Redwood Library and Athenaeum
The Company of the Redwood Library was created in 1747 by Abraham Redwood and forty-four other colonists in Newport with the goal of establishing a library that was open to members who sustained the institution with by paying a subscription fee. The building was designed by America’s first architect, Peter Harrison and when it was complete, it was the first Neo-Classical public building within the American Colonies. Of all the libraries founded during the colonial period, the Redwood Athenaeum is the only one operating and still housed in its original building.
Backstory and Context
The founder of this library, Abraham Redwood, contributed 500 pounds sterling in order to obtain the Athenaeum's original collection of 751 titles. Each book in the original collection was purchased in London and collectively, this assortment of books represented the interests of cultured and educated people in the Western Hemisphere during the mid 18th century. Books in the original collection of 751 books included religion, philosophy, law, agriculture, history, and medicine. From that small collection of books, the library offers over 200,000 books today.
Architect Peter Harrison chose this Neo-Classical architectural design based on information he had gathered within his own personal private library of architectural books. The building designed was likely inspired from the headpiece of Book IV of Edward Hoppus’ 1735 edition of Andrea Palladio’s architecture. The building is crafted in wood; however, its rusticated look gives it the appearance of stone.
The Redwood library was visited by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and President Washington in 1790. Jefferson, inspired by the architecture of this library, suggested that other buildings within the republic follow this style. Jefferson's admiration for this building likely influenced other decisions to utilize Neo-Classical architecture throughout public buildings throughout the United States.
During the American Revolutionary War, the building served as a club for officers. During the British occupation of the city, many volumes disappeared. In 1806 there was a large campaign with the goal of finding all of the missing books lost during the war. While this effort failed, members launched another effort was made to replace all of the missing volumes from the original collection in 1947. Thanks to the purchase of rare books from other libraries and private collections, 92% of the titles that were available in the original collection is once again held by the library.
In 1833, the library was officially named “The Redwood Library and Athenaeum,” in order to bolster its reputation as a leading institution for education. The original building only consisted of one room, so the members also raised funds to support the construction of several additions. In 1966, the institutions was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today the library serves its community with events and exhibitions. While most of these events are open to the community, the library is still funded through membership dues and donations from patrons.
Redwood Library. Newport Discovery Guide. . Accessed April 30, 2018. http://www.newport-discovery-guide.com/redwood-library.html.