Rhode Island is a special place, but sometimes it is easy for those who live here to forget just how special it truly is. In this smallest of the 50 states, there is a tremendous density of historic buildings, many of which have been individually listed on the National Register — the highest designation given by the Department of Interior, which is charged with identifying America’s most important natural and architectural resources.
In the state of Rhode Island, there are more than 750 historic sites and districts, and the East Bay counties of Bristol and Newport have more than 140 listings alone. In the single square mile of land surrounding Washington Square in Newport, there are more than 40 sites on the National Register, which is one of the greatest densities of National Register landmarks and districts anywhere in the United States.
Among the very first buildings listed as part of the National Historic Register in 1966 as being central to American History when the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) was originally passed, were the Brick Market, the Old Colony House, the Redwood Library, the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house and the Touro Synagogue — all in the immediate vicinity of the Square.
Cities like Newport, Bristol, Tiverton and Adamsville represent some of the best preserved colonial communities anywhere in America. These buildings are not simply part of their communities’ histories or even the state’s architectural assets. As demonstrated by the high number of National Register sites and buildings, these sites represent important chapters in American history and heritage and they are often central to the reason that people come to visit or live in Rhode Island.
Other places around the country have harbors and urban areas where one can walk to shops and restaurants from attractive, well-scaled residences, but there are few other states that have such a rich 400-year history or greater architectural authenticity than Rhode Island offers. The state is truly a “Metropolitan Museum of Architecture”— the place where some of the best works by the most important American architects of the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries were built and preserved for posterity.
And yet, none of Rhode Island’s small towns and cities have been “dipped in amber” to preserve them for all time, and that is a very good thing. Traditionally, towns and cities like Newport, Bristol, Tiverton and Warren have balanced preservation of the old with construction of the new, which is how great buildings from four different centuries are able to sit side by side as good neighbors in these vital, living communities.
And it is not just the buildings that need care. Every part of a town or city’s public works has an impact on the perception and therefore the value of the experience. A modern street sign can irreparably damage an historic vista. Asphalt paving where once there were cobblestones can erode the sense of being in a place that existed before the time when cars ruled the urban landscape. Cobra head lights that look like they came from an interstate highway distort the scale and charm of an historic streetscape and do little to light the sidewalks. Removal of trees wherever they are surrounded by sidewalk makes streets seem barren and empty.
The small amount of additional time and care that is needed to maintain and improve these communities beyond what is ordinary and normal elsewhere, to what is extraordinary and memorable here in Rhode Island, is small, and the cost is modest, but the payoff can be enormous. Rhode Island’s ancestors labored to build and preserve these assets, and yet they can easily be lost in a moment of inattention or carelessness.
As the GrowSmart Rhode Island organization has often observed, historic architecture is not just Rhode Island’s great heritage, it is also one of the assets that the state can use to build a brighter and more prosperous future. Our historic communities are what make us special and different from the vast majority of other places around the country. That is a cause for celebration.
Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, urban planner, educator and practicing architect who lives and works in Newport, Rhode Island.