Redwood History: The Grounds

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 3:08pm -- mfarias

The grounds of the Redwood Library have gone through many changes since the land was given by Henry Collins in 1748. The lot was reported to be “formerly called the Bowling Greene” and very little was done to improve the grounds at the time of the construction of the library building, which was completed in 1750. Landscaping proved to be important to the library in later years, but it was not an early concern, despite the roughly twenty-two books in the original collection purchased by Abraham Redwood that were about the art of gardening. He was even known for his own personal gardens, but the Redwood Grounds were likely pretty barren for years.


Redwood Grounds Today

In 1770, it was voted that the Librarian must improve the lot the Library stands on. Four years later, it was also voted that the Library should prohibit persons from assembling in the Library lot for militia exercises as it is “an injury to the estate.” Several decades after the building was constructed, the members of the Redwood Library began to feel that some care should be applied to the Library grounds, but the Revolutionary War derailed some of these efforts. During the War, the Redwood was used to house troops or as a club for British officers who would have cut down any trees that may have existed on the property to use for firewood. It wasn’t until 1833 that the first serious effort was successfully made to landscape the Library.


Photo of the fern leaf beech tree, taken 1889

An article in the Newport Mercury on November 30, 1833, thanked Mister Thorburn and San and Madame Parmentier of New York for their donation of ornamental and flowering shrubs for the grounds around the Redwood “which is now, being for the first time since its foundation in 1747, planted and laid out into gravelled walks.” This donation amounted to $80 worth of exotic and indigenous plants ($80 being the cost at the time, not the present value). Between 1833 and 1835 the fern leaf beech tree donated by Robert Johnston was planted. Ten years later, in 1843, it was voted that trees be set in front of the lot on Bellevue, likely including the European Linden, which was destroyed by Hurricane Bob in 1991. In the same year, Judah Touro gave money for the repair of the portico and for the sidewalk to be flagged and curbed from Touro Street up to the library.


Photo of the Redwood Grounds, including house next to it on land that would be donated in 1934, taken 1858

Over the next century, many improvements were made to the Library building and its grounds, including new additions, land purchases, fence updates, iron gates, and even the employment of an expert in 1917 to cares for the trees and grounds. In 1934, the Redwood accepted a donation of land from Mary Helena Tompkins of New York. Her land bordered the Redwood property at the corner of Old Beach Road and Bellevue Avenue and provided an opportunity to create a larger garden for the Library. The house on the land was demolished and the architect John Russell Pope was brought in to create a plan for the new land. His plan was approved by the Board of Directors in January of 1935 and was set to be carried out as soon as funds and weather permitted. President of the Board of Directors at the time, Henry Barton Jacobs, wrote that the plan included, “carrying around the new property on Bellevue Avenue and Old beach Road a fence similar to that around the old Redwood property; the old “Summer House” will have to be moved and new steps with an iron and brass rail, as designed by Mr. Pope, will have to be erected; the Washington Statue [erected 1932] will have to be moved to a foundation...benches will have to be purchased...a slab in memory of Mr. & Mrs. Tompkins will have to be sunk at the junction of two paths...loam will have to be dug out for the paths and a foundation of cinders put in with either flagstones or gravel above...beds will have to be dug and shrubs, or evergreens, or flowers, planted in them. The whole property will have to be graded and seeded and certain shrubs moved and new ones planted.” The plan required a lot of work and money, but as Jacobs also wrote, “all of this work will greatly add to the beauty of the grounds and will benefit not only the Library itself by the immediate neighbours and also the City of Newport.”


Receipts from 1936 and 1937

We recently hoped to discover what was originally planted in the new garden created by Pope, but none of the plans for the grounds discussed what was actually being planted. With a little bit of luck, we found several boxes of receipts in the Redwood Archives from the years 1936-1937. Included in one of these boxes was a set of receipts from Boulevard Nurseries of Newport, which supplied the Redwood with plants and also helped maintain the plants. The first receipt, paid for in 1936, notes that the company planted Barberry on the corner of Old Beach Road and Pachysandra around the Summer House, George Washington Statue, and on either side of the front steps. In the second receipt, paid for in 1937, they supplied and planted Andromeda, Thuja Little Gem and Daphne to thicken up the planting beds and planted more Pachysandra. With their help, the garden flourished and became what we know it to be today.

Summer House and Pope Allée with gardens as designed by John Russell Pope