“In the late 17th century the idea of religious freedom was an alien idea not only around the world but here in the North American too. In Massachusetts they were hanging people for the high crime of being Quakers.
“… rare circumstances led to the rise of the concept of religious freedom in a town that is now an out of the way genteel resort, but which was in its day one of the most important early American settlements.
“In this day and age, with the challenges facing the country and world, a reminder of the great benefits of religious tolerance could not be…more needed.”
- Ross Cann, AIA, commenting on “Newport, a Lively Experiment”
The Great Friends Meeting House (1699), is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is an integral part of the Newport National Historic District. This building, Rhode Island’s oldest surviving house of worship, was the center of Quaker life in colonial New England and survives today as an icon of early American cultural history.
Fearlessly championing such progressive causes as the abolition of slavery and equality for women, early American Quakers left behind an honored history highlighted by remarkably contemporary values. The Great Friends Meeting House is a memorial and testament to the definable mark left by the Society of Friends upon the political and cultural evolution of American society.
The colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was founded with a uniquely fierce commitment to liberty of conscience and religion. In Newport in particular, the separation of church and state was codified in the town statutes as early as 1641. The enlightened underpinnings of Newport’s civic environment made the area a safe haven for early members of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, who elsewhere faced torture and persecution.
The central cubical block of the elongated building, with its massive exposed framing timbers, tiered bench seating, and diamond pane leaded windows, is a rare surviving example of the late medieval form.
The roots of Newport’s congregation of Friends can be traced to a ship that sailed into Newport harbor in 1657 bearing eleven Quakers, six of whom had been banished from the Massachusetts Bay colony. The Quaker refugees flourished here to an unusual degree, and many leading families, wealthy merchants, talented artisans and colony governors were soon counted among their members.
Almost from its inception, the Newport congregation became the organizational hub for the Society of Friends in New England. In 1661, the burgeoning population of Friends in the northern colonies established a New England Yearly Meeting, which would be held in the Newport meeting house until 1905. The Great Friends Meeting House, built in 1699 to accommodate the growing congregation, was host to hundreds of (and at the largest annual meeting, over five thousand) Quakers who flocked to Newport yearly to discuss polity and theology.
The Friends were among the most influential of Newport’s numerous early congregations and dominated the political, social and economic life of the town into the 18th century. The Quaker neighborhood on Eastons Point was home to some of the most highly skilled craftsman in colonial America. Among the best known of these were the Townsend and Goddard families, who made extraordinarily fine and beautiful furniture.
The architecture of the Society’s Meeting House, evolved over the course of two centuries, further highlights its place in American history. The original structural form of the building is fully exposed on the interior. The central cubical block of the elongated building, with its massive exposed framing timbers, tiered bench seating, and diamond pane leaded windows, is a rare surviving example of the late medieval form. Hinged panels separating the core and an addition (operated via a unique system of cranks and pulleys and serving to accommodate the needs of the Yearly Meeting) still exist in working condition. A raised gallery runs along three sides of the original core.
Freed and enslaved African Americans attended meetings at the Great Friends Meeting House in the 18th century. In the 1770’s, the Newport Quaker congregation publicly and historically declared that “No man should hold another in human bondage.”
"The Friends Playground" at The Rec
The meeting house’s connection with the African American community in Newport did not end with the congregation’s open services and the early manumission of slaves. From 1922 until 1967, the building served as the Newport Recreation Center (‘The Rec’). Although Newporters from many backgrounds used the facilities (including the ‘Friend’s Playground’) for athletic and social events, The Rec came to be used primarily by Newport’s African American community as a major activities center for its youth, and a bi-racial board governed the center. Since 1979, hundreds of former Newporters and their families have gathered every other August for a “Rec Reunion.” The Rec Reunion Association was incorporated by the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office in 2000.
Built in 1699, the Great Friends Meeting House received significant alterations/additions in 1705, 1729, 1807, 1857 and 1867, mainly to accommodate a growing congregation and the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends. As membership in the Society of Friends declined during the early 1900’s, the building fell into disuse and disrepair. In 1973, the Meeting House was privately restored and was subsequently placed under the aegis of the Newport Historical Society.
In 1987-88, guided by the Preservation Technology Group and the Preservation Cooperative, the Society conducted a thorough historic structural assessment of the Meeting House. This evaluation uncovered several problems stemming from the 1973 restoration that allowed water to be trapped in the building, causing damage and dry rot. The Society undertook a complete restoration to rectify these structural problems and repair water-related damage, ensuring the long-term safety and stability of the building. Finally, a paint color consultation was carried out by the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission and the Providence Preservation Society, and the building was cleaned and repainted.
In the twenty years that have passed since the last major restoration effort, the Great Friends Meeting House has suffered from wear-and-tear and water- and weather-related damage. In addition, the building is not in compliance with new fire, safety and ADA codes. And finally, the space is unheated and inadequately plumbed, severely limiting its use. These factors combine to threaten the building’s safety and to limit any exploration of use.
As with many historic properties, the threat today to the preservation of the Great Friends Meeting House extends well beyond these issues of physical maintenance. Historical collections, structures, and spaces across the country all share a common challenge: the struggle to capture an audience, and to remain connected to the community. Without these connections, the resources and energy needed to preserve significant objects are rarely found.
Crafting an economically viable and relevant role for a sacred space poses additional challenges. It is not surprising, then, that the greatest danger facing the Great Friends Meeting House has proven to be the lack of a robust adaptive reuse plan. In the absence of such a plan, the building has effectively existed in a holding pattern, suffering the physical decline that this lack of focus and attention makes possible.
The Great Friends Meeting House currently is threatened by structural instabilities, breaches in the roof, a damaged foundation which permits the entry of vermin, and decaying paint and plaster. The building is in an overall condition that raises concern about its long-term sustainability, and presents an appearance of abandonment and distress. The Society understands that the crucial first step in crafting a new life for the meeting house is to bring the dilapidated building into good repair.
Project Description, Timeline and Budget
In accordance with its mandate to preserve and protect the Great Friends Meeting House, the Newport Historical Society conducted a comprehensive physical survey of the building in 2006. The goal of the assessment was to define all immediate restoration needs and suggest long-term practical improvements in line with the Society’s goals of historical conservation and public education. The survey and analysis was carried out by Newport Collaborative Architects, Inc., an architectural firm that has received over 70 design awards recognizing creativity in renovation, new construction and historic rehabilitation.
EXTERIOR RESTORATIONS ($100,000 – COMPLETED)
Funded by the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission and the Alletta Morris McBean Foundation, the main exterior restorations to the meeting house were completed in 2009.
NEW STORM WINDOWS (approx $15,000)
INTERIOR RESTORATIONS (approx $100,000)