Restoring the Old State House

Newport Colony House Begins Phase Three of Restoration

 

The 1801 Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that lives in the Newport Colony House was recently covered so it is not clearly visible. With the busy summer season approaching, why cover such an important painting? At the 1739 Colony House, where the portrait resides, Phase Three of vital restoration work is beginning.


Located at the head of Washington Square, the Colony House, a striking reminder of Newport’s prominence during the colonial era, is undergoing a series of important repairs. The work includes: repairing the brownstone, including the outside stairs; work on the roof’s structures; repairing the clock on the building’s façade; painting the floor in the Great Hall; and painting the second floor chamber rooms.

The Old Colony House, also known as Old State House or Newport Colony House, is located at the east end of Washington Square in the city of Newport. It is a brick Georgian-style building completed in 1741, and became the meeting place for the colonial legislature. From independence to the early 20th century the state legislature alternated its sessions between here and the Rhode Island State House in Providence.

It has not been altered much since its construction. As one of the best-kept surviving Georgian public buildings in the United States from the colonial era, it was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 1960. It is also a contributing property to the Newport Historic District, later designated an NHL itself. It is still owned by the state, but managed as a museum by the Newport Historical Society.

Besides its political and architectural importance, the building was the site of many important Revolutionary events in Rhode Island. George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower have both been guests at the building. It has been used as a barracks, hospital, courthouse and even as a location for a Steven Spielberg film.

Paint analysis, a scientific study of the wall’s paint used to determine the 18th and early 19th century colors, was performed by John Vaughn of Architectural Conservation Services. Mr. Vaughn’s work informed a team comprised of staff members from the Newport Historical Society and the State’s Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission who will determine the scheme for painting this spring. Colors are being examined for the Council Chamber’s 1784 and 1812 appearance. In the Chamber of Deputies, Mr. Vaughn determined colors for the 1841/1842 appearance which reflects the courtroom’s early Victorian design, and for the polychrome paint campaign that was applied in 1854.

The Colony House, owned by the State of Rhode Island and managed by the Newport Historical Society, was constructed between 1739 and 1742. Phases One and Two of the restoration, which ran in 2010 and 2011, focused on painting the building’s exterior and the Great Hall: painting, restoring the plaster and individually repairing the building’s grand windows.

“The Colony House is one of the most important buildings in Colonial America,” explains the Historical Society’s Executive Director Ruth Taylor, “and we are delighted to assist in helping to return the property to its historic appearance.”

Many of the events leading up to and surrounding the Revolution in Rhode Island centered on the Colony House. In 1761 news of the death of King George II and his succession by his grandson George III was announced from the balcony. Three years later, the inaugural board meeting of the Corporation of the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island, which became Brown University, took place in the building. In 1765, Newport’s citizens gathered around to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act, which led to riots that damaged the houses of three prominent supporters of the Act, including the nearby Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, an NHL which is today the oldest house in the city.

As the colony’s General Assembly began preparing for war, it ordered that weapons be stored in Colony House in 1774. Two years later, the Declaration of Independence was read from the front steps. The British occupied Newport, then the colonial capital, later that year. During that time the building was used as a barracks. When the French joined the war later and drove the British out of the city, they used the building as a hospital. It is widely believed that a French Army chaplain celebrated Rhode Island’s first Roman Catholic Mass at Colony House during this period, but no evidence has been found of this.

After the surrender at Yorktown, in 1782, Rochambeau held a banquet in the building’s first-floor Great Hall to honor George Washington.

Visitors can view the work in progress during the Society’s Public & Private Spaces tour. Offered on Saturdays from April through June 16th at 11:30am, tour the Colony House and the c.1697 Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House. Tours cost $12 per person and depart from the Museum & Shop at Brick Market, 127 Thames Street. Call 401-841-8770 for reservations.

Since 1854, the Newport Historical Society has collected and preserved the artifacts, photographs, documents, publications, and genealogical records that relate to the history of Newport County, to make these materials readily available for both research and enjoyment, and to act as a resource center for the education of the public about the history of Newport County, so that knowledge of the past may contribute to a fuller understanding of the present. For more information please visit www.NewportHistory.org.

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