History of Whitehall
In 1725, George Berkeley published a “Proposal” to found a college in Bermuda to educate Native Americans and British colonists in the liberal arts and sciences and for the Christian ministry. He received a warrant from King George I and a promise of £20,000 from Parliament.
Berkeley, who was Dean of Derry in Ireland at the time, sailed to Rhode Island and arrived in Newport in January, 1729 with his wife, Anne Forster Berkeley, and several friends who planned to be teachers at the Bermuda college. Among these friends was John Smibert, who became an important portraitist in Boston. Intending to wait in Rhode Island for the promised funds, Berkeley bought 96 acres of farmland on which to raise livestock and supplies for his Bermuda project.
Berkeley used his knowledge of architecture when enlarging the original dwelling on the farm. He incorporated features unusual for this period in New England: the formal facade, the hipped roof with lean-to construction, the false double front door and the cross central hall and stairway.
To this house, named Whitehall, scholars and clergy gathered. A literary and philosophical discussion group, forerunner of the Redwood Library was formed. Berkeley the philosopher wrote Alciphron or The Minute Philosopher while at Whitehall. Berkeley the educator later influenced the founding of King’s College (Columbia University) in New York. “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” a line from a poem Berkeley had written about his hopes for America became the title of an 1860 painting by Emanuel Leutze, now displayed in the U.S. Capitol building. The poem also caused the University of California to name their city Berkeley.
After nearly three years in Newport, Berkeley realized the grant would never materialize so he returned to England with his family and belongings. Sadly, he left without his infant daughter Lucia, who is buried in Trinity Church, Newport. Soon thereafter he was made the Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland.
After Berkeley’s return to England, he gave his entire Whitehall estate – his house, farm and his library – to Yale College, with the annual profits to be applied to the maintenance of three resident scholars. Yale rented the farm to successive tenants, some of whom subleased to tavern keepers and proprietors of coffee houses. During the Revolution, British officers and their men were billeted in the house and appropriated the farm’s livestock and produce.
For more than the next hundred years five generations of one family successfully farmed their land. They outgrew the old house in the 1880s and used it for the storage of hay. In 1897 three Newport women bought the abandoned house with a surrounding half-acre. After repairing it extensively, they gave it to the National Society of the Colonial Dames in Rhode Island who have shown Whitehall to the public every summer since 1900. A provision of their gift was that Whitehall should be kept and exhibited as a memorial to Berkeley.
Over the years, several important restorations have been made. Appropriate furniture and furnishings have been acquired by generous gifts and loans. An 18th century garden adjoining the house is maintained by the Newport Garden Club.
Whitehall is open to visitors during July and August, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, except on Mondays when the house is closed. Tours will be guided by ‘resident scholars’ from Wednesdays through Sundays each week during those months, and on Tuesdays by other knowledgeable guides. During the remaining months of the year, visiting is by prior appointment only. Please telephone (401) 846-3116 or (401) 847-7951.
During the summer of 2016, the resident scholars are:
- July 1-10: Professors Alan Baker and Shelley Costa, Swarthmore College
- July 11-17: Professor Nancy Kendrick, Wheaton College, Massachusetts
- July 18-31: Professors Alan Baker and Shelley Costa, Swarthmore College
- August 1-8: Professors Julie Walsh (Wellesley College) and Spencer Hey (Harvard)
- August 8-Sept. 8: Professors Timo Airaksinen and Heta Gylling, University of Helsinki
Whitehall is situated in Middletown, just outside Newport. (When the house was built in 1729, Middletown formed part of Newport, and was set aside in 1742.)
Other Rhode Island sites
- Trinity Church, where Berkeley often preached. His infant daughter Lucia is buried in the churchyard. In 1733, Berkeley presented the church with an organ, which is still in use.
- A chapel named in his honor, Berkeley Chapel or Berkeley Memorial Church, is located off Indian Avenue, Middletown, RI.
- It is reported that Berkeley wrote his Alciphron, or Minute Philosopher at Hanging Rock, which is located within the Norman Bird Sanctuary, Middletown. In consideration of the strong winds experienced in this exposed position, however, we surmise it is unlikely that Berkeley actually put pen to paper at that spot.
- The Redwood Library has a portrait of Rev. George Berkeley, ca. 1731, attributed to Alfred Hart.