2016-03-03 / Front Page

Spring Project Seeks Input

By Barry Bridges

Crossroads at the Crossroads The triangle of land where Touro and Spring streets meet at the top of Washington Square represents a big link to Newport’s past. In the 1700s it was the site of a natural spring and a water supply for Newport’s earliest residents, and is how Spring Street got its name. From now until March 28, members of the Newport Spring Leadership Committee, seeking a way to honor that link, are encouraging island residents to submit ideas on what they think would be the best use for the small yet historic parcel, most recently home to Coffey’s Citgo service station. Standing in front of the suggestion box installed at the site are, l-r, committee chair Lilly Dick, landscape architect Tanya Kelley, Newport Historical Society Executive Director Ruth Taylor, and architect Mohamad Farzan. Interested individuals are encouraged to drop ideas in the kiosk, pictured here, or to submit their comments online at historicnewportspring.org.(Photo by Lynne Tungett) Crossroads at the Crossroads The triangle of land where Touro and Spring streets meet at the top of Washington Square represents a big link to Newport’s past. In the 1700s it was the site of a natural spring and a water supply for Newport’s earliest residents, and is how Spring Street got its name. From now until March 28, members of the Newport Spring Leadership Committee, seeking a way to honor that link, are encouraging island residents to submit ideas on what they think would be the best use for the small yet historic parcel, most recently home to Coffey’s Citgo service station. Standing in front of the suggestion box installed at the site are, l-r, committee chair Lilly Dick, landscape architect Tanya Kelley, Newport Historical Society Executive Director Ruth Taylor, and architect Mohamad Farzan. Interested individuals are encouraged to drop ideas in the kiosk, pictured here, or to submit their comments online at historicnewportspring.org.(Photo by Lynne Tungett) A standing-room-only crowd assembled at the Colony House on Tuesday, March 1, to give their thoughts on the Newport Spring Leadership Committee’s plans to transform the site of the former Coffey’s Citgo gas station into a public open space. The station sits at the location of the Colonial-era freshwater spring that spurred the city’s growth.

1874 McKim portfolio photo of the spring site. Note the well. (Photo courtesy of Newport Historical Society) 1874 McKim portfolio photo of the spring site. Note the well. (Photo courtesy of Newport Historical Society) The committee raised $750,000 to acquire the 7,650-square-foot parcel last year and is honoring its promise to solicit input from the public on the most appropriate use for the site. Another $200,000 in donations will go toward environmental cleanup.

Chair Lilly Dick said, “All of us care about Newport, and the fact that we know the location of the original spring is very exciting…. It’s an incredible thing that we have to think about preserving.”

When the committee announced the initiative last year, it noted Newport’s prominence at the forefront of religious tolerance and described the property as the “modern birthplace of freedom of conscience and religion.” The group further said that the spring physically “links historic sites in every direction.”

The committee’s broader goals are to preserve the unique historical significance of the property; provide open space for public access and civic enjoyment in perpetuity; improve traffic and pedestrian circulation; and create a sustainable design to foster cultural and economic vitality.

Ron Henderson of L + A Landscape Architecture, the project’s design consulting firm, was the moderator for the evening.

A question quickly posed by some in attendance was whether the building itself would be demolished.

The Newport Historical Society’s Executive Director Ruth Taylor advised, “Look at all the studies before you [come to a conclusion].” The Society researched and produced a “cultural landscape report” to better inform the committee on the physical and cultural history of the site.

Dick agreed, and suggested a broader outlook at this stage. “We have to figure out what the essence of this space is and what we want to celebrate…. It’s not all about the building now. We may keep it or we may not keep it, but we need to dig deeper and figure out what’s in our hearts and what’s special about this site.”

Others were concerned about traffic in such a compact area. “The idea of people sitting on benches with the current traffic flow is a nightmare waiting to happen,” said one attendee.

To put the committee’s efforts in context, Taylor reviewed some of the highlights of the Society’s research. “We have definitive evidence that this was the site of the town spring…. This is undoubtedly the oldest central area of Newport. This was the downtown.” She also emphasized the area’s long relationship to water and transportation. “It was the place around which our city was built.”

For many years, the neighborhood was residential. An “incredible plethora of meeting houses” also sprang up in the vicinity. Many of those houses of worship remain today.

By the early 19th century, the neighborhood began to have a more “commercial slant,” with businesses such as liveries and stables beginning to focus on transportation. “Fuel was already being sold by the mid-19th century,” said Taylor.

The existing building was built in the early 1940s, and the adjacent marker denoting the spring’s location was put in place about the same time. “We don’t know why they chose this exact spot [for the marker], but it certainly wasn’t far off from the spring,” Taylor reported.

Attendees were encouraged to complete a survey to share their ideas on how the space should be used, and how its history as an area of religious freedom, transportation and a ready water source could best be celebrated. Comments can be submitted through March 28 at a kiosk at the Coffey’s site or online at historicnewportspring.org.

The website also features a review of the project with supporting documentation. A public design workshop will be held on March 31, and the committee hopes to present a final design of its vision by mid-May.

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