Newport Daily News: Flood in Newport Historical Society’s basement damages archives. How they’re being saved

January 16, 2024

By: Savana Dunning, Newport Daily News

Hanging from a clothing line stretched across two sets of ladders, dozens, if not hundreds, of film negatives from The Newport Daily News archives dry out in the lobby of the Newport Historical Society’s headquarters on Touro Street, just a portion of the photo archive that was impacted when the organization’s basement unexpectedly flooded on Tuesday.

“It’s really Newport’s stories,” Executive Director Rebecca Bertrand said. “It’s the stories of locals – and it’s the stories of your newspaper that’s being preserved and the wonderful thing is that though it’s damaged, it’s not lost.”

The rest of the 150,000 photo negatives that had to be rescued from the flooded basement are being stored in a freezer to stave off mold growth, Bertrand said. This collection of photos, dating from around the 1950s to the 2000s, was donated to the Historical Society by the Sherman family, the publication’s previous owners, and relocated prior to the paper moving from the former Newport Daily News building on Malbone Road in 2019. They capture a wide range of Newport life during the mid-20th century and into the 21st, from the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals and the X Games to local football games and car crashes. Bertrand said the organization doesn’t expect any of the negatives to be damaged beyond repair from the incident.

Even though the negatives had been stored in raised stacks against the walls of the Historical Society’s basement, there was enough water that seeped in from the storm that it had reached Bertrand’s mid-calf when she went downstairs to investigate on Wednesday. She said the basement, which is also being dried with a series of fans and dehumidifiers, had never flooded before and the building on Touro Street is on a hill, so the flooding was unexpected.

This photo archive was the only collection impacted by the flooding and Bertrand said the documents were stored there as the Newport Historical Society was in the middle of processing and digitizing them. Older photo negatives from the Daily News archives, as well as much more of the society’s collection, are stored upstairs in the new storage area built when the building received a multi-million dollar renovation in 2015.

Bertrand, who took on the mantle of executive director in 2023 after Ruth Taylor retired, said she did not know why the negatives were stored in the basement, as the decision was made before her time in that role.

The Historical Society received an outpouring of support from the community when it announced the situation, Bertrand said. Fellow history-focused non-profits like the Newport Restoration Foundation and the Preservation Society of Newport County, as well as other community members and businesses, volunteered to help rescue the documents from the basement and provide the freezer pod. Although Bertrand declined to share how much in donations the organization has received out of fear of sounding tacky, she said the funding they have received will help with their continued effort to preserve the negatives.

It’s really incredible, because we would not have been able to do this on our own,” Bertrand said. “It’s a testament to support that’s coming to us from all angles”

Alex Allardt, a member of the historical society’s collections committee, had been trained as a member of FEMA’s Heritage Emergency National Task Force, said they were able to buy some time thanks to the quick response and the acquisition of a freezer, but predicts that it will take multiple years to return the negatives to the state they once were before the flood.

“We’re ready and we’re waiting for the recovery phase and we’re looking forward to next steps,” Allardt said. “It will be a multi-year project to bring it back to where it was when he had the emergency incident.

Bertrand said they had also contacted the Sherman Family, who owned the newspaper before it was purchased by Gatehouse in 2017, and said they were very understanding about the situation. Additionally, Bertrand said the organization still needs additional financial support to tackle this issue and encouraged those interested to donate through the historical society’s website.

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