World Heritage Site Status

This column has often argued that Newport is blessed with a broad and deep cultural and architectural heritage. From the city’s rich concentration of colonial houses along Spring Street and in the Point District, to the extraordinary collection of Greek revival, Queen Ann and other styles from the Victorian era on Historic Hill and in the Catherin-Kay neighborhood, to the unsurpassed examples of Gilded Age architecture along Bellevue Avenue, few places can boast of a greater concentration of important American architecture in such a small area than Newport.

But Newport’s unique history and story goes well beyond its extraordinary architectural treasures. Newport was, as a result of the the signing of the Rhode Island Charter by King Charles II In 1663, with the signing of the Rhode Island Charter at the urging of Newport Dr. John Clarke, a “lively experiment” began and promised “that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned.” This charter continued to be the law of the state until the ratification of the US Constitution by Rhode Island in 1790, which extended similar religious rights throughout the new nation. During that period, as a result of this extraordinary document, the people of Newport enjoyed some of the great religious freedom and pluralism of faiths anywhere on the planet at that time. Within a half mile of the fresh water spring located under the Coffey’s gas station (which is why and where Newport has founded in 1639) there were early churches of a very wide variety of denominations, including the oldest existing synagogue in the United States. And whereas Quakers were being persecuted and even hung in the colony of Massachusetts to the north, they and other Christian sects and non-Christian groups found safe harbor and welcome in Newport.  Back in 2007 a group of volunteer leaders mounted a valiant effort to help put Newport on the World Heritage map with two separate applications: one noting Newport’s unique role as a place where the idea of religious tolerance was born and grew and a second application focusing on the city’s role as a center of Gilded Age architecture and culture. While neither proposal was rejected outright, both failed to achieve success at that time as the process is both challenging and highly competitive.

World Heritage sites program was first begun by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1954 in response to the proposed flooding of a Egyptian valley that was rich in ancient temples and the buildings were relocated at great expense with the financial support of more than 50 countries. Many came to realize that some monuments and places have importance to the history and culture of not just a single country but the world as a whole and in 1972 the “Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” was proposed and came into force in 1975. Since that time the requirements for a building or place to be eligible for World Heritage status has continued to evolve but are currently based on 10 criteria of either a cultural or natural nature. Without going into the specifics, the process to become a world heritage site is typically two-fold: first the host nation must adopt the nomination as one its own priorities for inclusion onto this rarified list and secondly the World Heritage Commission must then choose the place or building from the many offered for selection.

Many would ask what the benefits and responsibilities of being listed on the World Heritage site list are. The benefits are largely in the area of recognition that inclusion on the list brings and the increase in tourism that is the natural result. The second benefit is the pride that the community derives from being recognized among the most revered and precious places on earth. There are only about 960 cultural and natural landmarks that have been so honored worldwide and only about 200 of those are in North America, including such recognizable listings as the Statue of Liberty and Yosemite National Park. World Heritage sites are protected in international conflicts and their wanton destruction is deemed to be a war crime by the Convention. There is no prohibition from change or renovation of the sites by the owners or operators but one cost (or benefit depending on perspective) is that the sites so honored come under the bright light of public attention and recognition.

At the Colony house on October 21, Governor Chafee announced that a group of historians and other community leaders being formed to re-launch the effort to have Newport recognized as a World Heritage site. According to Newport Historical Society Executive Director Ruth Taylor, “This is a step up in organization as the committee is more diverse and the formal gesture of support from the state should help.”   Having been through the system one time already, members of this group of historians and preservation leaders are better positioned to make the argument, both to domestic and international bodies, that Newport’s role in the creation and growth of the principle of religious freedom is worthy of recognition by UNESCO and the World Heritage site program.

Pieter Roos, the chair of the effort back in 2006, observed “Newport has a unique position in the American pantheon of places and this honor would be an important recognition of what we Newporters already know—the city has a had a critical place in history.”  Naomi Neville, representing the city council, issued a resolution that “embraced and endorsed” the effort and promised full support for the commission in the effort. Newport has made many great contributions to American history, culture and architecture since its founding more than 350 years ago. If this group of individuals is successful in getting Newport’s new nomination through the United States vetting committee and then able to persuade the World Heritage Commission of the nomination’s worth and importance, Newport will again have made a contribution to the world: the recognition that religious free was not always the universal value we accord it today and that the idea of religious freedom has never been more important than it is today in a world fraught with religious violence in every corner of the globe!

Ross Cann