2017-04-27 / Senior Savvy

Redevelopment in the '60s Changed the Face of Downtown Newport

By Florence Archambault

There have been many changes on Aquidneck Island since our family arrived here 51 years ago. The most obvious transformation has occurred in downtown Newport between Marlborough Street and Market Square, where the police station and the ferry landing were located, and where the Seaman’s Church Institute still stands.

These changes were the result of a redevelopment project initiated in the mid-1960s to combat the blight and neglect of most of the buildings located on the west side of Thames Street and along the waterfront. Businesses were relocating to the shopping malls that were being built in Middletown, and to Bellevue Avenue. There were 15 vacant buildings on that side of Thames Street. Most of them were in deplorable condition.

Eventually all that property, except for the Brick Market and the fire station, was acquired by the Newport Redevelopment Agency. In November 1966, demolition began on the existing buildings. Several were moved to other locations, including the building now housing the Clarke Cooke House.

All the buildings on Long Wharf were razed to make way for the Long Wharf Mall, where pedestrians can now meander and shop, and which drew several of the displaced businesses. One was E.L. Freeman Company, a stationery store that supplied most of the businesses downtown. Gray’s Typewriter moved up to Spring Street, across from Coffey’s gas station, which has also closed.

Another Long Wharf Mall tenant was Leys Century Store, which occupied the space at the foot of Washington Square at the south side of the Brick Market. The store had a longtime presence on Thames Street. It was established on that property in 1796 as the William Sherman Company. Purchased by William Leys in 1912, it was renamed and remained in the Leys family until it closed in 1997. (William Leys, incidentally, was the executive director of the Newport Redevelopment Agency from 1961 until 1992.)

I can remember going downtown (which we didn’t do often, due to some of the unsavory conditions there) to buy my daughter’s Girl Scout uniform. What always fascinated the children (and the adults) was the overhead cashier on wires. The money for the purchases would be placed in baskets that ran to the cashier’s office on the second floor. Change would then be made and returned by the same system to the clerk on the floor below.

Further down Thames Street, almost to what is now the Memorial Boulevard extension and across from the Post Office building, stood the formidable Industrial National Bank, with its wonderful pillars, like some kind of Roman or Greek temple. Built of stone (probably marble), it was deemed too expensive to move, and the decision was made to knock it down. That was easier said than done. The demolition took a while and became an object of local interest. Apparently, the builders had not foreseen urban renewal!

On the other side of Thames Street, where Queen Anne Square now sits in the shadow of Trinity Church, redevelopment claimed Walsh Brothers furniture store, which burned down, and Egan’s Laundry, which was demolished.

Removing the buildings on Long Wharf and Thames Street up to Marlborough Street certainly led to an improvement in that part of town. Also gone are the Blue Moon and several other sailor hangouts, all to make way for a big parking lot!

Redevelopment also encompassed the West Broadway area from Washington Square to the Paramount block, where the Paramount movie theater (which had been closed for several years) was eventually converted into housing. It now contains 104 apartments, a new top floor and some storefronts in new and restored buildings.

But not to worry. Washington Square retains the flavor of its Colonial heritage. The Old Colony House stands at the top, looking down towards the Brick Market and the harbor. At the bottom, on the corner of Thames Street but facing the square, is the Abraham Rodrigues Riviera House, built before 1722. It is now the home of Citizens Bank. It sure looks a lot better since the tall red brick building on the lot next to it was removed.

There were other changes to Thames Street during the phases of the Redevelopment Project. Maybe you remember some of them.

Florence Archambault, of Newport, is 85 years young and well-known for her community volunteerism and teaching and writing family history.

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