Historic Structures

Trinity Church, Newport Rhode Island

Date added: September 15, 2010 Categories: Rhode Island Church

Built in 1725-1726, to replace an earlier structure. Trinity Church served the congregation organized in 1698 by Francis Nicholson, Lieutenant-Governor of New York and later Governor of Virginia and Maryland. Similar in design to the original Christ Church, Boston, Richard Munday's Trinity Church was inspired by the work of Sir Christopher Wren. In 1762, the church was lengthened by the addition of two bays to the east.

Between 1699 and 1702, the congregation of Trinity Church, established under the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, erected its original structure. This building is described as a one-room, hall church with a gallery at the west and a chancel at the east. The growth of the congregation initiated the building of the present structure. Dean George Berkeley visited the parish in 1729, during his three-year stay in Middletown, Rhode Island. After his return to England in 1732, he presented the congregation with an organ, signed by Robert Bridges, London, 1733. During the British occupation of Newport in the Revolutionary War, the presence of the Bishop's Mitre as a weathervane saved the building from vandalism. George Washington is supposed to have worshipped at Trinity Church in 1781 in pew #81. Admiral D'Arsac De Ternay, Commander of the French forces in Newport, is buried in the churchyard. Throughout its history, Trinity Church could count many important Newport citizens among its congregation. Prior to 1800, Dr, Brett, Dr. Moffatt, Martin Howard, the Bulls, Ellerys, Malbones, Cranstons, and Vernons worshipped there. During the late 19th century, Trinity Church became the summer colony's social church. Monuments to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and August Belmont attest to its social prominence.

In 1762-63, the eastern wall of the church was moved approximately 26 feet to the east, allowing for the insertion of two bays. Thus the original five-bay structure was enlarged to its present seven-bay size, including the eastern apse. A new, five story steeple, including a spire and tower, was erected in 1767-68, on the original foundations. The organ loft was altered in 1810-11, to increase the area for the choir. The pews and upper gallery were probably removed at this time. The west gallery was enlarged for the organ in 1833. A center projection was extended over the aisle below. The windows were sashed in 1740. All windows in the body of the church and tower were fitted with blinds in 1834-35. In 1867, the windows in the east gallery ends were covered with plaster and lath on the interior. The louvers remained on the exterior.

Over-all dimensions: This church building measures 96 feet (seven bays) by 46 feet, excluding the rectangular tower at the west end.

Floor plan: The church is basilican in plan. Its nave is separated from the two aisles by a raw of square piers which support the gallery. The main entrance, at the west end of the north facade, opens to a wide, north south aisle, which runs under the west gallery and terminates at the west entrance on the south facade. Access to the galleries is provided by two U-shaped stairways located in the northwest and southwest corners of the main body of the structure. (The west gallery contains the organ.) The center, east-west aisle terminates in the first level of the tower on the west and at the three-step chancel on the east. The aisles are lined with boxed pews symmetrically arranged.

Special decorative features: Two canopied pews located on either side of the entrance from the tower have elaborately paneled ceilings and backs. A three-level pulpit is located in the center of the church, in front of the chancel. The upper level or polygonal box used for preaching can be reached by a ten-step stairway which has spiral balusters and newels, a string decorated with scrolls, and a finely molded rail. The middle level contains a reading desk. The lower level is used by the clerk who leads the responses to the Psalms. This wine-glass shape with its central support is capped by a canopy or hexagonal sounding board which is suspended from one of the ceiling rondels. The pulpit is finely molded and paneled. The sounding board is finished by a heavy decoration which repeats the motifs used in the canopies of the rear pews. The chancel rail, with squared and turned balusters and a molded rail, separates the nave from the sanctuary.

The adjoining churchyard is completely enclosed by a 19th-century cast-iron fence. This burial ground contains many 18th-century stones, including one by John Stevens, Newport's leading stone cutter in the second half of the 18th century.