2014-10-23 / Front Page

Worthy of World Heritage Recognition

By Ross Sinclair Cann

Governor Chafee joined Ruth Taylor and Pieter Roos at the Colony House to begin the renewed process in establishing Newport as a World Heritage site. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Governor Chafee joined Ruth Taylor and Pieter Roos at the Colony House to begin the renewed process in establishing Newport as a World Heritage site. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Newport is blessed with a broad cultural and architectural heritage. From the city’s rich concentration of colonial houses along Spring Street and in the Point district, to the extraordinary collection of Greek revival and Queen Anne styles on Historic Hill and in the Catherine-Kay neighborhood, to the unsurpassed examples of Gilded Age architecture along Bellevue Avenue, few places can boast of a greater concentration of important American architecture than the City by the Sea.

Beyond its architectural treasures, Newport was an early bastion of religious rights with the signing of the Rhode Island Charter in 1663 that promised freedom “in matters of religious concernments.”

Back in 2006, a group of volunteer leaders mounted a valiant effort to put Newport on the World Heritage map. While only one of 38 proposals was accepted during that selection process, Newport’s application was deemed to be “worthy of future consideration.”

As of 2014 there are 1,007 World Heritage sites designated. Italy is home to the greatest number with 50 sites. As of 2014 there are 1,007 World Heritage sites designated. Italy is home to the greatest number with 50 sites. The World Heritage sites program was first begun by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1954 in response to the proposed flooding of an Egyptian valley that was rich in ancient temples. The buildings were relocated at great expense with the financial support of more than 50 countries.

Many came to realize that some monuments and places have importance to the history and culture of not just a single country, but to the world as a whole. In 1972, the “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” was proposed and the concept came to fruition in 1975. Since that time the requirements for a building or place to be eligible for World Heritage status has continued to evolve, but they are currently based on 10 criteria of either a cultural or natural nature. The process is typically two-fold: first, the host nation must adopt the nomination as one its own priorities for inclusion onto this rarified list. Second, the World Heritage Commission must then choose the place or building from the candidates offered for selection.

Many might fairly ask about the benefits and responsibilities conferred by being listed as a World Heritage site. The benefits are largely in the area of recognition that inclusion on the list brings and the increase in tourism that is the natural result. The second benefit is the pride that the community derives from being recognized among the most revered and precious places on earth.

There are only about 960 cultural and natural landmarks that have been so honored worldwide and only about 200 of those are in North America, including such recognizable listings as the Statue of Liberty and Yosemite National Park. World Heritage sites are protected in international conflicts and their wanton destruction is deemed to be a war crime by the Convention. There is nothing to prohibit owners or operators from changing or renovating the sites, but one cost (or benefit, depending on perspective) is that the sites so honored come under the bright light of public attention.

At the Colony House on Tuesday, Oct. 21, Governor Lincoln Chafee announced that a committee of historians and other community leaders is being formed to relaunch the effort to have Newport recognized as a World Heritage site. According to Newport Historical Society Executive Director Ruth Taylor, “This is a step up in organization, as the committee is more diverse and the formal gesture of support from the state should help.” Having been through the process one time already, members of this group are better positioned to make the argument, both to domestic and international bodies, that Newport’s role in the creation and growth of the principle of religious freedom is worthy of recognition by UNESCO and the World Heritage site program.

Pieter Roos, the chair of the effort back in 2006, observed, “Newport has a unique position in the American pantheon of places and this honor would be an important recognition of what we Newporters already know – the city has had a critical place in history.”

Naomi Neville, representing the City Council, issued a resolution that “embraced and endorsed” the effort and promised full support for the committee in its efforts.

Newport has made many great contributions to American history, culture and architecture since its founding more than 350 years ago. If this group of individuals is successful in getting the city’s new application through the United States vetting committee and then persuades the World Heritage Commission of the nomination’s worth, Newport will again have made a contribution to the world: the recognition that religious freedom has never been more important than it is today in a world fraught with religious violence.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, holds degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia and is a historian, educator and practicing architect living in Newport and working for A4 Architecture Inc.

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