2016-03-03 / Opinion


A Historic Week

Spring Street site, circa 1935. 
(Photo courtesy ofNewport HistoricalSociety) Spring Street site, circa 1935. (Photo courtesy ofNewport HistoricalSociety) One of the nice things about Newport is its distinction as a city that comprehends its own history. From the city’s Colonial occupation by the British army during the Revolutionary War, to its treasured collection of 17th- and 18th-century buildings and 19thcentury “Gilded Age” mansions, to its status as one of the first North American outposts of religious freedom, “Newport” carries considerable weight among this nation’s municipalities.

After years of quiet but determined efforts by two volunteer groups, the city began writing another chapter of its enduring history during the first week of March with events involving two historic sites.

In the first instance on Monday morning, an array of Rhode Island and local luminaries joined Alison Vareika, chair of the board of the Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center on Washington Square for a groundbreaking ceremony celebrating a $14.8 million renovation project that will begin this spring. Of that total, $4.2 million will come from a 2014 bond issue approved by voters.

A vision for these renovations began to emerge nearly 18 years ago in the mind of the late Ted Spargo, a long-time volunteer who chronicled the history of the Opera House and the need to raise funds to preserve it.

Among those who delivered speeches there over the years are Harriet Beecher Stowe (1872) and Frederick Douglass (1873). Performers who came afterward include George M. Cohan and Duke Ellington.

One day after the Opera House ceremony, more than 100 people turned out at the Colony House, also on Washington Square, for a standing-room-only community meeting hosted by the Newport Spring Leadership Committee. That group, led by Lilly Dick, was formed to determine how to commemorate the fresh water spring that the city’s first settlers discovered on the site of what is now the vacant Coffey’s Citgo gas station.

Should the gas station be demolished or saved? Should traffic be rerouted? Those were among the topics initially broached at this gathering. Those attending were asked to consider the larger question of what this revered spot means to the city before rushing to quick conclusions.

It’s fitting that the historic spring site is steps away from Touro Synagogue and the United Baptist Church.

Both of these efforts reflect the stalwart dedication of determined volunteers and will enhance Newport’s considerable charm.

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