More than a home for a family, George Berkeley’s Whitehall is known to be a spark for philosophical conversations from the early years of America right up to today.
Originally from the British Isles, the purpose of Berkeley’s adventure across the Atlantic in 1729 was to found a college in Bermuda. But, after landing and seeing the beauty of Rhode Island, Berkeley decided to stay and settled in the area outside of Newport while he waited for funding for the new college. At the time, Berkeley was renowned as a philosopher and theologian, so it was big news when he came to America.
He and his wife, Anne, purchased a farm and proceeded to enlarge the farmhouse. Along with his ideas, Berkeley brought a new sense of style to the colonies by adding a new front section to the home to make it look more like a manor house in the English style popular in 18th century Britain. Whitehall’s Palladian doorway is thought to be the first of its kind on a domestic building in America. And, the “cat slide” roof inspired Charles McKim’s Shingle Style of architecture.
For the next few years, Whitehall became a meeting place for the intellectual minds of New England, and the Philosophical Society (later named the Redwood Library and Athenaeum) was started. In 1731, the Berkeleys decided to return to England, and left their farm, land and much of his extensive library to Yale College (now Yale University).
The legacy of George Berkeley and his philosophical contribution lives on both the east and west coasts of America. His residence in Middletown is the heart of his influence on many noted thinkers of the U.S., and the scholars in residence program held every summer attracts philosophical professors, researchers and specialists from around the world.
In addition, his impact at Yale University lives on, and the college’s divinity school is named after him. Out west, the city of Berkeley, California and the University of California, Berkeley were both named for George and his contributions to higher education.
Visitors at George Berkeley’s Whitehall will not only have an extensive look at an 18th century home, but a view into how philosophy came to, and influenced, a new growing country.