by Michael Bell

Repurposed landmark.

The Army and Navy YMCA, 50 Washington Square, Newport. Date unknown.
Photo by John Hopf.

The act of directing someone to turn at the "Old Navy Y" recognizes the significance of both the Navy's historic presence in Newport (and Rhode Island generally) and its departure. While still standing at 50 Washington Square, this structure is no longer a YMCA nor is it affiliated in any way with the United States Navy. The Navy Y now accommodates community services and low-cost (Section 8) housing.

Situated between Meeting and Farewell streets at the head of Washington Square, the Old Army and Navy YMCA (its more correct name), was built in 1911 by Mrs. Thomas Emery, a Newport socialite, to serve visiting Army and Navy personnel. The elaborate, five-story Beaux-Arts style building was equipped with over one-hundred rooms, a cafeteria, a laundry, a bank, and a recreational facility. While Mrs. Emery intended this facility primarily to be functional, it remains a truly handsome building. The first floor facade is a finished white ashlar. The white brick wall fabric of the upper floors is surmounted by an altered stone cornice, decorated with painted terra cotta reliefs, and a flat roof. Fine carved moldings surround the doorway and windows on the first floor, and an elaborate stone entablature separates the first and second floors.

The YMCA conducted an active social program and was a haven for servicemen until the Navy pullout forced its closure in 1973. In April of that year, an announcement by Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson shocked Rhode Islanders. The United State Navy was withdrawing its destroyer fleet from Newport, closing bases at Quonset Point and Charlestown, and cutting back on its Davisville installations. With no advance warning, Rhode Island faced an estimated loss of 18,000 civilian and military jobs and a billion dollars in income for the local economy.

The building that used to house the Army and Navy YMCA. The building is extant but has been functionally altered to accomodate community services and low cost (Section 8) housing.
Photo © 1997 Dwight Primiano.

Despite having been gone for more than twenty-five years, the Navy's presence can still be read in the character of the Y's immediate neighborhood. The long-term presence of a transient military population created a demand for goods and services that gradually altered the fabric of the West Broadway district. Bars, night clubs, and saloons that originally catered to sailors are still scattered on River Land, Marlborough Street, Broadway, and West Broadway. Clothing and variety stores, pharmacies, and bookstores, as well as theaters and tattoo parlors, are located in the vicinity of Washington Square.

A nearby building on West Broadway, now known as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, is a visible reminder of officially sanctioned racial segregation. It was built in 1944 as a USO for black servicemen, who were not allowed in the Army and Navy YMCA. Ironically, in the late 1970s, one of the nonprofit organizations housed in the Old Navy Y was the Newport Black Ensemble Theater.

Pick Another Invisible Landmark

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires.

This article last edited December 10, 2001

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