Everyone wants to talk about Newport—the people who live there, the musicians who play there, the tourists who visit there.
The city’s slogan is “America’s First Resort,” and this label seems to have held true in some manner or other for centuries. Native Americans in the area had a summer settlement in what is presently downtown Newport and hadset up land management and fishing practices well before Europeans ever set foot on the island. According to the Newport Historical Society, “the work these native people had done clearing the land was one of the factors that made this area attractive to English settlers.”
Once the settlers arrived in the early 1600s, it did not take them long to make the most of the sea. This led to a rather paradoxical and checkered history, in which trade and piracy flourished together, as did both religious diversity and human trafficking. While not everything about Newport’s history is praiseworthy, it certainly laida foundation for the city’s current eclectic and vibrant atmosphere. Over the decades, its fortune has ebbed and flowed like the waters surrounding it, booming when the ports were free, and slumping when, for example, the British occupied the city during the American Revolution.
Newport came into its own as a resort many years after the Revolution, when Southern planters flocked north in the summers to escape the southern heat and enjoy the coastal breezes. They began building grand dwellings in the city. Soon wealthy Yankees followed suit, and people like the Vanderbilts moved in, adding their own “cottages” (i.e., mansions) to the landscape. Those mansions include The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, considered the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family's social and financial preeminence; The Elms, the summer residence of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind of Philadelphia and New York, which was modeled after the mid-18th century French chateau d’Asnieres outside Paris; Chateau-sur-Mer, an Italianate-style villa built for China trade merchant William Shepard Wetmore, and the most palatial residence in Newport until the appearance of the Vanderbilt houses in the 1890s; and Kingscote, a landmark of the Gothic Revival style in American architecture built in 1839 for Southern planter George Noble Jones.
Now tourists flock from far and wide to view these mansions, as well asto take advantage of the other seaside delights Newport has to offer.
A Festive Air
Along with its mansions, Newport has many other past and present claims to fame. During the Civil War, the U.S. Naval Academy temporarily moved from Annapolis, Maryland, to Newport. In 1881, the first U.S. National SinglesTennis Championship for men was held at the Newport Casino, and the city remained the national tennis center for 34 years. Even though the center has shifted, the International Tennis Hall of Fame is still located in Newport. Other notable athletic events and markers in the city include the U.S. Golf Open, and, until 1983, the America’s Cup sailing championships. America’s Cup Avenue still pays proud tribute to this heritage.
Other famous Newport traditions which still go on in this city include Christmas and holiday celebrations in the mansions, and the many festivals. Wharf festivals run intermittently through most of the year, but the major summer festival season kicks off in June with the International Film Festival. In July, the Newport Music Festival draws acclaim for its classical offerings. The festival season climaxes in August with the renownedJVC Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival and ends in late fall with Oktoberfest.
It isn’t just tourists who look forward to traveling to this city for these festivals; musicians themselves enthusiastically anticipate playing to the crowds in Newport. Native Rhode Islander and current Nashville musician, Phil Madeira, says, “When I was a teenager, my friend Tom Jones and I went to the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival, taking in such luminaries as bluesman Albert King, Joni Mitchell, Buddy Rich, and Ella Fitzgerald. Little did I know that one day, I’d be playing on the main stage of the Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams. It was a dream come true to play in my native Rhode Island at that famed festival where Dylan ‘wentelectric’.”
Madeira, who played Newport with Buddy Miller in 2004 and is a member of Emmylou Harris’ touring band, praises the city not just for the musical opportunities but because of its coastal ambiance. “Of course, coming up from Nashville, Tennessee, my land-locked home for the last three decades, meant that I had to feast on the bounty of New England, so my band-mates and I had a very late meal of fried clams at one of the great seafood restaurants on the water. If we'd had time, I would have taken them on the Cliff Walk or to one of the amazing mansions that grandly speak of Newport's glory days. But we had to get a good night's rest before our mainstage appearance. When we finally took the stage, we had a breathtaking view of Narragansett Bay, teeming with boats on lovely summer day, and reminding me that there is simply no place like Newport.”
One’s Home is One’s Castle
Newport is more even than tourists and incoming artists, however. Some people, once they arrive, simply decide never to leave. Hali Beckman, for example, having grown up in Rhode Island herself, settled in Newport as an adult and has lived there for years. A landscape architect, she has seen her fair share of diverse properties and public works areas. She finds great scope for her work both because of the area’s inherent architectural and environmental qualities and because she enjoys working with her clients to help give life to their landscaping visions. It is in part because of artisansand property specialists like her that the city is able to maintain so much of its charm.
City tax assessor Allan Booth points out that most Newporters do not think of large developments when they think of condominiums, although Bridgeviewis one example of such a newer type of complex, with over one hundred units. Instead, they think of historic homes which have been converted into two- to six-unit condominiums.
Because of the historicity of most of the condominiums, hidden gems can be discovered in any home. Beckman, for example, discovered that the wallpaper covering four panels of wall in her living room was hand-painted and originated in 19th century France. Fortunately, because of Newport’s excellent Preservation Society, she was able to have her paper treasure restoredand stabilized to museum quality.
Beckman does caution buyers to do their homework. She recommends researching specific condominium associations to make sure that priorities match. She also notes that, in many older structures, there can be little to no soundproofing, and so noise from otherunits can at times be an annoyance.
On the other hand, she has plenty of good to say about Newport living in general. The city is thirty miles south of Providence and is accessible via Interstates 93, 95 and 195, and traversed by routes 3A, 138, 24 and 114. Within the city are public parking lots and one can buy a day pass for local public transport, which includes buses and trolleys to city attractions. Beckman also points out with enthusiasm that Newport is an international destination as well, such that, as a resident, one can meet “interesting people from all over the world.” There is always something to do, from the music festivals and museums to adult education courses. The city is also home to an excellent university, Salve Regina.
Diversity of Activity
Booth seconds the idea that Newport is full of things to do. He mentions that, in spite of only 279 commercial condos to 1,952 residential ones, the diversity within the commercial sector is impressive. Shopping ranges from the most upscale to much more affordable, and small family-run delis do businessalong with historic restaurants like the White Horse Tavern.
Furthermore, such a diversity of activity leads to a diversity of jobs. Naturally, tourism and attendant industries provide a large percentage of jobs in the area. Salve Regina and othereducational outlets are also sources of employment, as well as the traditional real estate and banking businesses.
As for residences, Newport has 1,952 condominiums, 4,411 single family residences and 1,598 multi-family residential properties. Condominium prices range from $200,000 to around$3 or $4 million, although assessed rates may vary. A condominium in the newer but lower-end Bridgeview development was recently assessed at $164,500, while a unit on Ocean Avenue was assessed at $8,287,200. Units on Kay Street fall within a price range most locals would consider respectable and still “decent living.” A unit there recently sold for $315,900.
Booth says that in 2008, there were comparatively few property sales in Newport. Broker-owner of Bellevue Realtors, Vin Marcello, sounds optimistic, however. His website asserts that “waterfront real estate is down only 3 percent from its peak in 2005.”
In the end, the consensus seems to be that Newport is the place to see and be seen. With music and art and beauty, as well as a spectrum of housing, employment, shopping and entertainment options, everyone and anyone can find a niche there.
Jennifer Grosser is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium magazine.