2017-02-09 / Front Page

‘A Product of Both my Head and my Heart’

By Betsy Sherman Walker


"The Parade," 1818. Oil on canvas by an unidentified Hessian artist. 
(Courtesy of the Newport Historical Society) "The Parade," 1818. Oil on canvas by an unidentified Hessian artist. (Courtesy of the Newport Historical Society) “I look at Newport as a work of urban art,” says John Tschirch. As an architectural historian and former director of museum affairs at the Preservation Society of Newport County, Tschirch knows the city’s streets and buildings better than most.

His current project, “Mapping the Newport Experience,” is a collaborative effort with the Newport Historical Society, where he is also serving as coordinating scholar as part of the society’s recently launched visiting curator initiative.

His motto, as noted on his website, is “every place has a tale to tell.”

What brought Tschirch into the stacks and archives of the NHS for this project is the fact that Newport, he feels, has more tales than others. “Mapping” is an ambitious research initiative which, through archival maps and documents, art work, and Tschirch’s strong nose for the narrative, will permit him to begin to tell the tale. Begun and funded last year by an independent research grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an introductory essay has been posted on the NHS website since last summer.

“Newport, Rhode Island,” it begins, “is a place of memory, both collective and individual, where myth and reality intersect in streets and civic spaces.”

Tschirch doesn’t quite see dead people. But when he is standing just about anywhere in Newport, wherever he looks he sees not only the present, but the past. He sees not empty sidewalks but the ministers and merchants, soldiers, slaves, and socialites who in the past three centuries have gone into creating Newport’s story. He sees the work they do, the buildings they have built, and, depending on the century and the venue, the logic – or lack thereof – of the streets and public spaces they have laid out.

The essay, which Tschirch calls his “97-page introduction,” is an overview (aided by a collector’s trove of museum-quality maps and artwork) that lays the groundwork for the work that remains to be done. From the start, he and his colleagues at the NHS have envisioned an interactive, living narrative that will draw people in, and draw them out. Walking tours are scheduled for next summer, which will be an epic overview of how Newport evolved.

There is a website to be developed, “with visuals, maps, pop-up moments, and historic photographs. We want to make it lively.”

Wherever Tschirch looks in many of the city’s nooks and crannies, he uncovers another topic, another thread: the Newport Improvement Association, which in 1913 submitted, with the help of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., a planning report entitled “Proposed Improvements to Newport.” And change is never welcome: Streetcars (including one taking beachgoers down to Easton’s Beach) were, at the time, a hot – and disputed topic. Tschirch also wants to explore the changing face of Newport’s waterfront and industry, from the Colonial wharves to the urban planning that led to America’s Cup Avenue.

Right before the new year, the NHS announced that, thanks to a gift of additional funding, it would be adding a visiting curator component to its signature Buchanan Burnham Summer Internship Program. It will allow Tschirch, who has come on board as part of that, time to research, write, and share.

“Newport is fascinating, as all places are,” he says. “The Earth is old.” What engages him particularly with the City by the Sea is not just its history but the fact that the stories still resonate, in layer after centuries-old layer.

“It’s a storied place. We have physical data on how it grew, cultural responses to the place, how people felt. There is so much evidence,” he adds, “from Verrazzano to Henry James to Thornton Wilder.”

It was a 1758 map of Newport that brought Tschirch to his aha moment. Three years ago he had spent the afternoon poring over the historical atlas of the town, which is in the collection of Redwood Library. (“I love the maps at Redwood,” he says.) Included was a map by the Rev. Ezra Stiles (pastor of the Second Congregational Church and a founder of Redwood Library), plotting out Long Wharf, Thames Street, Broad Street (now Broadway), and the streets of the Point. Afterwards, he said, “walking back on Bellevue Avenue, I was thinking of the map, looking at Touro Park, and it hit me. ‘There is so much here,’ I thought.”

In an exciting way, “mapping” is still a work in progress. Like history, the organic happens, and Tschirch is also expecting – hoping for – the unexpected, in a researcher’s offhand remark or a volunteer’s query. More than anything, he is going to let the city streets speak to him.

“It is a product of both my head and my heart.”

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