also creates a wonderful space for a dinner or an event.
ROVENSKY ROOM REMODEL
QUIET READING SPACE
Recently the Redwood hosted the Spectacular Silver Exhibit in collaboration with The New York Yacht Club, featuring the Goelet Cups, made by Tiffany & Co. as well as Whitney Manufacturing in 1882. These trophies were not only part of The New York Yacht Club Collection, but others were also on lend from The Indiana Museum of Art At Newfield, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Salve Regina, Seawanaka Corinthian Yacht Club, Tiffany & Co. and private collectors. Originally donated by an avid yachtsman, Ogden Goelet, for the winning single mast sloop and two-masted schooners, they are some of the most elaborate trophies ever produced, and show the skill of the American silversmiths of the era. These races were held in Newport during the Annual New York Yacht Club Cruise, and each year the trophies became yet more elaborate. The first winner was MONTAUK, and the tradition continued every year until Mr.Goelet’s death in 1897. To this day, the race, now called the Astor’s Cup, is part of the New York Yacht Club’s annual cruise.
The Redwood also has a celestial globe, made in London by the Carys. Inscribed on it the date: ‘1st March, 1799 – CARY’S new and improved celestial globe on which is carefully laid down the whole of the stars and nebulae contained in the astronomical catalogue of the Rev Mr Wollaston FRS. Compiled from the authorities of Flamstted, de la Caille, Hevelius, Mayer/Bradley, Herschel, Maskelyn and with an extensive number from the works of Miss Herschel – the whole adapted to the year 1800 and the limits of each constellation determined by a boundary line.’
Instead of showing our planet, it depicts the sky above, its stars and constellations. Ironically, the founders of the Redwood met on the last Wednesday of September each year in the forenoon which is coincidentally the time of the autumn equinox when the sun’s path following the celestial equator rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west.
The Redwood is an extraordinary part of the fabric of Newport and the USA and well worth a visit, particularly for sailors who can wonder this incredible globe and the Redwood’s history that began with a ship’s captain with a talent for architecture.