The Tower as it looked in 1867, shortly after it was saved from demolition.
The Tower as it looked in 1867, shortly after it was saved from demolition.

Newport Tower Museum

Field review by the editors.

Newport, Rhode Island

A lot of people want to believe that the Mystery Tower of Newport was built by Vikings, and we admit that we like that idea, too.

John Dee: possible Tower designer, and definite later model for sword and sorcery wizards.
John Dee: possible Tower designer, and definite later model for sword and sorcery wizards.

But if stone-stacking Norsemen didn't build it, then who did?

Jim Egan, who runs the Newport Tower Museum across the street, has a theory that seems to fit the available evidence, and he doesn't sound like a totally Tower-crazed crackpot.

According to Jim -- a firehose of facts -- the Viking idea was concocted by a Danish archaeologist who'd never seen the Tower, basing it on "lousy drawings sent by the Rhode Island Historical Society." Jim dismisses that theory, and instead believes that what remains of the Tower -- the British blew up much it during the Revolutionary War -- was built in 1583 as part of a failed effort to claim much of North America for Elizabethan England.

Jim Egan tries to explain Renaissance mathematical cosmology in his Newport Tower Museum.
Jim Egan tries to explain Renaissance mathematical cosmology in his Newport Tower Museum.

The Tower, high on a hill, was "built to be seen" said Jim, serving as a kind of permanent flag over one of the finest harbors in on the East Coast. It was designed by Queen Elizabeth's court philosopher, John Dee, as a celestial clock. Jim has drawings and a small model of what he believes the Tower looked like when new, complete with fluted columns and a gold dome. William Penhallow, an astronomer at the University of Rhode Island, found that the Tower catches the sun through its oddly-placed windows on specific days of the year, and Jim has photos to prove that he was right.

Jim's drawings and model of what he believes the Tower originally looked like.
Jim's drawings and model of what he believes the Tower originally looked like.

Unfortunately, the man Elizabeth chose to govern the new colony, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, only made it as far as Newfoundland, turned around, and drowned on his way back to England. The settlement was abandoned before it was begun. John Dee became notorious for his embrace of the magic arts -- a model for Gandalf and Dumbledore -- and was consequently shunned by America's early Puritan intellectuals. "That's why no one remembers who built the Tower," said Jim. "And that's why I have a museum."

Jim said that his museum allows him to meet "a lot of interesting Americans," many of whom have their own theories about who built the Tower, ranging from the Knights Templar in the 14th century to the Chinese in the 15th. Jim is able to sway some of them from their beliefs to his, but no one is converting Jim.

"Some day the Tower is going to make Newport a World Heritage Site," he said, confidently. Then, with a laugh, "I'll be famous about a hundred years from now."

Also see: Mystery Tower of Newport

Newport Tower Museum

Address:
152 Mill St., Newport, RI
Directions:
Downtown, across from Touro Park. On the north side of Mill St., just west of Bellevue Ave.
Hours:
W-Su 10-3 (Call to verify)
Phone:
401-447-6757
Admission:
Donations appreciated.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Mystery Tower of NewportMystery Tower of Newport, Newport, RI - < 1 mi.
JFK's Rejected Grave SlabJFK's Rejected Grave Slab, Newport, RI - < 1 mi.
The Feet and the WaveThe Feet and the Wave, Newport, RI - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Mass Grave of Pirate Massacre, Block Island, RI - 25 mi.

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October 17, 2018

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