In addition to the many natural assets of which my beloved town can boast – from embracing sea breezes to extended green landscapes –are three centuries of architectural excellence and stewardship. Topping that list is the jewel in the crown, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. Founded in 1747, designed by Peter Harrison, whose English roots are responsible for his introduction of Palladian classical architecture to this young country, the Library holds the distinction of being the first Palladian public building in America. The buff-colored façade, looking like expensive quarried stone, is actually constructed of beveled wood panels, an inspired design concept which was well received throughout the colonies, contributing to Harrison’s renown as an architect.
The Redwood Library and Athenaeum has many additional distinctions…it is the oldest library building in the country, and the oldest continuously operating in its original location, therefore holding a special place in the history of our country. Created as a community effort by its namesake, Abraham Redwood, and 46 original proprietors – what has been described as “the single greatest act of philanthropy in colonial America”– the Library symbolized the intellectual aspirations of a nascent America ”to propagate virtue, knowledge and useful learning with nothing in mind but the good of mankind.” The Harrison Room still houses the majority of the 751 original books purchased in London by Mr. Redwood.
And, one of its most prominent librarians, Ezra Stiles, serving from 1755-1776, was also the influential founder of Brown University and later president of Yale University.
Given its success as a circulating library and inspiration for others, in 1833 the term athenaeum was added to the name, reflecting the original founders’ belief that an institution able to stimulate intellectual pursuits across multiple periods and diverse subjects is an institution positioned to address the fundamental American belief in the uplifting power of education and self-reliance. Its presence on Bellevue Avenue has also grown as rooms and wings were added over the years, conveying a handsome setting on its block size lot.
The current public entrance on Redwood Street is complimented in the spring by a blooming star magnolia.
As our current Director, Benedict Leca, expresses it, this hybrid institution serves as “an interdisciplinary ’think space’ comprising a library, museum, and research center, addressing the historic and the contemporary, the theoretical and the practical, as well as the literary and the visual.” The Library contains 200,000 volumes, as well as an important collection of portrait paintings (think Gilbert Stuart), sculpture, maps, letters, and artifacts.
One of its most important treasures is the Townsend-Goddard table, shining a spotlight on the Newport cabinetmaking dynasty renowned for their masterpieces created in the eighteenth century (one of the unique features of Newport furniture is the ball and claw foot with an open space carved between the talon and ball).
But ours is not a musty, dark library; light floods in from tall windows and elegant skylights in the Reading Room and Harrison Room.
The inviting intimacy, the alcoves where a visitor or researcher can enjoy reading by one of the Palladian windows beckons you to return.
Or to quietly enjoy the offerings of an exhibit in one of the two rotating gallery spaces (here, “Treasures of the Redwood”).
This year, 2022, is an auspicious date for Newport! The Redwood Library and Athenaeum is celebrating its 275th anniversary. Just consider a few of the diverse offerings that are being presented.
Harry Benson: Persons of Interest
Bill Murray, Jan Vogler, and Friends: New Worlds
Newport Classical Music
John Tschirch: America’s Eden, Newport Landscapes through the Ages
It is an understatement to say that I am a big supporter of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, which has served as Newport’s intellectual center and regional beacon of lifelong learning and civic engagement for almost three centuries…in a town that is nearly four centuries old! Following in the spirit of an Athenaeum, the reprint of my second book, Living Newport, was published under the Redwood imprint, representing another avenue for stimulating intellectual pursuits.
Built on a hill, a temple of learning looking down upon a bustling seaport; an understated presence, but one that for all time embodied Newporters’ aspirations to make theirs a city of culture as well as of commerce and leisure. For me, this mighty, aged beech (its roots negotiating the old wrought iron fence) serves as a symbol of the fortitude, perseverance, and vision of the stewards of “our Redwood” over 275 years.
Happy Anniversary to the Redwood Library and Athenaeum…