Old postcard of Touro Park's tower, circa 1900, in Newport
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Another postcard, of romantic tower in ivy
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Jim Egan's Newport Tower Museum, est. 2010, near the tower in Touro Park
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Jim Egan in museum office with model of tower as he thinks it originally looked, designed by John Dee after the round temples of Vitruvian Rome
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Queen Elizabeth I and court philosopher John Dee, who persuaded her to back expeditions to colonize New England
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Sketch of Captain Brigham's two ships docked at what became Newport, with tower under construction up hill
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Inside the tower note oddly placed windows
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Sun shining through two windows of tower on the equinox
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Astronomical features, as revealed by Professor Penhallow, were based on oddly placed windows
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Was the old stone tower in Newport's Touro Park once a windmill, built in the 17th Century by the first colonial governor of Rhode Island, Benedict Arnold, great-grandfather of the traitor? This theory strokes the Ocean State's ego and protects us from the unsettling notion that early English residents of the colony founded in 1636 by Roger Williams were unequal to building such a tower. But just because a theory comforts us doesn't mean that it's true.
A newer theory, not widely known as of yet, is that the tower was built in 1582-83 to stake the claim of England, under Queen Elizabeth I, to much of America. This theory, developed by researcher and historian Jim Egan, holds that the tower was the newly born British Empire's first work of colonial architecture, designed by the queen's court philosopher, who lobbied for the expeditionary force that built it.
Egan explained his theory to me last Saturday at his Newport Tower Museum, just across Mill Street from Touro Park and the tower itself. Egan founded the museum last year to explain his theory that the Englishman John Dee led an early but unsuccessful Elizabethan effort to colonize New England 38 years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth and 54 years before Williams planted Providence.
Egan's theory, if true, has a much bigger historical footprint than other romantic theories that the tower was built by the Vikings in 1120 A.D., the Knights Templar in 1398, the Chinese in 1421, or the Portuguese in 1501.
My purpose is neither to promote nor to debunk Egan's theory, but merely to describe it, at least those parts that I understand.
Why, Egan wonders, would colonists build a windmill of stone, not the usual wood, and why give it such odd windows? And why, after the colonial charter of 1663, did King Charles II appoint Benedict Arnold, not Roger Williams, as Rhode Island's first governor?
I pass over the windmill debate to matters relating to Governor Arnold, whose tower story dominates because in his will he referred to it as "my Stone-built Wind-Mill."
With most theorists, except for the "Arnold-ists," Egan believes that Arnold was being sly about the tower, which he owned but did not claim to have built. In fact, no record of its construction seems to exist in his or anyone else's papers. Egan believes that it was already there. In addition, he also believes that Arnold plays second fiddle to Williams in colonial history because of qualms relating to the treason of his great-grandson in the Revolution.
To proceed with Egan's theory requires a step back to the 1580s. Court philosopher John Dee was urging Queen Elizabeth to claim and settle much of North America before the Spaniards could shut England out. Dee and fellow court intriguer Sir Humphrey Gilbert had persuaded the queen to back a voyage to New England in 1583; but Egan thinks that in 1582 they had already sent an expedition under Anthony Brigham to build a tower, designed by Dee, to mark the land and England's claim to it.
Brigham's prospective voyage was reported to Spain's King Philip II by his ambassador to Britain. Though weakly sourced, Egan's speculation holds that Brigham sailed in 1582 with two ships and 80 men, built the tower, and returned after nine months. The following year's expedition of five ships, directed by Dee and captained by Gilbert, ran into big trouble. Two ships turned back and three, including the one carrying Gilbert, were lost at sea.
Egan believes that Dee designed the tower as a sort of "Statue of Liberty" icon to mark the Narragansett Bay (he called it the Dee River) as English, but that it also contained astonomical and astrological features identified early in this century by William Penhallow, an astronomer at the University of Rhode Island.
The tower catches the sun through window pairs on days of astronomical significance. Its first floor was a "camera obscura" used to confirm the accuracy of the calendar, a vital matter in that era. Egan believes that symbols in the tower and on Arnold's gubernatorial chair prove that he knew of John Dee's plan of empire -- hence, the logic of Charles II appointing the plugged-in Benedict Arnold as governor instead of the rabble-rousing Roger Williams.
The Dee colonization of Rhode Island failed, but it led to Sir Walter Raleigh's colonization of Virginia. He also failed at first, in Roanoke, but Jim Egan's theory has planted the flag of curiosity on my crown, and I therefore attest and believe that the 16th Century Elizabethan voyages to Narragansett Bay, and the murky genesis of the Newport Tower, warrant further exploration by today's court historians.
David Brussat (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of The Journal's editorial board. His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.