The Company of the Redwood Library was established in 1747 by Abraham Redwood and 45 colonists with the goal of making written knowledge more widely available to the Newport community. The Library was open to the public, though not “free,” and remains a membership library. Abraham Redwood contributed €500 sterling to acquire the original collection of 751 titles, all purchased used in London. This Original Collection represented the interests and inquiries of cultured, educated gentlemen of the mid 18th-century. The titles included subjects such as Religion, Philosophy, Law, Architecture, Classics, Agriculture and Medicine. The Original Collection of 751 titles has grown to a collection numbering more than 200,000 holdings. The original library building was designed by Peter Harrison, America’s first architect, and is the first Neo-Classical public building in the colonies.
The Revolutionary War was a calamity for the Redwood Library, as it was for Newport itself. The library was used as an officer’s club for the occupying army. Many of the books on the shelves disappeared with Redwood members and Newport citizens, others with British officers. As early as 1806 the Library began advertising for the return of the missing books. 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 92% of the volumes that were lost.
In 1833, looking to its role in the future, the Library’s name was changed to The Company of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum to reflect its ever-expanding role as an educational institution. 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 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.
In 1966, the Redwood Library was designated a National Historic Landmark. The Library continues to serve its members and the general public, providing traditional library services as well as special programs, exhibitions and events. The Redwood is primarily supported by membership dues and the generosity of patrons who use it. Housing an outstanding collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings, sculpture and furniture, the Redwood Library embodies the principles of a true athenæum, a seat of learning and arts, fulfilling its Charter mission of “having nothing in view but the good of mankind.”