Seamen’s Church Institute: Renovations Offer Stylish Nautical Housing and Expanded Opportunities to Serve

The Seamen's Church Institute

ARCHITECTURE
 
The Seamen’s Church Institute of Newport (SCI) has lived on the harbor at 18 Market Square for almost the entirety of its existence – a duration now spanning more than 90 years. The historic building, which has dutifully housed the nonprofit for so long, has just received its own “makeover” set of additions and improvements which, along with a newly-hired superintendent, are set to launch the Institute’s services and programs into entirely new arenas, making this venerable organization more modern and even more accessible to both mariners and the greater Newport community


The New Seaman's Church Institute logo design by Roskelly Inc


It all began In 1919, when the Wetmore sisters – residents of the gilded “cottage” Chateau-sur-Mer on Bellevue Avenue – decided to found a Newport chapter of the Seamen’s Church Institute, modeled after the existing organization based in New York City. They insisted, however, that the Newport branch be completely independent. Their father, Rhode Island Governor and Senator George P. Wetmore, helped them to purchase an old warehouse on Market Square, which was then razed so that the current structure could be erected in 1929. It was designed by famed architect Frederic Rhinelander King, and also houses the lovely Durr Freedley-designed “Chapel of the Sea,” a masterpiece of stone and fresco seashells and religious imagery that was donated to the building in 1933.

Superintendent John Feld & Board President David Brown


Edith and Maude Wetmore were quite progressive for women of their time period; as part of their initial founding and construction agreement, they implemented a clause stating that, should the Seamen’s Church Institute should ever close, the building must either be given to another nonprofit organization or destroyed, but that it should never be used for commercial purposes. Since the Seamen’s original (and continued) mission is to “serve those connected to the Sea,” it was imperative that it be located on the docks, where it could provide the most help to mariners.


As many of Newport Seen's readers may have noticed when driving by or going for a walk downtown, the SCI building was under construction for much of last year. Renovations began in January of 2010, and the outside was finished within that year, but many of the biggest changes occurred in the interior. The driving goal of the project was to make the building completely handicap-accessible and ADA compliant, with a new elevator, two fully accessible bedrooms, and the appropriate bathroom fixtures. These new additions allow the Seamen’s to better serve one of their core philosophies, which is to never have to turn anyone out into the cold for lack of housing.

 

Former Superintendent Archie Burdick helps some sailors

(Photo courtesy of SCI)

Despite these big changes, the building’s interiors retain their antiquarian, seaworthy charm. Colorful murals and paintings of ships and flags grace the wood-paneled walls. The Henry H. Anderson Marine Library upstairs, where the board meets each month, is lined in bookshelves cased with old seafaring novels, magazines, and salty historical tomes. Model ships in glass cases and wooden ship’s wheels add to the marine gestalt. The Aloha Café downstairs, which received its own remodel, evokes the same charming ambience as the old counter caught in photographs from the 1950’s, showing young naval sailors in dark uniforms and white caps purchasing cigarettes, candy, and train tickets from a previous superintendent.


The third floor, however, is another story entirely. It contains ten transient bedrooms which house shelter-seeking mariners and others who approach the organization for a place to stay. Under the harmonious eye and resourceful, unflagging efforts of board member Carrie Slee, who served as interior decorator and traveled “up and down the eastern seaboard looking for furniture,” these rooms have been transformed, with appointments so clean and modern that they might easily be mistaken for a 4-star hotel! Beautifully coordinated and nautically-themed, the rooms hardly seem to leave any room for improvement, although Carrie assured us they would look much better once the new window treatments arrived. The rooms will be both lovely and functional, with storage under the bed and bars upon which sailors may hang sea-soaked clothes to dry.

A typical board meeting


Under the guidance of recently hired superintendent John Feld, the organization will be assuming more of a “youth hostel” approach to renting its rooms, then using the increased revenue to expand its programs to support those in need rather than house long-term residents who may have issues that are beyond what SCI has the resources to treat, and may require trained intervention.


Feld worked at the Kodak Center for 10 years helping those with opium addictions, so he knows the territory quite well. He is enjoying the transition to Seamen’s, and relishes the opportunities and challenges facing an organization that is so rapidly evolving.


“Our goal is to generate revenue to better serve those in need. Our mission is still to help seamen and women, but over the years it has expanded to include the greater Newport community,” says Feld.

 

Chapel of the Sea floor design


“I love it here,” he continues. “It fits my skill set and passions.”


David Brown,
President of the Board of Directors, shared more about the organization and its goals:"For over ninety years, Seamen's has served as a safe haven for men and women of the sea and others in the community needing assistance. We typically serve over 400 meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and deliver thousands of hot meals to fishermen in Newport and Galilee through our Soup-to-the-Docks program. Along with providing shelter for the temporarily homeless, we also grant financial assistance to people in need of food or facing electricity and heating cutoffs of electricity or heating.


“Seamen's touches the lives of over 34,000 people each year. Our Market Square building is open to the public 365 days a year, and we are proud to serve as a refuge for sailors and others in need of restrooms, showers, laundry, an inexpensive and nourishing meal, or just a place to relax and reflect."


To learn more about The Seamen’s Church Institute of Newport, visit www.seamensnewport.org

 

                                                               --Amanda M. Grosvenor

 

 

A model ship

Upstairs landing

Chapel of the Sea

Chapel of the Sea

A new bedroom

A new bedroom

 

A new bedroom

 

A new bedroom

 

A new bedroom

 

Front entryway; Aloha Cafe on the left

 

Aloha Cafe

 

William Holland Drury mural in the front entryway

 

Mariner's Lounge

 

Artwork in the Mariner's Lounge

 

Artwork in the Mariner's Lounge

 

 

Building exterior

 

Building exterior

 

Aloha Cafe sign

 

Former Secretary Anne Smith helps two sailors

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

A women's meeting, circa 1950's

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

Memorial stained glass

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

Aloha Cafe: Before

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

Aloha Cafe: After

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

2nd floor landing: Before

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

2nd floor landing: After with elevator

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

Library window: Before

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

Library window: After with elevator

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

Ladies bedroom: Before

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

ADA-compliant bedroom: After

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

Building exterior: Before

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

Building exterior: After

(photo courtesy of SCI)

 

Library decor

 
 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

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