Newport Tower – Rhode Island

New England Antiquities Research Association – excerpt

How was it Built?  The Construction of the Newport Tower

Built by skilled and experienced masons

Almost every observer has offered an opinion on the “how” of the construction, but few qualified masons, engineers or architects have undertaken the effort to “reconstruct” the construction of the tower. Exactly how it was built, how much material was needed and where did it come from, how many workers and how long did it take and what must have been the credentials of the master builder who planned and was responsible for the execution of the work? After more than thirty years experience in project planning, consulting with masons and supervising the builders I am ready to tackle my view of the “specifications” for the construction of the Newport tower.

 Though picturesque and oddly out of place among the refined Georgian homes surrounding the Touro Park, Means tells us “… the distinctive features of the tower cannot be described even by a friendly critic as masterpieces of masonry”. Modest in size and scale, the outside diameter is a mere 24’-8”, reduced by the thick walls to and interior diameter of 18’-5”. The eight stout straight columns range in height from 7’-2” to 7’-10” with rough stone arches reaching the crown at 12’. The existing height is 26’, but an attempted sabotage by retreating British soldiers during the revolution blew off the upper part of the walls. The distinctive features include the randomly placed double splayed windows, the niches, beam sockets and most curious of all, the fireplace on the second floor. What skills were needed to fabricate this stone anomaly?  What tools did they use? We turn our attention to the construction of the tower.

 The builders of our Tower were faced with unique challenges. The wide Atlantic separated them from the ready resources found at home. Itinerant joiners, carpenters and most of all, skilled stone masons were not waiting impatiently in the guildhall for job offers. These builders were in a sense, subsistence builders. They were obliged to manufacture nearly all of their materials. Raw material was plentiful, ancient hardwood trees for framing, staging, and centering, for making stone boats, carts, sledges, buckets and barrels and perhaps charcoal for burning shells. Narragansett Bay was the benefactor of the glacier’s last gasp and the more than 450 tons of fieldstone needed to build the tower was theirs for the taking. Shell middens, bequeathed by generations of native clambakes (or oysterbakes) at the beach could be gathered and burned to make crushed shell (called tabby) lime mortar mixed with washed sea sand. Iron, if needed (or even used) was the one imported item.

The Tower was already ancient when this was painted in 1775

Workmen of all times have supplied their own tools. The woodsmen; axes and adzes, levers and ropes. Carpenters and joiners; planes, drills, hammers, wedges and froes, chisels, gouges and saws. The master mason’s kit included hammers and chisels for a myriad of purposes; his most important tool was his knowledge of the technique of selecting the shells, building the kiln and burning, slaking and mixing mortar which is the glue that has kept the building intact for so many years. He would have known how to achieve the exact temperature to transform a heap of shells into silvery lime putty, known just the right proportions to make a strong, long lasting mortar mix and to judge the right amounts needed to do the job. He would have known how to wash the sand and shells to extract all salt, which is ruinous to the strength of the mortar. Careful planning would have been in order as well. The sequence of tasks, the time required for cutting, gathering and transporting materials (and probably constructing the vessels for transportation) for drying, burning stacking, and stockpiling would all have been planned ahead.

Here we have a partial materials list; just enough to get started:

Stone: Good assortment of granite fieldstones, free from weathering cracks or other defects. About 450 tons.

Lime: Good quality tabby lime from selected clam or other approved shell heaps. About 5 tons and one ton additional for the parging.

Sand: Hauled and washed in good clear running fresh water and dried. About 38 tons and eight tons for the parging.

Water: Clear fresh water: About 1750 gallons.

Wood: Healthy chestnut or oak trees about five feet around and sixty feet tall: Four good trees. Pine for staging centering and miscellaneous carpentry three feet around: three tall trees: Sundry hardwoods for vessels and tools.

Assembling and preparing such a mass of material would require three to six months, depending on the weather. Most of the work is ideally done in the winter when it is easier to skid heavy materials over snow or ice and there is no danger of being mired in mud. Construction could wait until the mud dried in the spring.

Having compiled a materials list, we can proceed to account for the crew. In addition to the master, in this case acting as architect-engineer-general contractor, the job descriptions might look like this:

  • One master mason or assistant master mason, with experience in laying up mortared stone, arch-work, and building columns, to manage the stone work.
  • One apprentice to help lay up stone.
  • One mortar maker.
  • Two laborers, no experience required.
  • One water boy.
  • Four carters to transport materials.
  • Two carpenters, one to supervise woodcutters, and to prepare framing and rough carpentry; one a skilled finish carpenter and joiner.
  • Two apprentice carpenters or joiners to work on the staging, falsework, centering and framing.
  • Two laborers, no experience required.


Newport Tower Mystery Solved?


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