TRENDER: Newport Architectural Historian John Tschirch

Tuesday, February 05, 2013


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"Rhode Island is one of the country's architectural treasure chests.": Newport's architectural historian John Tschirch.

Who are the Rhode Islanders leading in arts, fashion, food, and style? They're Trenders, and GoLocalProv offers glimpses of the people you most want to know on the scene. Today, architectural historian John Tschirch, Director of Museum Affairs for the Preservation Society of Newport County in Newport. Tirsch specializes in the artistic and social evolution of historic houses and landscapes, and will be speaking on "Newport as a Model of Urban Living: New Lessons from Old Cities" during a talk at the Newport Art Museum this Saturday, February 9th.

RI cred: While born in nearby Massachusetts, Tschirch spent "a lot of time" with his maternal grandparents and cousins in Tiverton. He went to Providence College, has worked in Newport for the Preservation Society since 1987. He's lived in Newport from 1990 to 1996 and in Bristol from 1996 to the present.

At what point does a boy know he wants to be an architectural historian?

I knew I loved buildings at the age of 7, climbing around old farmhouses and barns in Tiverton, Rhode Island with my cousins. I knew I wanted to be an architectural historian at the age of 19 when I climbed to the top of San Minato al Monte, a 10th century monastery on a hill overlooking Florence while studying architecture in Italy. I always seemed to be climbing around or up to buildings.

You oversee a remarkable collection of historic assets in Newport. What sets Newport apart from other cities with historic architecture?

Variety and quality! Newport has landmark buildings from the 18th through early 20th centuries of superb design and craftsmanship.

What do old cities teach us about how to live better in a modern world?

Old cities teach us about living in a human scale; cities that evolved through daily use, places that are walkable with streetscapes of manageable scale and green easily accessible green spaces.

What's your favorite building in Newport, and why?

The Isaac Bell House (1883). It's one of the finest works of architecture in America. It's a true Shingle Style masterpiece. The house is wholly original, inspired by the farmhouses of Colonial New England, France, England, and as far as Japan, with all of these historical sources used in to create something entirely new. The house has an open plan inspired by Japanese house design that was totally revolutionary. The porches have posts that resemble Japanese bamboo, and the windows in the first floor rooms open entirely so one may easily walk from the interiors to the expansive porches.

What is your favorite city in the US (other than Newport), and why? The world?

Boston, Massachusetts. Human scale bulidings and numerous green spaces from Beacon Hill and Back Bay to the South End. The park system, known as the Emerald Necklace, that enables one to walk from Boston Common through the city for miles along tree-lined green spaces. And access to the water. And there is all of the cultural vibrancy of the place from the Boston Athenaeum and the Gardner Museum to the Symphony.

My second favorite city is Austin, Texas. It is green, diverse, low density and has a very creative approach to historic preservation, adapting all kinds of buildings, from old warehouses and garages to historic motor court hotels as music, food and entertainment venues with the most dynamic colors and always with a landscape plan.

In the world? Florence. Superb architecture, vibrant squares, and beautiful landscapes within easy walking distance of the city center. Not to mention the best food and wine. This may not have much to do with urban planning, but great cities run on great food!

What is the best thing about doing what you do in Rhode Island? The most challenging thing?

Rhode Island is one of the country's architectural treasure chests. It has some of the finest architecture in the nation in beautiful locations. And Rhode Island has a wonderful preservation community of conservators, historians, and committed supporters. The most challenging thing is, as always, financial. There is so much historic architecture that it needs a great deal of attention. That is why I am a great advocate for any kind of historic preservation tax credits for those who restore and adapt historic buildngs.

John Tschirch, "Newport as a Model of Urban Living: New Lessons from Old Cities", Sat Feb 9, 2pm, The 2013 Cora Lee Gibbs Lecture, Newport Art Museum, 76 Bellevue Ave, Newport. Museum members $10, non-members $15, students $6. Buy tickets online at or call 401-848-8200. Reception follows each talk. Weather permitting.       


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