2016-03-31 / Front Page

Our Maritime History Grows More Complicated

By Ross Sinclair Cann


Sea level rise on Aquidneck Island has many faces, and presents a variety of challenges. On the left, King Park, overlooking Newport Harbor, is inundated following last February’s storm. Earlier this week, in Middletown, Ben Gaspar and John Veale from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined Save the Bay Restoration Specialist Wenley Ferguson planting dune grass along the Maidford River at Third Beach. “We need to stabilize the dunes,” said Ferguson, “in an effort to keep the sand from blowing into the river bed - which in turn causes blockages and flooding into the adjacent marsh.” Sea level rise on Aquidneck Island has many faces, and presents a variety of challenges. On the left, King Park, overlooking Newport Harbor, is inundated following last February’s storm. Earlier this week, in Middletown, Ben Gaspar and John Veale from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined Save the Bay Restoration Specialist Wenley Ferguson planting dune grass along the Maidford River at Third Beach. “We need to stabilize the dunes,” said Ferguson, “in an effort to keep the sand from blowing into the river bed - which in turn causes blockages and flooding into the adjacent marsh.” Newport has long been known as the City by the Sea. From the earliest days of its settlement in 1639, the town has been dependent on its deep water harbor adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean. For 377 years, this connection to the water has been one of Newport’s greatest assets even as we continue to enjoy a reputation as one of the premier sailing capitals of the East Coast. Blessed with a treasure trove of Gilded Age and Colonialera structures and the spectacular harbor, Newport draws cruise ships, mega yachts and sailboats from around the world.


(Photos, l-r, by John Brennan and Jack Kelly) (Photos, l-r, by John Brennan and Jack Kelly) But we now live in a world where glaciers and ice caps are shrinking more rapidly than originally projected, and where vast reserves of water frozen for millennia are being released back into the world’s oceans. Newport’s appealing proximity to all things maritime and its wealth of architecturally and historically significant buildings is taking on new meanings and challenges. No longer are the sea and the sights simply two wonderful and complementary assets; each year sea level rise threatens to bring one into conflict with the other.

To address this important intersection (and potential collision) of seascapes and cityscapes, the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) will be hosting a national symposium, “Keeping History above Water,” at the Newport Marriott from Sunday through Wednesday, April 10-13. The NRF is describing it as “one of the first national conversations on the risks posed by sea level rise to historic coastal communities and their built environments. This is a conference about what preservationists, architects, engineers, city planners, legislators, insurers, property owners and other decision-makers need to know about climate change – sea level rise in particular – and what can be done to protect historic buildings, landscapes and neighborhoods from the increasing threat of inundation.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse will deliver the welcoming address at the opening dinner and reception. Ticket options range from single day attendance to the entire conference – three days of meetings, panel discussions, workshops, walking tours, and related events. The NRF has created a dedicated site for the conference at historyabovewater.org and is presenting the conference in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preserve Rhode Island, Roger Williams University, Salve Regina University, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and URI’s Coastal Resource Center. Online registration is now closed, but on-site registration will be available throughout.

At the end of April, another interesting topic will get its time in the national spotlight when the Preservation Society of Newport County (PSNC) hosts its annual Newport Symposium. This year’s event, entitled “Inspired by the Sea: The Material Culture of Newport and Other Ports of Call,” will address the interesting relationship between Newport’s rich architectural and decorative arts heritage and the maritime trades, which were so essential to the evolving character of Newport, first as an important port and then later as a Gilded Age resort.

The symposium will be held April 24-27 and is sponsored by U.S. Trust. “The sea has always been the heart of Newport’s cultural identity,” says the host website. “Through the 17th and 18th centuries, maritime enterprise forged cultural connections between cosmopolitan Newporters and makers, traders and collectors in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. But even as the city’s economy shifted away from trade towards scientific inquiry and recreation in the 19th and 20th centuries, the environment, heritage and mythology of the sea ensured that Newport remained a wellspring of artistic inspiration.” For information on this symposium, visit newportmansions.org/learn/newport-symposium or email Symposium@NewportMansions.org with your questions.

These are ideas worth discussing and addressing while time, energy and resources are still available. If one has the time and inclination to attend both, it will become apparent how rich and complicated Newport’s history and association with the sea has been in the past and how that relationship is likely to get even more complicated in the future.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is a historian, urban planner, educator and practicing architect. He lives in Newport and works at A4 Architecture.

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