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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI art professor helps pen Buildings of Rhode Island

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New guidebook highlights state's rich architectural history

KINGSTON, R.I. -- May 5, 2004 -- Although Rhode Island is the smallest state in the union, it doesn't lack in stature when it comes to American architecture. The state holds numerous architectural treasures from the 17th century to the early 20th century, according to art historian Ron Onorato.

The art professor at the University of Rhode Island speaks with authority. He is one of the three contributing editors of the new book Buildings of Rhode Island just published by Oxford University.

Buildings of Rhode Island is one of a multi- volume series of scholarly guidebooks to the architecture of the United States. This volume, the ninth to appear, was begun by the late William Jordy who was a graduate professor at Brown University. Onorato and fellow contributor, William MacKenzie Woodward, were his students.

Intended to be the primary source for the history of the state's architectural heritage, the book includes entries on more than 1,275 buildings throughout the state, often with the architect's names, dates, and accompanied by historical or critical appraisals. Essays on the towns, maps, and clear photographic plates, a complete bibliography and glossary of terms are also included. It can be used as a guidebook, moving through the towns to specific sites, or as a reference book on the architectural environment of towns, buildings, and other important monuments.

Onorato’s involvement with the book dates back to 1988 when Jordy asked him to contribute to the Newport section. He also covered Jamestown, Middletown, Portsmouth, Charlestown, and parts of South Kingstown and Narragansett. Onorato wrote about a third of the entries, edited Jordy’s texts, fact checked, and helped with mapping. Some of the URI professor’s art history students field checked the maps.

"Rhode Island is particularly rich in architecture," says the professor. "Newport is by far the densest city with the most remarkable number of first rank architects working from the 18th through the early 20th century. Just about every significant architect from the northeast worked in Newport, probably because of its summer colony, its second city status for many of the monied residents and its strong connections to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. In addition, it has the most remarkable collection of colonial buildings, some say the most extensive array of colonial buildings of anywhere in America, and a stunning half dozen public/civic structures from the 18th century. Among those architectural treasures are the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, the Friends Meeting House, the Colony House, the Brick Market and Trinity Church.

In late 18th and into the 19th century, Onorato cites the buildings of the Brown Campus, the shingled houses of Newport and Jamestown, Richard Morris Hunt's Griswold House in Newport and McKim, Mead & White's State House as being early examples of style, architecturally progressive, and perfectly delightful in their design sense.

Onorato's research on sites like the URI campus documented and clarified the role of the Olmstead firm in the 1890s in designing and consulting on the University's earliest campus plans and layouts.