2015-03-26 / Around Town

A Mysterious Monument

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA

­The property that is now Touro Park was once open to the harbor and was widely visible from afar. (Photo by Jim Egan) ­The property that is now Touro Park was once open to the harbor and was widely visible from afar. (Photo by Jim Egan) Newport is home to an extraordinary number of architectural treasures. For the most part the architects, owners, and dates of construction for these buildings are well documented. In one case, however, the dates and history of the structure are very much in contention and the alternatives stretch the imagination to its limits. The Newport Tower in Touro Park dates from the earliest days of Newport’s settlement, but was perhaps built even earlier.

The arched stone tower is about 23 feet in diameter and 28 feet high, made from native rubble stones and cemented with shell lime mortar. It was described as early as 1741 in documents as “the old stone mill,” but elements of the design seem to contradict that use, as there is evidence of a floor (now gone) and a fireplace and flue that remains built into the wall above the arches. The grinding of corn and wheat creates highly flammable dust, and a fireplace would be a dangerous and extremely unusual addition to such a structure.

At a recent lecture on Peter Harrison given at the Redwood Library, architect John Grosvenor suggested that perhaps the structure was built by Harrison, who was known to have designed the Redwood Library (1747), Touro Synagogue (1756) and Brick Market (1772).

Harrison had a strong interest in astronomy and it has been proposed that the unusually placed openings of the design have celestial or solar orientations similar to Stonehenge and other early stone structures to help confirm the passage of the seasons. Grosvenor postulated that perhaps the tower was built from the rubble taken from an earlier stone mill once built on the same site, potentially helping explain the confusion about the date of construction.

There are many other theories as well. In 1837, Danish archaeologist Carl Christian Rafn in his book “Antiquitates Americanæ” proposed a Viking origin. Several authors have observed that it has the same characteristics of Norse structures from the 13th century. The Vikings conclusively made it as far as Greenland, where they established settlements. The possibility of Newport having had European contact during the pre-Columbian era, if proven, would be very exciting indeed and change the history books in terms of the settlement of North America.

Jim Egan, who moved to Newport and opened a museum on the subject of the Newport Tower at the corner of Mill Street and Bellevue Avenue, has still a very different hypothesis. Egan has established elaborate scenarios that point to the Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer and early colonial explorer John Dee and proposes a date of 1583 for the structure. It is Egan’s belief that it was built as an early but failed attempt to establish a settlement in the location, and therefore was already “old” by the time of the early Newport settlement in 1639, nearly 50 years later.

Still other authors assert that they have found sacred orientations and geometries in their studies and posit that a group of Knights Templar from Scotland was drawn off course during the Crusades and built the structure as a source of shelter and as a monument to their faith and the Masonic codes. Excavation done in and around the tower in 1848 and then again a century later, proved inconclusive with regard to the builders and exact dates of construction, offering conflicting evidence for both a very early and then a somewhat later date of origin.

Whether a mill, a fortification, a sacred tower or an astronomic observatory, the Newport Tower draws the minds of te Newporters and visitors alike back to times before written records were carefully kept and allows speculation about what it was built for and by whom. Whatever the answer, it is a structure worthy of protection and much further study.

Ross Cann, holds degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia and is a historian, educator, and practicing architect living in Newport.

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