2017-03-09 / Opinion

The Hill's Historic Character in Jeopardy


To the Editor: “The purpose of historic district zoning in the City of Newport is to protect our historic assets and to guide new growth in ways that enrich and maintain Newport’s sense of place and authentic historic character, for now and for future generations.” That is the opening section of Chapter 17.80 of Historic District Zoning for Newport.

Gazing out the window from our gallery/home overlooking Goelet Park, next to Trinity Church, we see an amazing collection of 18th- and 19th-century Colonial, Greek Revival, Federal and Victorian buildings. It is a rich history that makes The Hill such an extraordinary place to visit and live.

New construction is seldom allowed. Instead, restoration of existing structures is encouraged and mandated by a city ordinance through the local Historic District Commission. Through the decades, home and business owners have meticulously restored and maintained their properties. And it shows. The self-guided walking tour stations throughout The Hill display the importance and history of one of the most intact collections of period structures in America.

The integrity and homogenous assembly of buildings in The Hill is now at risk with the introduction of the proposed “Community Center” at the Trinity complex, on the site of the demolished Carr House. The community center would greatly assist Trinity's growing wedding business and hosting receptions, and it would also house many other venues that would benefit groups from across Aquidneck Island.

When we saw the design for the community center last fall, we wondered how the educated tourist would feel walking up Queen Anne Square toward one of the most important church's in America, past a very modern building that has nothing to do with historic Newport. The columns across the front of the building doesn't make it Greek Revival. The peaked roof doesn’t make it Gothic. The side windows banking the peaked roof add to the neither here nor there design that implies form following function. There was little or no architectural consideration for the neighborhood where the building would be located.

The Mill Street side has a somewhat period appearance, until you see the roof completely covered with solar panels which, though environmentally sensitive, do not exist to that degree on any other building in the Hill.

So what is proposed is not “a fake historic building,” as Rev. Anne Marie Richards said recently in a Newport Daily News story, but a structure that would be more suited as a gas station or a modern medical office.

We are told that the Historic District Commission, after a two-hour hearing, approved the design of the building because of the changes in Queen Anne Square. We do not believe there is a valid rationale for this proposed structure. Queen Anne Square is a thoughtful homage to Colonial Newport, with its stone foundations and restructured pathways. It is a pleasure to walk through it on the way to downtown Newport. It is a success story.

The proposed community center, we believe, risks the Historic District status that The Hill currently enjoys.

The building of the Bonniecrest condominiums led the Secretary of The Interior to “de-list” part of the Historic District status for that area because it was not consistent with federal guidelines. We would not want that to happen to The Hill.

The City Historic District Ordinance states “[New construction] shall be compatible with the surrounding historic area in terms of size, scale, siting, massing, setback, materials and details.” It also says that “[New construction] should be thoughtful and considered architectural design,” and “[Appearance] may clearly read as such and need not present a false historic appearance.”

The word “may” does not imply must, should or can. To say “need not” does not mean cannot. There is wide latitude in the accepted design for new construction in the Historic District. That decision is really left up to the community and the commission.

Trinity and the Newport Historic District Commission need to return to the drawing board and propose a much more “thoughtful and considered architectural design.” Otherwise, Newport’s historic character will be in jeopardy.

Federico Santi and John Gacher

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