Old Rhode Island State Houses

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Old Rhode Island State Houses


Newport (R.I.)
United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783.


Images of two of the five former Rhode Island state houses that survive today. The first two images (drawings) show the Colony House also known as the Old State House located in Newport, R.I.  The next two images (photographs) show the Old State House in Providence, R.I.

From Newport Historical Society: Colony House:
The Newport Colony House is the fourth oldest statehouse still standing in the United States. It was designed by builder/architect Richard Munday, who also designed Trinity Church and the Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House in Newport. The Colony House was built between 1736 and 1739 by Benjamin Wyatt, and tradition maintains that a great number of African-Americans were employed in its construction.

The building replaced a smaller wooden courthouse built about 1687. The Colony House was constructed as part of the movement to bring formal town planning to Newport, which until then had developed in haphazard fashion. It was intended to help transform the Parade, as Washington Square was then named, into an elegant public space in keeping with the traditions of English cities. The design of the Colony House is derived from the English Georgian style popularized by the architect Sir Christopher Wren, but its floor plan follows the customary layout of English town or guild halls, which often had an open marketplace on the ground floor and civic offices on the second floor.

Many important events associated with the shaping of the United States occurred at the Colony House. In 1761, the death of George II and the ascension of George III was announced from the balcony. In 1766, citizens of Newport celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act in and around the Colony House. In January and May of 1773, the building served as the meeting site of the Commission of Inquiry into the burning of the British revenue schooner Gaspee by Patriots in 1772. On July 20, 1776, Major John Handy read the Declaration of Independence from the front steps. During the British occupation of Newport from 1776 to 1779, the Colony House was used as a barracks. Second floor of the Colony House Second floor of the Colony House. Photo by Aaron Usher III.

After liberating Newport from the British, the French used the building as a hospital. It is often said that a French chaplain celebrated the first public Roman Catholic mass in Rhode Island in the Colony House, although there is no physical evidence of that. In 1781, the Great Hall on the first floor was the location of a banquet given by General Rochambeau to honor George Washington. Throughout the 19th century, the Colony House was used in May of each year for “Lection Day” festivities. On this day, the results of the Rhode Island April elections were announced, the General Assembly convened ceremonially, and officials were inaugurated. Visitors from all over Rhode Island came to Newport to participate in victory celebrations, political negotiations, and party conflicts. Newporters considered it a more important holiday than Christmas.

The Colony House served as the primary state house of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations from its completion in 1739 until 1901, when the new state house in Providence opened. From 1901 to 1926 it was the Newport County Courthouse. Between 1926 and 1932, the building was restored by architect Norman Isham, who simultaneously worked on two other nearby colonial buildings: The Brick Market and the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House. The Colony House contains a portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart. In 1962, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Colony House is owned by the State of Rhode Island and managed by the Newport Historical Society.

Excerpt from Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission: The Old State House:

The Old State House is treasured for its associations with significant historical events and admired for its architectural quality. Known at various times as the Providence Colony, County, Court, or State House, the building assumed the popular name Old State House after the new capitol on Smith Hill was occupied in 1901. The Old State House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, and is a key element of the College Hill Historic Landmark District, designated in 1971. The building is one of five former Rhode Island state houses that survive today. From the colony's earliest days, the General Assembly convened in different towns. The Assembly eventually adopted the custom of rotating sessions among the state's five county seats, meeting in buildings which were also used as courthouses.

Providence's first County House, a two-story wooden structure, was built in 1730-1731 on Meeting Street, on the lot now occupied by the Brick Schoolhouse. A fire destroyed the building on Christmas Eve, 1758.

The following February the General Assembly ordered the construction of a new brick courthouse. The building committee selected a new site north of the previous one. The long, narrow lot extending from North Main to the newly completed Benefit Street provided a grand axial approach to the building. Work began in 1760 and was largely completed by 1762, but funds for finishing the interior were appropriated as late as 1771.

The Old State House has been the setting of many important events. Here on May 4,1776, the General Assembly repealed a previous act of allegiance to the crown. The date is now celebrated as Rhode Island Independence Day. While meeting here in 1784, the Assembly passed the first act in the United States providing for the gradual emancipation of slaves. In 1781, George Washington attended a dinner and ball given here in his honor. He returned as President in 1790 to attend a banquet commemorating Rhode Island's ratification of the federal Constitution.

The Old State House figured prominently in some of the events of the Dorr Rebellion of 1841-1842, an important reform movement to make Rhode Island's government more democratic. At the time, the Charter of 1663, then the basis for state government, restricted voting rights to give nearly all political power to native-born property owners, and allocated representation in a manner that allowed rural areas to dominate the Assembly, undermining the voice of urban areas in state affairs. In 1841 the People's Party failed to establish its slate of officers as the legitimate government of Rhode Island, partly because they were prevented from occupying the Old State House. However, the crisis did force those in power to frame a new constitution, which was ratified in November 1842. This document regularized the system for rotating Assembly meetings among the five county seats, and apportioned the Senate and House of Representatives by population. A constitutional amendment passed in 1854 limited Assembly sessions to Providence and Newport.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the General Assembly finally realized the need for a spacious capitol that would also be an appropriate symbol of state government. Designs for a new structure, by New York architects McKim, Mead & White, were selected in an architectural competition in 1891. Construction of the State House on Smith Hill began in 1895, and the building was occupied during the winter of 1900-1901. The former state house became the Sixth District Courthouse.

The Sixth District Court vacated the building in 1975. Since then the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission has supervised several restoration projects, including replacement of the missing roof balustrade, reconstruction of the belfry, and rehabilitation of the Council Chamber. In 1988, through a generous gift from the National Decorating Products Association and the Painting and Decorating Contractors Association, the first-floor courtroom, stair tower, and hallways were repainted in their historic colors. Today this landmark structure continues to serve the state as headquarters of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.


Rhode Island State Archives


Copyright is in the public domain unless otherwise specified. We reserve the right to restrict reproduction of materials due to preservation concerns.





Still Image Item Type Metadata


"Old Rhode Island State Houses," in Virtual Exhibits, Item #861, http://sos.ri.gov/virtualarchives/items/show/861 (accessed July 18, 2019).