The Redwood Library and Athenæum is the oldest lending library in America, and the oldest library building in continuous use in the country. Founded in 1747 by forty-six proprietors upon the principle of "having nothing in view but the good of mankind," its mission continues over 250 years later.
The Company of the Redwood Library was established in 1747 by Abraham Redwood and a group of his friends and associates. One of the country's earliest "public" libraries -- that is, open to the public though not "free" -- Redwood is the oldest surviving lending library in the country. Redwood remains a "membership library" (open to the public) supported by Proprietors, who own shares and pay an annual assessment, and Subscribers, who pay fees. The Original Collection of 751 titles has grown to a collection numbering more than 160,000 volumes.
In 1833, the Library's name was changed to The Company of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum to reflect its expanding role as an educational institution. Today the Library is open to qualified scholars and researchers and to those making use of the collections. Lectures, exhibitions, fine arts displays, and other educational activities are part of Redwood Library and Athenaeum's continuous offerings to the community.
History of Redwood Library and Athenaeum
Established before the birth of the United States, the Redwood Library and Athenæum was chartered in 1747 and opened in 1750. It was the first library in Rhode Island, is the oldest lending library in America, and is also the oldest lending library building in continuous use in the country.
As the first major architectural commission of Peter Harrison (1716-1775), its conception was a bold one for its time. Symbolically bringing light and order to the emerging culture of the colonial world, Harrison introduced, for the first time in the New World, an architectural style of classical design. A drawing of a Roman Doric temple with portico and wings, probably derived from a 1735 edition of Andrea Palladio's architecture, was used for the model.
This view of the Redwood was noticed by Thomas Jefferson when he visited Newport in 1790 as Secretary of State in the company of President George Washington. Jefferson began championing classical architecture as the model for public building in the new Republic. So it is that the Redwood Library is possibly one of the most architecturally influential buildings in America.
Peter Harrison, copy by Louis Sands (ca. mid-1800s) from Nathaniel Smibert, ca. 1756
Expansions to the original Library building have become necessary throughout Redwood's history. The original building, in fact, consisted of only one room, now known as the Harrison Room. It is very much to the credit of architects George Snell and George Champlin Mason that their extensions honor Peter Harrison's 1748 design by quietly complementing his style.
The Revolutionary War was a calamity for the Redwood Library, as it was for Newport itself. Over half the volumes vanished from the shelves during its use as a British Officers' club. As early as 1806 the Library began advertising for the return of the missing books.
Books in the Original Collection
However, it was not until 1947 that a concentrated effort was made to replace, as closely as possible, the editions of the Original Collection. Amazingly, the Redwood today houses approximately 90% of the volumes that were lost.
The munificence of the Library's friends began with its inception. The land upon which Redwood was built came as a donation from Henry Collins, and the Original Collection was a gift of founder Abraham Redwood. The titles were purchased in London and shipped to Newport in 1749. This Original Collection represents the interests and inquiries of cultured, educated gentlemen of the mid 18th-century.
The Redwood collection also reflects the varied and intellectual membership it has always attracted, being a literary and cultural haven to some of America's best loved authors and artists including Edith Wharton, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Julia Ward Howe, Gilbert Stuart, Charles Bird King and Henry James.
Excerpted from the 1878 Annual Report: "There is a building in Newport, RI, at the head of stylish Bellevue Avenue, which is so different from the surrounding structures, and with such an air of studious quiet brooding over it, that the eye is at once arrested, and the attention charmed by its fair proportions. Its model is that of a Grecian Temple, with additional side wings, in harmony with the main building, which possess an air of antiquity. This is the Redwood Library, which may fairly claim to be a National Institution, from the wide influence it exerted at a time when art and letters in America were in their infancy, and from the celebrated names connected with it."