A Major Rhode Island Addition to Newport -– Architecture Critic Morgan

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Saturday July 30, 2022

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The Sailing Museum, Newport, PHOTO: Will Morgan

The summer I was eight, my family rented a little cabin in Little Compton. I vividly remember the beach, the rocks and the marshes. Above all, I remember going to Newport to see the start of the Bermuda race. My favorite uncle was a navigator on one of the smaller sailboats, and he later returned to Newport as part of an America’s Cup team. The harbor was festooned with sails and crowded with dozens of motorboats – well-wishers saluting the intrepid ocean racers. There was also the excitement of a Navy destroyer that would escort the wind-blown sailors to the Crown Colony over 600 miles to the south.

The Newport of my youth was before the Pell Bridge connected Newport to West Bay and beyond, and before urban renewal along America’s Cup Avenue destroyed a bustling part of the colonial capital’s legendary port. Before Irish bars and tee-shirt shops, Newport was pretty much the golden age mansions of America’s first seaside resort. But it was also the sea: the navy and sailing (many yachtsmen came from Belleview Avenue). The famous sailing race, which was first contested in 1851, is one of the world’s great sporting events, like Wimbledon, the Kentucky Derby or the Tour de France.

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The Sailing Museum, Newport .PHOTO Will Morgan

But in 1983, Australia stunned the world by winning the America’s Cup and leaving Newport without their crown jewel. Now the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, along with the National Sailing Hall of Fame (which was recently moved from Annapolis) are part of the new Sailing Museum on Thames Street. The 11,000 square foot museum occupies the open space of the 1894 Stone Armory. The building itself has had a long, complicated past with city ownership, state oversight and tenant efforts poorly funded. Designed for drill troops, the Great Hall is perfect for exhibits of actual sailboats, as well as a dazzling array of interactive exhibits that allow the visitor to tackle tasks such as designing a boat, choice of name and navigation. There are also trophies and photographs from both Halls of Fame, as well as fascinating historical artifacts on loan from the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol.

I never dreamed of sailing with FDR, Ted Turner or Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, but enjoyed the various activities unlocked by the high-tech bracelet provided by the museum. My favorite virtual experience was getting behind the wheel of an America’s Cup boat. The Courageous didn’t deserve my lack of skill, because I smashed it onto the rocks, and instead of hearing Tilt! was ordered to notify the Coast Guard. A small theater in the round provides a dramatic experience of being among the crew of one of the modern technological marvels vying for the Cup. You can tie sailors’ knots, see the evolution of sailboats, equipment and clothing, and learn about various personalities who dominated this romantic and rich sport.

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Get behind the wheel of a 1970s America’s Cup boat. Photo: Will Morgan

Since the opening of the Sailing Museum in early May, the flow of visitors has been constant. I found the whole operation beautifully run, imaginatively put together and a real pleasure to experience. But despite the joy of digging up my nautical cravings, I wondered how often I would return (although if I lived in Newport, it would be a logical place to take out-of-town guests). The Sailing Museum feels like a one-trick pony compared to the powerful and oft-repeated impact of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

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The Sailing Museum, Newport. PHOTO: Will Morgan

That said, the National Sailing Hall of Fame is in Newport, where it should be. One of our major national sporting events is receiving appropriate media coverage, and a magnificent architectural landmark has been adaptively repurposed and productively commissioned. The only thing missing is someone like Newport Mansion owner Larry Ellison and his Oracle team bringing the America’s Cup back to Newport. On that day, we will be able to contemplate the port from the museum and see the winning sailboat.

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The Sailing Museum, Newport. PHOTO: Will Morgan

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