2015-01-08 / Front Page

Coffey’s Set for Farewell

By Barry Bridges

The Old Town Spring bronze plaque states: "Around which Newport was founded and some of the earliest houses of the town were built-and for which this street wasnamed. Erected by The Colonial Beacon Oil Company." (Photo by Jack Kelly) The Old Town Spring bronze plaque states: "Around which Newport was founded and some of the earliest houses of the town were built-and for which this street wasnamed. Erected by The Colonial Beacon Oil Company." (Photo by Jack Kelly) Customers of Coffey’s service station at the corner of Spring and Touro streets have a reason other than falling gas prices to stop by soon for a fill-up – the station’s days are numbered.

The business lies on the site of Newport’s original town spring that figured prominently in the city’s growth. A local group, the Newport Spring Leadership Committee, was prompted into action by the potential sale of the property. They have been raising funds to purchase the land from its owners, Neill and Diane Coffey, and plan to transform the area into a public open space.

The transaction is due to close this month.

Considering the city’s history at the forefront of religious tolerance, the committee describes the location as the “modern birthplace of freedom of conscience and religion” which is “at the heart of one of the first secular democracies in the world.”

“The property has been on the market for a while,” committee member Lilly Dick said. “When I found out it was for sale, I realized that we had to try to save it for Newport. In November of 2013, about 30 individuals, organizations, and city representatives came together at the Colony House to begin the conversation. Everyone thought, ‘Yes, this really matters.’ At that meeting, volunteers signed on to lead a collaborative effort to restore the site.”

In addition to Dick, who chairs the Washington Square Advisory Commission, members of the leadership group include Tina Dolen, Executive Director of the Newport Tree Society; Thomas Goddard, Chairman of the Newport Historical Society; Councilor Justin McLaughlin; artist Howard Newman; Stephen Ostiguy, Executive Director of the Church Community Housing Corporation; attorney Frank Ray; Ted Sanderson, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission; Valerie Talmadge, Executive Director of Preserve Rhode Island; and Scott Wolf, Executive Director of Grow Smart Rhode Island.

“This is an area of huge historic importance,” explained Dick. “It is a key, lynchpin site right in the heart of downtown colonial Newport surrounded by extraordinary architecture. Inappropriate development would be a disaster that we would regret for decades. Saving the space will further enhance our historical authenticity which is good for the tourism business, while at the same time it presents a great opportunity to improve the traffic flow and pedestrian safety.

“I might also add that Mr. Coffey has been very, very gracious in giving us time to raise the money we need,” she commented.

For his part, Neill Coffey is ready to retire.

“I started at the garage in 1967 working part time for George Gold,” said Coffey. “When he died in 1973, I helped to run the station for the Gold family. It was originally an Esso, but became a Texaco in the 70s. I bought out everyone’s interests in 1985.

“I will be out of here by the end of January. I need to slow down a little bit. I might help my son out at his business, but I still really don’t know what I want to do when I grow up,” Coffey laughed.

“I think an open park is a nice idea,” he added. “This is a good opportunity for them.”

Dick reported that specific design plans haven’t been settled. “We want to open a dialogue with the public to solicit ideas on how to best celebrate the spring,” she said. The committee is not even sure if the building will eventually be razed; it could be used for restrooms or other purposes, she suggested.

“We just felt we had to save the space first and then we can get public input,” she continued.

Since the gas station has been operating since 1941, environmental remediation will be a necessary part of the restoration. “That is a complicated process and is regulated by the state,” said Dick. “We’ll have to take out the underground tanks and clean up the dirt and any contamination.” An expert has advised that the costs for that part of the project could approach $150,000. “But the bottom line is that we will purchase the land and do what it takes to remediate it so that it is clean and suitable for public use.”

As for future upkeep, Dick said that the property could eventually be turned over to the city. “The council unanimously endorsed the idea through a resolution and wanted to see it saved as an open space,” she noted.

Most of the money needed for the purchase and anticipated site remediation has been raised. The goal was set at $925,000, and $900,000 is already secured. “The effort is going well,” Dick confirmed. “We have had many small contributors and a number of large contributions from individuals and corporations whose names will be released when the purchase is completed.”

To help the committee cross the fundraising finish line and to join in the effort of saving Newport’s historic spring, the community is invited to visit historicnewportspring.org to donate and to learn more about the history of the location and goals of the restoration effort.

“People have worked hard in a short time span, and individuals and foundations continue to be generous,” said Dick. “I’m excited it’s going to happen. When we’re finished we’ll have a gem of a public space.”

In the Beginning

In 1639 the founders of Newport discovered the ideal location in which to settle their new community: a site with a deep harbor and a freshwater spring nearby. Although many have asked how such an essential element of early Newport came to be buried under a gas station, much of the story is the natural evolution of the community.

Early colonists brought their horses to the spring and the regularly traveled area became a natural location for blacksmith shops. The shops evolved into gas stations to serve “horseless carriages.” As deeper wells and eventually municipal water supplies developed, the water became irrelevant to the centrality of the site, but it remained a major transportation hub. In fact, the bus station was behind the gas station that currently sits atop the spring.

The spring, once the lifeblood of Newport, became regarded as a hazard to nearby building foundations and basements, threatening area homes.

– Ross Cann

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