Anyone visiting Newport from now till late September might well assume that this ancient Rhode Island town had never lost its position as queen of American resorts. The harbor is filled with yachts. The no-vacancy sign hangs on most lodging places, and house parties are going full blast out on Ocean Drive. The jazz festival has just left town, and Tennis Week starts on August 13, when debutantes will dance every night under striped canvas at Bailey's Beach. But the truth of the matter is that the history of Newport has been a series of highs and lows; and if it were not for the renewed series of America's Cup challenges Newport would be in a low right now.
The fine exotic trees—the weeping beeches and towering tulips—can't conceal the fact that many a Gothic Newport mansion has become a Gothic pigeon cote. And Thames Street, whose cobblestones have rattled with the commerce of shipping since 1650, is a row of vacant shops and Army-Navy stores. Even the Navy is pulling out. Goat Island in the harbor, site of the Navy's first torpedo base, is now for sale for $35,500 to any developer willing to connect it to the mainland.
This roller-coaster status began for Newport some 300 years ago. The town was one of the early glories of colonial America, with the most prosperous and eclectic society in the New World. The Redwood Library, a neo-classic architectural treasure, was built in 1750 and is the oldest public library in the country. The Touro Synagogue, built in 1763 and now a national shrine, is the oldest synagogue in America. Both buildings are handsome monuments to the early days of the city.
Near them, along the wharfs and up the hill from Thames Street, there are more prerevolutionary buildings still standing than on any other site in the U.S., more than 300 of them: the old Colony House, Trinity Church, whole streets, like Clarke Street, of honest frame houses with Adam fanlights and mullioned windows (Rochambeau slept here; rooms to let). Richly furnished 18th-century mansions—like Hunter House—are now open to the public.
During the Revolution, Newport was occupied by British and Hessian troops who, along with an epidemic of smallpox, so oppressed the citizens that many of them left town for good, and Newport went into its first decline.
In the second half of the 19th century Newport's fortunes rose again, as the town became the summer capital of America's new society of industrial magnates. The moderating influence of the Gulf Stream made it "one coat warmer than Boston or New York," and its rock-bound promontories, cooled by Atlantic spray, were soon crowned by Gothic and Tudor piles—the most extravagant collection of private residences built anywhere since the Renaissance. The gaudiest were Commodore Vanderbilt's The Breakers, patterned on an Italian Renaissance palace, and Belcourt, O.H.P. Belmont's castle out on Bellevue Avenue.
Along with this opulence came sport. The first international polo match in America was played here in 1886. The first U.S. Open golf tournament was held in 1895 at the Newport Country Club. (It is now open to the public—greens fees $5 on weekdays, $7.50 on Sundays.) In 1879, James Gordon Bennett commissioned Architect Stanford White to build the Newport Casino. It is one of the finest examples of shingle architecture in America. In 1881 the first national lawn tennis singles championship was held there. It now houses the National Lawn Tennis Museum.
Income tax—and the 1929 market crash—ended that gilded time. Although many of the Newport "cottages" are still splendid summer retreats (Hammersmith Farm, for instance, home of Hugh Auchincloss, Jackie Kennedy's stepfather), no one any longer has 16 liveried servants. And while the debs and dowagers still come for Tennis Week, the tearoom-restaurant at the Casino is now decorated with bad murals of Portofino.
However, since the resumption of America's Cup racing the Newport tide is rising again and the town is taking renewed pride in both its past and its future. The Preservation Society is campaigning for a million-dollar bond issue lo save and restore 100 of the finest colonial buildings in town. And the city plans to tear down the rundown shops on Thames Street and turn its rickety waterfront into an esplanade with marinas fit for a port which, every other June, is the starting point of the Bermuda race and which becomes the world capital of yachting in an America's Cup summer.
SEEING THE RACES