There are streets in Newport today that a colonist who witnessed the first public reading of Rhode Island’s Royal Charter of 1663 might recognize.
These narrow lanes lined with 17th-century buildings have undergone only modest changes since the charter granted Rhode Island and Providence Plantations religious and political freedoms then unknown in North American colonies.
But it’s been many decades since Washington Square, the historic heart of the city, where the charter itself first debuted before the people 350 years ago, was one of them. In a city known for mansions, beaches and souvenir shops, Washington Square’s more utilitarian history as a transportation and meeting hub has caused it to be overlooked.
Now that’s changing. After years of planning and individual restoration projects, a community group looking to return the square to its former glory has unveiled a new vision tied to the upcoming 350-year anniversary of the charter signing.
The boldest part of the new plans is a proposal to unearth a spring – now covered by asphalt and a gas station – that first drew colonists to congregate in Washington Square and made it a central meeting point.
Once restored, the spring would form the center of a new “Charter Square” public outdoor space, organizing what is now one of the city’s most confusing intersections while highlighting the constellation of historic buildings around it.
Ultimately, supporters of the project see it as more than a way to improve an under-utilized piece of land, but a major opportunity to leverage the city’s historical place as a cradle of American democracy and religious freedom.
“There are five buildings that are historic landmarks and they form an amphitheater around this spring, which is enriched with history,” said John Grosvenor, principal of Northeast Collaborative Architects and a member of the Washington Square Roots Group working to revitalize the area. “If we get a great design and play our cards right, we could be a candidate for a [UNESCO] World Heritage Site.”