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39 Washington Street
The Jahleel Brenton Counting House was originally located on or near an area called Champlin's Wharf, on the west (water side) of Thames Street near the corner of Mary Street. The Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) purchased the house in 1969 and relocated it to the current site on Washington Street where it was rebuilt and restored in 1975-76.
The story of the Jahleel Brenton Counting House illustrates how close Newport often came to losing historically significant structures and fine eighteenth-century interior detail. Originally the place of business of one of Newport's most successful eighteenth-century merchants, this building stood in the late 1960s covered with a hodgepodge of additions and storefront facades that left this example of early American architecture practically unrecognizable. The structure was scheduled for demolition, but as with other properties, it was saved by NRF.
At the time the house was purchased by NRF, buildings on the west side (harbor side) of Thames Street were being systematically demolished to make way for the construction of America's Cup Avenue and the retail area known today as Brick Market Place, all part of Newport's redevelopment plan. A fairly nondescript building, fronting on Thames Street and with a façade of plate glass and stucco, the Counting House stretched west toward the harbor with increasingly decrepit structural appendages along an alley once known as Champlin's Wharf (just south of Mary Street).
Reports came to NRF that "some good paneling and stuff" was in an old building about to be bulldozed on Thames Street. Investigation affirmed that the woodwork was indeed rather fine eighteenth-century work and some quick research suggested that somewhere in the crazy collection of structures lay the remains of Jahleel Brenton's Counting House.
Last minute negotiations between NRF, the demolition contractor, and the Redevelopment Agency of Newport allowed the structure to be the last one in the group scheduled for demolition. During that time, NRF could proceed with photographic documentation, measured drawings, and the dismantling of the structure for rebuilding in the future. The entire workforce of NRF then turned its full attention and effort to the house. Documentation was accomplished, and all interior materials were saved, as well as a considerable amount of bricks and parts of the various timber frames (the latter in deplorable condition).
A great deal of original fabric remained in the building. The stairs and wainscoting in the commodious entry were similar to high-style Newport houses of this period. A ground-floor office had wainscoting and a raised panel chimney breast. Off a second-floor hall space at the top of the stairs was another office (probably the private domain of Jahleel Brenton), complete with a fireplace and wainscoting.
As the leveling of buildings surrounding the Counting House proceeded, much more was revealed. What existed at the site, starting from Thames Street, were the two stucco-faced storefronts with plate glass windows. The south gable roof part of this section showed bits of eighteenth-century timber framing. Next down the alley, toward the harbor and connected to the north shop, was the two-story Counting House. The entrance may have originally been on the east end of the house, opening into the stair hall, rather than on the north (Thames Street) side as presented in 1969.
Further down the alley was a one-and-a-half-story gambrel roof addition, probably the first to be added and certainly of the eighteenth century. This building, which in the eighteenth century may have been a small warehouse connected to the Counting House, was without significant eighteenth-century detail. Nineteenth-century lath and plaster, however, along with simple trim, did exist. This little building and the Counting House probably had not seen productive use, or human entry, for twenty to forty years. The pigeon and seagull guano was two feet deep in parts of the second floor of the gambrel-roof building and spread throughout the rest of the building to lesser depths. (Many of those responsible for this condition were still in residence during documentation and disassembly.)
To the south of the Counting House further additions had been made and, based on the timber framing, at least one or two dated to the eighteenth century. This conglomeration of structures, together with the Counting House, was covered with a single, broad gable roof, leaving remnants of the smaller, lower, original Counting House roof visible in the attic spaces created by the newer roof. Other flat roof additions had been made in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These additions filled the property to its boundary lines and were made of cheap, readily available materials that amounted to a patchwork of junk.
The actual Counting House was forty feet long, with the east end that held the stairway measuring about eleven feet in width, and the west brick end about fourteen feet wide. The north façade was square with the end walls and the south wall connected the east and west ends at an angle. This may have been a result of the shape of the wharf at the time of the original building effort. If so, it would indicate that future building to the south was the result of filling to enlarge the wharf area. (Increasing land area by filling in harbor fronts was a process used from nearly the first settlements right through the twentieth century. The waters of Newport Harbor came much closer to Thames Street in the eighteenth century than today, and the wharfs extended considerable distances into the harbor. It is suggested by some scholars that in the 1760s five hundred or more trading vessels called Newport their homeport.
Since it was clear that this house project would be a rebuild rather than a restoration, the enveloping two-story gable roof section was measured and documented so that the space necessary to include it was provided for in a usable house plan once a new site was located. What this section had been used for in the later eighteenth century, and what finishes had existed, had been obliterated through the years leaving only sections of framing. The result of the final reconstruction on Washington Street put the original interior fabric of the house back into the form in which it was found, giving a faithful interior representation of Brenton's wharf-side office and business operations, probably at their height in the 1760s.
Jahleel Brenton was one of the most successful merchant traders of his time. His mansion house, thought to have been built shortly after 1720, was across the
street from the Counting House. The mansion house was set back from the current street line and surrounded by a fair amount of land that gave an air of importance. The house was torn down in the 1920s, but drawings of the staircase and much of the interior paneling were made in 1894. Some paneling and interior woodwork from the house was saved and eventually went to the Preservation Society of Newport County (PSNC). (PSNC gave the stairway and paneling to NRF when the latter was restoring the Buliod-Perry House at 29 Touro Street.)
Several years were to pass before the Washington Street site was settled on for the reconstruction of the extant parts of the Counting House and the building was held in storage until that time. When NRF purchased the property, it was part of a three-parcel deal that also included 33 and 35 Washington Street. Number 39, the corner property, was a Victorian period, three-story building with a mansard roof. Once a house of generous proportions, the building had been converted to commercial space at some point during the twentieth century. The entire first floor had been stripped clear to the exterior walls with floor-to-ceiling shop windows installed on the two street façades. Apartments occupied the second and third floors.
NRF utilized the building as a dormitory and work space for several Historic American Buildings Survey (H.A.B.S.) summer programs in the early 1970s. In 1975 the building was demolished in order to reconstruct the Jahleel Brenton Counting House on the site.
Photo of the house before restoration.