Redwood Library & Athenaeum // 1750

The Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport was built in 1750 and was the first purposely built library in the United States! This highly significant building is possibly the oldest neo-Classical building in the country and it was designed by British-born architect Peter Harrison, who is credited with bringing the Palladian architectural movement to the colonies. Harrison also designed the iconic Touro Synagogue in town (featured previously). The Redwood Library was established in 1747 by Abraham Redwood and 45 other wealthy residents with the goal of making written knowledge more widely available to the Newport community. The Redwood family had a large sugar plantation in Antigua. Abraham Redwood, Jr. was born in 1709 and he was active in the family sugar business from his teenage years. When his father died, the plantation – along with the over 200 enslaved people that worked it – were signed over to Abraham Redwood jr.

Rhode Island’s ties to slavery lasted much longer than other New England states. Many of the state’s wealthiest owned plantations in the Caribbean, where the conditions were comparable to that of the deep south. Once trafficked across the Atlantic arrived in the Caribbean islands, the Africans were prepared for sale. They were washed and their skin was oiled to be sold to local buyers. Often parents were separated from children, and husbands from wives. Upon his death in 1788, Redwood left his slaves in Newport and Antigua to his children and grandchildren, an inventory taken 22 years prior to his death listed 238 enslaved people in Antigua. I bring this history up because America was built on slavery, and I bet thousands walk by this architecturally beautiful building every year, with no idea about its namesake.

Touro Synagogue // 1763

While Newport is arguably best-known for the Newport mansions from the Gilded Age, there are soooo many amazing buildings from the Colonial era, including some of the most significant and historic in the United States. Touro Synagogue in Newport is the oldest synagogue building still standing in the United States, the only surviving synagogue building in the U.S. dating to the colonial era, and the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue building in North America (for reference, second-oldest extant synagogue in North America was built in 1833, seventy years later)! Its history begins in the 17th century when the small but growing colony of Newport received its first Jewish residents possibly as early as 1658. The earliest known Jewish settlers arrived from Barbados, where they participated in the triangular trade along with Dutch and English settlements. By 1758, the Jewish population had grown sufficiently that there was a need for a house of worship. The Congregation now known as Congregation Jeshuat Israel (Salvation of Israel) engaged Newport resident Peter Harrison to design the synagogue. Harrison, a British American merchant and sea captain, who was self-tutored in architecture, studying mostly from books and drawings. By the time he designed Touro Synagogue, he had already completed iconic buildings including Newport’s Redwood Library and King’s Chapel in Boston. Construction began on the “Jews Synagogue” in 1759, which was completed years later in 1763. The building is one of the most significant buildings in America, and is open to tours where you can see the immaculately restored interiors.