NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — As the oldest structure in Rhode Island, the Newport Tower holds many secrets, including who built it and why.
On the day of the Winter Solstice, the sun’s disk shines through the windows of the 28-foot-tall stone tower. Newport Tower Museum owner Jim Egan believes the tower is at least 400 years old.
“You’ll notice that it’s different than most architecture in Rhode Island, which is all wood and rectangular,” Egan said. “This is circular … it’s highly unusual.”
Egan said there are a few theories as to who built the tower.
“The Vikings in 1150, the Knights Templar in 1398, the Chinese in 1421 or the Portuguese in 1501,” he said. “The first governor of Rhode Island, Benedict Arnold, called it his stone-built windmill in the year 1677.”
Carbon dating performed on the mortar of the tower ages it to probably the mid to late 1600s which would put the construction during the time Arnold was in Rhode Island.
The Newport Tower stands tall within Touro Park, which is located on the corner of Bellevue Avenue and Mill Street.
Egan, who has written a dozen books on the Newport Tower, can give a 45-minute presentation as to who he believes built the tower. He disagrees with all the previous theories mentioned above.
From his research, he believes it was the Elizabethans from England in the 1580s who wanted to create a settlement in the New World.
“John Dee was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth, and he was also a brilliant mathematician and architect,” Egan explained. “I believe he designed this tower to be like a clock.”
Egan believes the English built the tower in 1583, but the settlement failed.
“They didn’t often build with stone until the late 1600s,” David Brody said.
Brody has authored more than a dozen books on the Knights Templar, and believes the tower is actually more than 600 years old.
He believes the Newport Tower was built by the Knights Templar in 1398.
The Knights Templar, founded in 1119, were a group of militants active during the Crusades. The group later developed the early forms of banking.
The order was disbanded by Pope Clement V in the early 1300s, mainly because of their secretive ways. The group then went underground and became legendary in the centuries that followed.
Freemasonry is a branch of the original Knights Templar, which is why masons gather annually at the Newport Tower for the Winter Solstice.
There were about 20 masons in Touro Park this past weekend when 12 News visited the tower to gather video.
When asked why he believes the structure was built by the Knights Templar, Brody said, “there’s a number of architectural features.”
“There are historical similarities of this tower and other [Knights] Templar construction around the world,” he said.
Brody said the “keystone” in the western arch of the tower is indicative of the Knights Templar.
In the 1990s, University of Rhode Island Professor William Penhallow began solving some of the tower’s mysteries. Penhallow passed away in 2020.
The structure appears to be an astronomical time piece.
“It’s a Horologium, a building that keeps track of time,” Egan explained.
It’s Rhode Island’s own Stonehenge.
Egan said that, on the Winter Solstice, the sun shines through the south window, through the tower and out the west window.
The best place to view this phenomenon is from the northeast corner of Touro Park. The event happens like clockwork every year on Dec. 21 between 7:30 a.m. and 7:45 a.m.
It’s not just the Winter Solstice that the Newport Tower can track according to Penhallow’s research.
Every 18.6 years, for what’s called a lunar minor, the full moon shines through the west window.
It also tracks the North Star and equinoxes.
But the Winter Solstice is the most dramatic, according to Egan.
“It’s the most important because it relates to the sun and it’s the source of our light and our heat,” Egan said.
Roughly 75 minutes after the sun shines through the windows on the Winter Solstice, the sunlight hits an egg-shaped rock within the tower.
Both Egan and Brody agree that this is very symbolic.
“The days are getting dark and all of a sudden you’ve got this rebirth, and that’s what we think is going on,” Brody said. “That’s the symbolism behind the tower on the Winter Solstice.”
“Someone is trying to tell us about light and time and how they’re connected,” Egan added. “This building was made to connect heaven and Earth, which is not unusual. That is what church spires do, but it was made in this very unusual way with the light shining in the windows.”
Researchers are working to conduct further scientific dating of the Newport Tower, as well as uncover any additional alignments it may track.