2018-09-13 / Opinion


Trinity Church and a Question of Design

To the Editor:

It was my privilege and pleasure to address an engaged audience at the Redwood Library on Aug. 16 on new architecture in historic places and reviewing international standards for heritage conservation with respect to their applicability to cases in Newport.

I was less pleased by a response from Glenn Gardiner in an opinion piece published in the Sept. 6 issue of Newport This Week. Mr. Gardiner is the architect whose design for a proposed parish hall at Trinity Church I showed in my talk, along with an alternative design of my own invention. My version of the design modifies only the treatment of the façade and the slope of the roof to suggest how the building might better harmonize with its historic setting.

Mr. Gardiner has every right to disagree with what I said, but not to misrepresent it. I would never “imagine Newport as a village like Williamsburg where time and buildings are frozen, never to change, evolve or contribute to the 21st century,” as Mr. Gardiner claims. My alternative sketch for the parish hall is not a “stone Greek temple” and has no “large stone portico with colossal stone Doric columns.”

Instead, it is modestly finished in painted wood and glass, just like the existing church and Mr. Gardiner’s design, but is articulated with slender wooden pilasters subdividing the areas of glass. If he thinks my suggestion is “totally inappropriate in scale,” he should take another look at his own renderings, since the dimensions and scale of the building were his own. Experience shows that an entire wall of glass is neither welcoming nor transparent but, at least during the day, dark and opaque. I suspect most people would prefer a more traditional treatment, especially in such a sensitive, historic setting.

Historic places are endangered when we architects introduce nonconforming materials and forms that, if repeated, would ultimately destroy the character of the place. New architecture in a setting like Newport should reveal deep respect for the qualities that made the town worthy of preservation in the first place. This does not require imitation, but “continuity of composition that does not adversely affect the existing architecture but at the same time allows a discerning creativity that embraces the spirit of the place.”

In my talk, I quoted these words from the Valletta Principles, published in 2011 by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the UNESCO-sponsored organization promoting heritage conservation around the world. Newport deserves the same standard of care in its new buildings. I hope Trinity Church will build a new structure that looks like it belongs in Newport and not one that could be anywhere. Our architecture will only improve when we all participate in what is, after all, our most public and civic art.

Steven W. Semes
Professor, Director,
Graduate Program in
Historic Preservation
University of Notre Dame, Indiana

Long Kept Secrets of Newport's History

To the Editor:

In Letters to the Editor, August 9, 2018, G. Brian Sullivan reported that “The Middle Passage Port Marker Project,” led by Victoria Johnson and Lynn Underwood Ceglie, are planning to locate their monument in the Quaker’s Liberty Square, located behind the Armed Services YMCA. However, Mr. Sullivan thought the southernmost triangular place in Eisenhower Park, would be more appropriate.

In that same group of letters, Joya Granbery Hoyt said, “… a plan to establish a monument to the abolition of slavery in Liberty Square in downtown Newport…would be totally off the mark, not only in terms of location but intent.”

I feel that Joya Granbery Hoyt is correct. The abolition of slavery and “The Middle Passage” are separate, shameful, acts of man against humanity

Now, most recently, an article in Newport This Week dated, Aug. 23, 2018, declares, “Liberty Square as the future site of the Newport Slave Trade Memorial. A reception immediately following will be held at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum.”

What a shame nobody did their homework first.

Before deciding where to place any “Middle Passage Port Markers” or “abolition of slavery” monuments around Newport, I highly suggest that all readers, and especially all Newporters, read two short books: 1) “Eyewitness Accounts of Slavery in the Danish West Indies,” by Isidor Paiewonsky (1987 Fordham Press), a reprehensible accounting of “The Middle Passage” that should make everyone nauseated; and, 2) “A Dependent People, Newport, Rhode Island in the Revolutionary Era,” by Elaine Forman Crane (1985, 1992 Fordham Press), a book, listing Newport’s unquenchable, wealthy merchants owning slave ships, plus a tax list of Newport merchants owning molasses distilleries that produced the rum for purchasing more slaves.

After reading these books, where you believe any monuments might be placed (if any) may change. Should they be located at the slave-holding pens in the south of Thames Street? Erected at the sites where they sold these slaves at the corner of Spring and Mill, Thames and North Baptist, and Newport’s other Public Houses like Brick Market? You will think differently about Newport’s landmarks and our famous forefathers, many of which have been honored with their grand names on Newport’s great streets and avenues. Newporters will see their city with dark shadows cast over it and will wonder how these horrible secrets have been kept from us and from our history books for so long?

Ron De Ascentis

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