Newport’s new hotel would be fine almost anywhere, otherwise Omaha or Albany – architecture critic Morgan

Saturday February 29, 2020

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Brenton Hotel, Newport. RENDERING Group One

Newport is getting a new luxury waterfront hotel, which is good news for the grande dame of American resorts. The 57-room Brenton Hotel, opening this summer on 31 America’s Cup Boulevard, is part of the city’s drive to make Newport a more attractive year-round destination.

Developers say the “upscale property” is “in keeping with the historic charm of downtown Newport,” but the hotel raises some urban planning questions in the architecturally richest small town in the country.

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There have been some objections to a five-story building in a town that is large and mostly local, but the new hotel must anchor a significant corner at the top of Long Wharf, an area already plagued by tough new structures.

Next door, the Humphrey “Harp” Donnelly III Newport Gateway Visitor and Transport Center is just as cumbersome a piece of bourgeois architecture as its name is unwieldy. As the official entrance to Newport, this fortress-like lump from 1988 is highly undesirable.

The Newport Marriott Hotel, which was also built in the late 1980s, surrounds the Brenton on two sides. Long Wharf was Newport’s maritime trading center for over three centuries. Hence, as described in the AIA Guide to Newport, the gauzy brick hotel is “an unwise attempt to mimic the architectural structure and variety of the old equipment and shops dragged to make way for its construction.”

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Long Wharf with Marriott and Brenton. PHOTO Will Morgan

The Marriott can’t really add to the street life of Newport as its key street level promenade along Long Wharf is more dedicated to parking than businesses and people who would add to city life.

The Brenton is similarly cursed, but now you can only park near the ground in this designated flood zone.

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Parking on the ground floor at the Marriott and Brenton. PHOTO Will Morgan

As one of the hotel’s investors said of the Brenton’s design: “We wanted to respect the heritage and history of Newport, of course, but we also wanted to bring something that is a little more advanced,” that will be “an icon” and “really exciting” – ours Guests.”

Those guests, at least those on the south side, have great views of Newport Harbor through floor-to-ceiling glass – a pleasant relief from all the oppressive bricks at the Marriott – but the hotel design is neither iconic nor refined.

The architects, Group One Partners, extol the “elegant design” of their hotel, noting that it “transforms a collection of details from prominent areas into a design that is unique to Newport”.

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What exactly is the Newport Detail Collection in Brenton? PHOTO Will Morgan

The Brenton development team claims to have worked closely with the city, state and local historic district commission “to ensure that the hotel’s contemporary architectural details match the historic character of Newport”.

But what historical character is being referred to here? The era of such radically new bourgeois structures as the Touro Synagogue and the Redwood Library, the mansions from the Golden Age of some of America’s greatest architects or the soulless urban renewal of the 1960s that separated the America’s Cup Boulevard with its traffic lanes from the port?

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America’s Cup Boulevard in Brenton: an urban wasteland. PHOTO Will Morgan

Notable 18th century attractions such as the Colony House and the Old Brick Market are not far from the new hotel. But to get there, you have to brave the boulevard traffic and drive through Long Wharf Mall, a t-shirt and candle development that has the excitement of any suburban mall.

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Long Wharf Mall, with the 1739 Colony House in the distance. PHOTO Will Morgan

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The Brenton Hotel will be covered in white clapboard based on Newport’s colonial houses. PHOTO: Will Morgan

Boston-based architects are primarily hotel builders, so hiring hospitality specialists has positive benefits. But doesn’t a national architectural treasure like Newport deserve more than just expert value engineering?

I remember a former Newport, a port town with boarding houses and seafaring bars with no bridge to Jamestown. Architectural tourism – the restoration of neighborhoods and the opening of the grand mansions – changed this and gave new life to the city.

But it was kind of a hell of a business as most of today’s visitors are not cultural tourists but day-trippers interested in the flaky development that threatens the very character that made Newport such a conservation success story.

The Brenton Hotel would be fine almost anywhere, say Omaha or Albany. But with all that is at stake, Newport deserves so much more: a design worthy of its architectural heritage as well as a future landmark.

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GoLocal architecture critic Will Morgan is the author of Yankee Modern, a book about the work of Newport designers James Estes and Peter Twombly.

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