From the Archives: Perspectives on the Library That Wasn’t

Fri, 05/25/2018 - 12:37pm -- mfarias

Redwood Library Newport, R.I., before the addition of the Reading Room in 1858, by James Stevens & W.D. Terry
RI.002a - Redwood Images Collection of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum 

The continued expansion of the Redwood Library has become an important part of our story since the original wooden structure, now known as the Harrison Room, was constructed in 1750. Over a century later, the Reading Room was added in 1858 and the Delivery Room followed shortly after in 1875. In a previous blog post, we explored how the decision to enlarge the Library again in 1867 led the Redwood Library to hire architect Richard Morris Hunt, famously known for designing the Breakers and Marble House, whose plans for the Delivery Room would have eventually led to the destruction of the Harrison Room. While this decision seems drastic, other plans submitted to the Redwood Library during both renovation periods in the nineteenth century show a similar willingness to make drastic changes. Today, we’ll take a look through the Redwood Archives at some of the views of the “Redwood Library That Wasn’t,” starting with some perspectives of alternative designs for the 1858 expansion. 


 Redwood Library - Newport (Rhode Island), between 1858 and 1875 before the Delivery Room addition, by Thomas Nelson & Sons
RI.021 - Redwood Images Collection of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum

At the annual meeting held on September 29, 1858, as recorded in the Annals of the Redwood Library, it was agreed that the Board of Directors would "carry into effect forthwith the enlargement of the Library building." This enlargement, today known as the Reading Room, was constructed according to the plans of Boston architect George Snell (1820-1893), but it appears he was not the only person to submit plans for the Redwood Library's new addition. Providence architect, Russell Warren (1783-1860) created his own design that, much like the later design by Hunt, heavily incorporated his own style. Warren was best known for his work in the Greek Revival style and his buildings are still highly visible in Bristol and Providence. He designed two of his most famous buildings, Linden Place in Bristol and the Westminster Arcade in Providence, well before he drew up these plans for the Redwood Library, which are undated but were likely submitted in 1858, just two years before his death. His plans expanded the Redwood Library along its wings, instead of off of the back of the Harrison Room, and gave the Redwood a definitively Greek appearance. 



Design for Improving the Redwood Library, before 1860 by Russell Warren
From the Redwood Archives of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum

Floor Plan for Improving the Redwood Library, before 1860 by Russell Warren
From the Redwood Archives of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum


Expanding the Redwood Library along its wings rather than off of the Harrison Room was a common pattern in many of the designs found in the archives. An example of this is the undated plan drawn by builder William Weeden, who built the Zion Episopal Church in Newport in 1834, now the Jane Pickens Theater. Interestingly, this Church was designed by Russell Warren in the Greek Revival style he so preferred and then built by Weeden. Several other undated, unsigned plans show similar attempts to lengthen the wings of the Redwood Library, in various styles. It is not obvious when exactly these plans were submitted, but the lack of a Reading Room suggests that they were prior to the selection of Snell's plans in 1858. 

Redwood Library, likely drawn between 1834 and 1858, William Weeden
From the Redwood Archives of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum

Front View of Redwood Library, likely before 1858 by unknown
From the Redwood Archives of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum


After the Reading Room was constructed, the Redwood Library found itself looking to expand again less than a decade later. At a meeting held on October 14, 1867, as recorded in the Annals of the Redwood Library, “The Committee on Enlargement of the Library were requested to present some plan for the building of a hall or picture gallery, together with an estimate of the probable expense, either of brick or stone.” By September 14, 1868, they had decided on Richard Morris Hunt’s plans, “which combined the views of the committee, and which they had now the pleasure of presenting for the consideration and adoption of the Directors, who on examination will perceive that the idea presented is, first, to erect upon the Library lot at the southeast corner of the reading room joined thereto, and in harmony with the architecture, a building of solid material and of ample dimensions, for the purposes of a gallery for pictures, statuary, and other works of art, followed hereafter by successive additions, to be proceeded with as the means of the Company and its ability to so appropriate them are increased, until an entirely new and enlarged structure of stone and marble shall take the place of the existing wooden erections.” This plan called for the eventual destruction of the wooden Harrison Room, which would be replaced by a new structure of stone and marble, in the style of Hunt’s future mansion designs. Ultimately, Hunt’s plans were rejected and several years passed before a design was finally agreed upon by the committee.


Photo of Richard Morris Hunt's Design for the Redwood Library, 1868 by Richard Morris Hunt
From the Redwood Archives of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum


It is unclear to us today whether Hunt’s design was eventually rejected due to lack of funds or because the Library perceived his new design as a sort of irreverence for Peter Harrison’s original style, which was a hallmark of Newport architecture. Regardless of the reason, his designs were not realized and neither were the plans of other well-known architects who submitted their own plans for the enlargement or “improvement” of the Redwood Library. Another plan from the archives was drawn by Dudley Newton (1845-1907), an architect from Newport whose office building was just down the street from the Redwood. Dated December 5, 1867, his plan seems to add an additional story to the Redwood with the stated goal: “To elevate the reading room to the same height as the front building.” This plan is potentially looking at the Redwood from behind and would indicate that he did not plan any major changes to the facade of the front of the Library, especially since his design is very much in the original style of Peter Harrison's design. 


Plans for Improving the Redwood Library, 1867 by Dudley Newton
From the Redwood Archives of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum


In the end, the committee held off for several years and then chose the designs submitted in 1874 by George Champlin Mason, an active member of the Redwood, and the Delivery Room was built in 1875. Since then, several more additions have been constructed as the Redwood Library has continued to grow, with each prior addition serving as a chapter in the Redwood's story. The Harrison Room has survived and has continued to serve as a fine example of colonial architecture that was almost lost to time and to the many brilliant architectural minds of the 19th century who had other ideas for the future of the Redwood. 

Redwood Library, Newport, RI, 1895 by E.E. Solderholtz
From the Redwood Photo Collection of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum