Redwood History: Richard Morris Hunt and the Library That Wasn't

Thu, 01/14/2016 - 3:23pm -- Redwood Staff


After the addition of the Reading Room in 1858, the Redwood community thought they had grown enough to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of their members for at least a few decades. Unfortunately for them (but very fortunately for us), plans for another addition were being discussed less than ten years later. An enlargement committee was formed, and was in contact with the celebrated architect, Richard Morris Hunt, known for his grandiose gilded age mansions like The Breakers and Marble House. Their update, as transcribed in Annals of the Redwood Library from a meeting on September 14, 1868 reads:


“The committee had caused to be prepared by an eminent architect, Richard M. Hunt, a set of 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 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.”

From the collection of the Redwood Library

To be clear, this plan outlines the eventual destruction of the 1747 Harrison Room, as well as the still new Reading Room addition. Hunt’s plan describes a building made of stone and marble – a fashionable choice of building material, with the opportunity for the Redwood to become another of Mark Twain’s “white elephants.” Considering the popularity and status of Richard Morris Hunt during this time, it makes sense that wealthy and influential men like those associated with the Redwood would seek his services.  Conversely, Peter Harrison’s neo-classical design was another hallmark of Newport, and more personally, stood as a testament to the humble beginnings of the Redwood Library. Ultimately, Hunt’s plans were rejected, although it is unclear whether that was due to monetary restriction on the part of the Redwood Library, or their disapproval of what could be construed as Hunt’s irreverence for Peter Harrison’s architecture. A few years later, in July of 1872, the enlargement committee submitted another update:

"The sketch of a ground plan now presented suggests a large room on the east side of the reading-room, which was erected in 1858, using the brick wall thereof, having an area of about forty by fifty feet, with a vestibule on the north and Director’s room on the south, for business meetings; at other times to be used by the Librarian, and probably useful for other purposes.

The large room will furnish facilities for shelving books, not only on the sides up to a convenient height, but also by means of a gallery, approached by a light and easy flight of stairs on either side. The whole to be lighted from above. Underneath the large room provision can be made for a convenient lecture-room at some future day, by laying the foundation walls of a sufficient depth to secure the required height of ceiling. A suitable entrance-way from Redwood street to such lecture-room should be provided for.“

 This sounds very similar to the Rovensky Room that we have today, and gives us invaluable clues into the original layout and use of the space. Bear in mind that by 1872 the Redwood Library had an extensive art collection that needed to be displayed, including dozens of paintings by Charles Bird King.  The inclusion of a lecture room demonstrates the Redwood’s role as a self-elected haven of discussion and learning, as well as dedication to the ideals of the athenaeum name. Again, it was not to be, as the enlargement committee decided against any expansion in 1873, due to lack of funds. However, a year later in July of 1874, George Champlin Mason, an active member of the Redwood, submitted his plans for an addition. It was agreed upon and the gallery was built in 1875. Today, the Mason addition is known as the Rovensky Room, but many of those original features mentioned in the 1872 enlargement committee update are visible and useful to us even in the twenty-first century.


Twentieth century postcard showing the exterior of the Redwood Library from Bellevue Avenue. 

Never been inside the Redwood Library? Admission is just $10 and includes a guided tour at 10:30am, access to our Reading Room and current periodicals, and entrance to our two galleries. Spend some time in one of America’s oldest libraries – we guarantee you’ll learn something new!