Houses are built to live in, and not to look on…
- Francis Bacon
On any number of Newport’s streets you’ll find a quaint little house painted a bright color with a small plaque affixed to the narrow planks of its facade, proudly declaring its age. Hiking through the gently sloping rows that make up the downtown’s waterfront, you get the impression that the houses are somehow competing. “1856” reads one of the plaques, outdone by the one next door - “1756”. It’s a fun game to play, trying to spot the oldest (I have it on good authority it’s 1723).
Newport’s houses are part of the reason more than a million people descend on the town every summer. The houses are tirelessly maintained and restored, preserved come what may, lest the town lose its air of nostalgia. The Newport Restoration Foundation, brainchild of the contentious and colorful Doris Duke, has restored about 80 of these houses at tremendous expense. These efforts have predominantly been led by a local workforce. Tirelessly, artisans and tradesmen replace rotten planks, crooked frames, leaking roofs, and unsound foundations. Paint is peeled and re-applied, over and over again. The sweat soaked up by the timbers of Newport houses could probably fill up its harbor.
The air of permanence exuded by the city’s old quarter is carefully crafted. It is also, undoubtedly, a mirage that we chose to believe is real. With every timber or layer of paint replaced in a house, it becomes less and less its original self. It’s likely that in many of these houses, the vast majority of the original materials used to build them have since been replaced. In Newport’s houses we find a rendition of the Ship of Theseus paradox: the cottage that today serves as the background to a tourist’s selfie is, in a way, not the “same” cottage that we date to 1832. The only constant in the life of this house - the one thing that has remained true throughout its entire life from the moment it was first built - is the relentless presence of human labor.
A concerted effort of carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians, and other tradesmen has through herculean efforts hauled these structures forward across the swamp of time. More-so, at every step of the way the work of previous generations has been learned from, respected, and only to the extent that is absolutely necessary, improved upon. In Newport, we find an example of labor transcending time with the obstinacy of mortar.
The presence of IYRS in Newport comes as no surprise. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better home for a trade school, particularly one as concerned with inserting its students into a tradition of highly-skilled tradesmen. The spirit of the school is woven into the harbor, its boats, and its houses. It’s difficult then, as a student, to not see yourself as part of a larger tradition - one where your role goes beyond the immediate realities of the industry and instead buttresses a timeless fraternity of skill and labor. Like those who have tirelessly toiled over the aging skeletons and facades of Newport’s beloved houses, we learn that the point of it all is the trade in and of itself - its people, its traditions, and above all, its uncanny ability to provide us with a home, in every sense of the word.
Editor's Note: In 2022, Newport Restoration Foundation partnered with IYRS to use Restoration Hall as a training facility for their Preservation Trades Specialist Training Program. In this 12-week program, tradespeople learn skills specific to the preservation of historic buildings in order to increase interest and expertise in the preservation trades.