The Newport Historical Society was chartered in 1854 to collect and preserve books, manuscripts, and objects pertaining to Newport’s history. The Society’s collections originated thirty years earlier as the “Southern Cabinet” of the Rhode Island Historical Society. By 1853, several prominent Newporters recognized the need for a separate organization specifically devoted to preserving the history of Newport County, and the collections of the Southern Cabinet were reorganized under the auspices of the Newport Historical Society.
The first quarters of the Newport Historical Society were temporary. Meetings moved from member’s home to member’s home, and lectures were held in rented halls. By 1884, however, the Society was suffering from growing pains. It needed a permanent space to house its collections. After some deliberation, the Society purchased the old Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House (1730).
This was arguably their first real artifact, and certainly one of the first examples of adaptive reuse of an historic structure with deliberate homage to the structure’s own integrity. It is a responsibility the Newport Historical Society has taken seriously and managed well since 1884.
It did not take long for the Society to fill its new quarters. In 1884, they advertised that “The Newport Historical Society have taken possession of their new quarters on Barney Street and are soliciting donations of historical material relating to Newport.”
The influx of gifts was gratifying, but the membership soon realized there were untapped resources that the current building, surrounded as it was by stables, paint shops, and other fire hazards, could not safely accommodate. In 1887, the Society purchased a site on Touro Street and in the fall of that year moved its building there.
As the holdings of the Society continued to increase, the need for more space and security became evident. Ground was broken in 1902 for a brick library building on the Touro Street side of the lot. The new building provided office space for the Society, a fireproof vault for historic documents, and a library. In 1915, the meeting house was detached from the library and moved to the rear of the lot. A three story brick building was constructed between the library and the meeting house. Brick veneer, a slate roof, and steel shutters were added to the exterior of the meeting house to make its exterior covering consistent with the adjoining structures, and to provide added protection from the weather and the threat of fire.
The collections of the Newport Historical Society have continued to grow, and have, in fact, outgrown every structure provided for them within a decade or less of the ground-breaking. The result is one of the finest local historical society collections in New England. Its manuscripts, portraits, silver, furniture, decorative arts, and genealogical collection are nationally recognized.
For more on the city of Newport, see: A Brief History of Newport, Rhode Island