2014-09-04 / Front Page

A New Addition to the National Register

By Ross Cann


The artistic talents of John La Farge are evident in the intricate mural designs on the walls and ceilings of Newport Congregational's sanctuary. (Photo by Aaron Usher) The artistic talents of John La Farge are evident in the intricate mural designs on the walls and ceilings of Newport Congregational's sanctuary. (Photo by Aaron Usher) This column has often fondly called Newport the "Metropolitan Museum of Architecture" for the breadth and depth of its collection of important buildings from the colonial times through the early part of the 19th century. This audacious claim is based upon the extraordinarily high concentration of structures individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is supported by architectural history professor Richard Guy Wilson, from the University of Virginia, with his declaration in Ron Onorato's AIA Guide to Newport (2007) that "Per square foot, Newport possesses more great architecture than any other American city."

One of the honors associated with National Historic Register status is the placing of a plaque on the building to recognize the designation. On Friday, Sept. 12, at 6 p.m., the La Farge Restoration Fund will host a public unveiling of the National Historic Landmark plaque at Newport Congregational Church at the corner of Spring and Pelham streets, the city’s most recent addition to the prestigious program.

The building was gifted to the La Farge Restoration Fund at Newport Congregational Church in 2012 to facilitate a comprehensive restoration project. The building, erected in 1857 by New York architect Joseph C. Wells, a founding member of the American Institute of Architects, was granted National Historic Landmark status largely because of the comprehensive interior mural and stained glass window decoration executed in 1880 by the noted artist John La Farge.

A reception to celebrate this historic designation will follow in the sanctuary, which will remain open for viewing of the La Farge artwork. Personnel will be on hand to answer questions about the restoration process now under way at the site. Paul Miller, president of the La Farge Restoration Fund, said, "We are very happy to have Ted Sanderson, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, present for the plaque unveiling. As a very early and enthusiastic supporter of the restoration at Newport Congregational, he is the perfect partner for the commemoration."

The drive to preserve historic places is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first significant mention of the need for historic preservation came in 1935 with the Historic Sites Act, which stated "it is a national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance." This legislation was put in place largely to organize and codify the growing number of sites falling under governmental jurisdiction. It was further refined with the formal recognition of National Historic Landmark status in 1960. Among the Newport structures designated at that time were the Colony House, Brick Market, and the Redwood Library. With the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register of Historic Places was created to designate not just historic landmarks but also National Historic Landmark Districts. All of these are honorary titles and confer no absolute protection to the buildings or places, but make the individually listed structures (or historic buildings within the defined districts) eligible to participate in both federal and state historic tax credit programs. The City of Newport has 18 National Historic Landmarks, more than 10 entire states have.


The national significance of the building lies in its interior ornament, meticulously crafted by John La Farge. Pictured: the wall behind the altar. (Photo by Ross Cann) The national significance of the building lies in its interior ornament, meticulously crafted by John La Farge. Pictured: the wall behind the altar. (Photo by Ross Cann) Preservation is hard, challenging, and expensive work, yet it is the preservation of the city’s architectural fabric by previous generations that serves as a primary economic driver for Newport and is a constant source of pleasure and pride for its inhabitants. Every success deserves to be celebrated; attend the ceremony to honor the efforts of so many to save the Congregational Church, and enjoy the extraordinary artwork on display as well.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, holds degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia and is a historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport

Return to top