It has been a while since I have written about a library visit. I’m thrilled to return to this series with a post on the Redwood Library & Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island which I visited on June 8, 2023.
From their website:
“The Redwood Library and Athenaeum is America’s first purpose-built library (1747), and the oldest continuously operating in its original location. As such, it is the only remaining secular public cultural institution in this country with an unbrokenlink to the colonial period and the Nation’s founding.”
Smoke from forest fires in Canada had been driving east coasters indoors and I was worried our Book Cougars Biblio Adventure to Newport would be canceled due to health concerns. The air quality was actually better in Rhode Island than in Connecticut, so the trip was on. It’s a 90-minute drive from where we live near New Haven, CT.
The severity of the smokey haze decreased with each passing mile, but it still lingered when we arrived in Newport around 10:30 am. However, as you can see in the photo below, by the time we left the Redwood Library at about 3 pm, clear blue skies had returned!
The Redwood Library was founded in 1747 and designed by Peter Harrison (1716-1775) who is known as “America’s First Architect.” The library was completed in 1750 and set the trend for the Palladian architectural style in the colonial era.
Named after the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) the Palladian style was popular in Europe in the 17th century. It is similar to neoclassical which arose in the late 18th century and has more flourishes.
Palladian buildings in Europe were typically built with stone, brick, or stucco. The most plentiful and readily accessible building material in colonial Rhode Island in the mid-18th century was wood. Check out the close up photos of the Redwood’s facade–it is made of wood!
Looking at the building, you would never know. I didn’t notice the facade was not stone while standing inches in front of it. The photo on the above left was taken prior to learning about Peter Harrison’s ingenious idea. The photo above on the right was taken upon leaving the Redwood. Can you tell it is wood? I couldn’t be sure until I knocked on it.
The Redwood’s original entrance faced Belleuvue Ave. The current entrance is on the north side of the building on Redwood St. When you first walk in, there’s a small foyer (with public restrooms) before you walk into the Delivery Room, pictured below.
The Delivery Room was an 1875 addition designed by George Champlin Mason. The room through the doorway to the left is called the Reading Room. Not pictured to the right is the doorway to the stacks. Just out of view to the left is the librarian’s reference and circulation desk.
The Redwood Library & Athenaeum is a membership or subscription library, meaning that it is sustained by annual membership fees and endowments. Members pay an annual fee for borrowing and other privileges. Some membership libraries do not allow visitors much access but we were allowed to browse around and work in the space. The staff was very friendly.
Looking into the Reading Room from the Delivery Room. Beyond the Reading Room is the original library room called the Harrison Room. The Reading Room was the first expansion of the library, added in 1859.
A glance to the left as you walk into the Reading Room. There were members and other visitors walking around and reading so I did not photograph the entire room, which manages to be both impressive and cozy.
In the Harrison Room, the original library space. The Redwood was designed as a square one-room library with narrow rectangular offices flanking two sides. If you look back at the photo of the facade, you’ll notice these two wing rooms. Just behind the clock on the right, you can see into one of these former office spaces, which are now book rooms. Off to the left is a small room with withdrawn library books for sale (some vintage, some contemporary).
A bit more about this clock. It is not your typical grandfather clock but a sculpture by artist Nari Ward. The work is titled Anchoring Escapement; Ithica, and offers commentary on different conceptions of time, power, the enslavement of Africans and more. The founder of the library, Abraham Redwood, was one of the largest enslavers in colonial America and owned a sugar plantation in Antiqua. Behind Ward’s sculpture, in contrast, is a classic, elegant Claggett tall case clock. To learn more about this sculpture and see how its installation looks, check out this article. (In the photos above, it is pushed to the side for safety due to an upcoming event.)
The view from the original entrance looking back through the Reading Room, Delivery Room, and to the stairway in the stacks.
Above are photos of the two narrow wing rooms. They were originally the offices of the librarian and the board president. One now holds children’s books (left) and the other volumes on gardening and architecture (right).
After enjoying a browse around the library, including the free audio tour, Emily and I spent some time working at the Redwood. (We will recap this biblio adventure on Book Cougars episode 184, due out June 20th.)
There is a bit of a “wow factor,” a slight chill up the spine, when you pull out your modern laptop in a library that was built in 1750, prior to the invention of indoor electricity and other utilities that we now take for granted.
Of course I checked for Cather on the shelves in the Reading Room.
The Cather below.
Not something you see in libraries today: a Victorian-era dual-height adjustable bookstand.
Looking at this stand now, I wish I would have asked about it. Must it be manually adjusted or is it self-adjusting with the shift of weight?
Back in the Delivery Room. A bust of Benjamin Franklin surrounded by portraits and newly purchased library books.
The entrance to the modern stacks, which were added in 1912.
This high density mobile shelving is at the far back of the stacks. Work desks are scattered throughout this section as are card catalogs.
A few of the card catalogs.
Looking into the Delivery Room from the stacks. Here you can see the librarian’s desk on the left. The entrance is to the right.
This view gives you an idea of the library’s original size and how it has grown over time with its various additions.
The library also publishes a magazine, etc., The Magazine of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum that you can read online. The current edition (Fall 2022) has an article about Harrison’s use of wood for stone.
This is a must see library, an architectural treasure, and an important place in American history. If you are in the area or passing through, do not miss it!
Redwood Library & Athenaeum
50 Bellevue Avenue
Newport, Rhode Island
For more library visit posts, click here.