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Just one look

The Redwood Library

Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island, is a shrine to reading in more ways than one. It still acts the way a local library should, lending the latest books and dvds to a community that crowds around the narrow lanes that lead toward it. But it also tells an older tale, about how important design books were to early American architects desperate to find out the latest trends coming from Europe. 

Peter Harrison is well known to Boston architects for his local masterpieces, King’s Chapel on Tremont Street and Christ Church in Cambridge. But Harrison’s talents took him further afield, and in the middle decades of the 18th century, Newport was giving Boston a run for its money as a center of wealth and sophistication. Here, Ben Franklin’s brother James came to start the first newspaper in Rhode Island, after Boston’s censors became intrusive; when the great Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley desired an American sojourn, he, too, came to Narragansett Bay, where life was less chilly in every sense. (An early historian called Newport “one coat warmer” than Boston.) Among the small islands of the Bay, one might almost close one’s eyes and imagine oneself in a secret corner of the Mediterranean. All that was missing was the Greco-Roman statuary and Palladian design elements. 

That’s where Harrison came in. Palladio was all the rage in England in the 1730s and 1740s, and Harrison was acquiring an impressive architectural library that included ample references to The Master. These gorgeous books conveyed all the details a hungry American architect needed to know, from doors and windows to interior furnishings. To colonial rustics, they offered a how-to course in grandeur. 

When a wealthy Newport merchant, Abraham Redwood, gave the money to build a new library, Harrison was hired, and America’s first Palladian sprang into action. Looking for a model, he chose a Roman Doric temple — possibly derived from the Church of San Giorgio in Venice. Facing other empires much as Newport embraced the Caribbean, South America, and Africa, Venice was attractive to Newport. This strange new temple sprang from old antecedents, but it was bold all the same, beginning with its portico. In the fullness of time, America would see many other Doric columns, from the Capitol crypt to the Supreme Court — but these are the first. In other ways, too, the building reflected Harrison’s classicism: its pediment, its Palladian windows, and the serene calm of its interior, with all of its marble philosophers. It is also amusingly American in one sense — for all of the Roman ambition that Harrison brought to the project, he was forced to settle on wood for the exterior, painted to resemble stone.

Harrison would go on to other projects, including, just down the street, the majestic Touro Synagogue, America’s oldest, which faces the street off-kilter, much as Rhode Island faces the rest of New England. But it would be difficult to build a more impressive monument to architectural reading than this one. Appropriately, the books that inspired the building are lovingly preserved inside, guiding the historian as they once aided the up-and-coming builders of a young empire.

Redwood Library and Athenæum, the oldest lending library in America, was founded in 1747 in Newport, Rhode Island.
Photo: slgckgc/Creative Commons