Sailing is to Newport, Rhode Island, as…fishing is to Gloucester, Massachusetts, clamming is to Cape Cod, whaling is to the island of Nantucket. Which is to say, it’s iconic and defining. Newport’s sailing history includes most notably the America’s Cup, a race that took place from 1930 until 1983 in the waters of Newport, a location determined by the New York Yacht Club, which by virtue of winning the competition (24 times since 1857, a record sports streak) was entitled to choose the venue for each challenge to the title.
So when an Australian boat won the Cup in 1983, top American sailors feared they were seeing the end of an era for Newport and formed, on the very day the Aussies were victorious, an organization (later named Sail Newport) to continue Newport’s sailing prominence. (So important is the date of the founding that the last four digits of Sail Newport’s phone number are, to this day, 1983.)
Today, Sail Newport is New England’s largest public sailing center. It teaches youths and adults to sail (some 1,000 children go through its youth sailing program every year), rents sailboats by the hour, provides a venue for summer weeknight sailboat racing and winter weekend frostbiting, offers boat storage and hoist services, and hosts local, regional, national, and world-class regattas.
Last September, Sail Newport began a program in which every fourth-grader in Newport can learn to sail as part of a public school initiative.
“Our focus from the start has been on creating programs and events for public access to sailing, and it was time for a facility that would enable us to do even more,” says Brad Read, executive director of
Sail Newport and the driving force behind the ambitious programs. “The design brief was that we wanted three main things: classroom space, public space — including bathrooms and showers — and administration space.”
For years, Sail Newport, through an arrangement with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM), had been operating out of a one-classroom administration building and a stone-hut dock office within Fort Adams State Park, partially a National Park Service property with crucial waterfront, boat storage areas, and public docks along Newport Harbor that RIDEM oversees.
For design, the group turned to architect Mohamad Farzan, a sailor himself, a longtime advocate of Sail Newport’s mission, and a principal of NewPort Architecture in Newport.
Farzan began planning a new home for Sail Newport in 2015, while Read launched a $10 million fundraising campaign, and a host of engineers and consultants began addressing myriad permissions and regulations mandated by its location within Fort Adams, where five different entities — the National Park Service, National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, and the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council — govern what goes on.
“We wanted a modern building to meet the needs of an organization today,” says Farzan, “but we needed to pass many regulations with an historical interest.”
He adds, “And then there was the fact that you’re not really allowed to build on National Park Service land. If we were to build, NPS said the structure had to be militaristic in massing [to fit the Fort Adams context], it couldn’t be modern, and it most certainly couldn’t be a yacht club.”
“We hoped the building would symbolize Rhode Island — the Ocean State — and hold its own from a design perspective at historic Fort Adams, which is one of our most beautiful state parks and has some of the prettiest vistas in all of Narragansett Bay,” says Janet Coit, director of RIDEM.
Fortune in the form of a vintage postcard played a role at this point. Fort Adams, a prominent coastal fortification built in 1841 and active as such until the 1940s, was the subject of countless photographs and postcards over the years. Several came into the possession of Read, who noticed a distinctive structure, an Army Post Office dating from the 1890s, in nearly the exact location Sail Newport hoped to build.
“That old building gave us the military and historical context we needed,” says Farzan. “The massing of the new building is based on the old Post Office, which was essentially a cube with a balcony, a hipped roof, and a monitor [cupola]. And that’s what the new building is.”
Sustainability and functionality drove the materials and the details of the design for the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-compliant, 8,500-square-foot building, which opened in August 2017 and is officially called the Mid-Park Marine Education and Recreation Center.
Behan Bros. of Middletown, Rhode Island, did the construction. Because the building is within 50 feet of the coastline, it was raised 17.5 feet above flood level (using composite Pearson pilings that are typically used for marine docks).
The ground level, which has a concrete floor and houses a dock office, public restrooms, elevator for handicapped access, and storage, is constructed with flood-resistant building materials and has vents that allow water to pass through the building during a flood event to prevent structural damage.
Several hundred boats, about 75 belonging to Sail Newport, the rest owned by private parties, are stored in an adjacent parking lot. The first floor is reached via two exterior staircases.
“Because the true first floor is so high off the ground,” says Farzan, “it was important to make the staircases very welcoming and an entry, so we made them as wide as possible.”
The main stairway is 22 feet wide, and the secondary set of steps is 12 feet wide. A covered deck on three sides connects to the great room, which has a sealed gas fireplace (ideal for winter gatherings) and a system of sliding and folding doors that can create three individual classrooms, each with a door to the deck.
On the second floor, which contains the offices for Sail Newport’s staff, the clerestory windows of the cupola and post-and-beam Douglas fir timber framing are on display, with stunning effect.
The building is outfitted with energy-efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems and lighting fixtures. On the roof, a solar photovoltaic system generates anywhere from 35 to 97 percent of the electricity the building consumes.
The building was put to the test for 12 days in May when Sail Newport played a leading role hosting the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race on one of its 11 stopovers. For Read, it was just another day in paradise.
“Since its founding, Sail Newport has been the one steadying factor in public access to sailing, and we are here to secure public access to sailing not just for the next 20 years but for the next 100 years. This building is going to make sure we can keep doing that.”