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Tuesday, 05 February 2013 00:47

The Preservation Society of Newport County


Chateau-sur-Mer (1851–1852) is a time capsule of the Victorian Age, and reflects the artistic, cultural, social, economic, and political forces shaping America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was the most palatial residence in Newport until the appearance of the Vanderbilt houses in the 1890s. Photography by Andrea Carneiro.

Newport, Rhode Island, retains more of the imprint of each successive era of American history, more thoroughly preserved, than anywhere else in the United States. The people who live here, and even those who just come to visit, seem to develop fervor for the place. Can one small town on a small island in the smallest state be that significant?

Yes, says Lady Henrietta Spencer Churchill, founder of Spencer-Churchill Designs and great-great-granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, original owners of Marble House (1888–1892), one of Newport’s Beaux Arts showpieces. “Legacies matter. Stories matter. Designers, artists, craftspeople—we always take inspiration from the past. Each time I come to Newport, I see something new, something that is representative and unique to its time but that speaks to me now.”

From Brock Jobe, Professor of American Decorative Arts at Winterthur Museum comes this: “Here one can study the lives of the rich and the poor, the master and the servant, the native and the immigrant, the railroad magnate and the day laborer. It is a remarkably fertile town for research. Through careful study, histories unfold that not only document this one community, but also the nation as a whole.” How did Newport come to possess a character that inspires this kind of passion? It is a convergence of centuries of inspired design, enabled by an abundance of resources, captured by successive waves of preservation.

Newport is a living architectural and cultural time capsule. Survivors from each era—Georgian, High Victorian, and Beaux Arts houses—sit next to each other, amidst a sprinkling of Shingle Style and Gothic Revival masterpieces. The effect is an almost whimsical juxtaposition of architectural types.

Built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, The Breakers (1893–1895) is the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence in turn-of-the-twentieth-century America. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt (1827–1895), the house replaced an earlier wooden cottage, also called The Breakers, which was destroyed by fire in 1892. Photography by Tom Roskelly.

Equaling its nineteenth-century masterpieces in number are the city’s surviving colonial properties. Some of the most beautiful buildings of colonial America attest to the achievements of the early merchants, artisans, and craftsmen who made Newport one of the richest commercial and cultural centers in British North America. Trinity Church (1726), Colony House (1739–1744), the Redwood Library (1748), the Brick Market (1760–1772), and Touro Synagogue (1763) are still in use for their original purposes. The grand townhouses of Newport’s merchants line the waterfront of the old colonial town, and the White Horse Tavern (ca. 1670) still serves food and drink as the oldest tavern in continuous use in the United States.

Founded in 1639, the city rapidly became a center of religious tolerance, attracting a cosmopolitan population. Quakers, Sephardic Jews from Portugal, and numerous other denominations seeking refuge settled in the city and made it a vibrant center of sea trade and the arts and crafts. The Townsend and Goddard families of craftsmen produced fine furniture here; the young Gilbert Stuart, later famous for his portrait of George Washington, began his career in Newport painting portraits of its prominent merchants.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Southern planters, China Trade merchants, and a circle of artists and writers built the first “cottages.” Gothic Revival and Italianate villas were popular for the romantic effect of their towers, bay windows, and porches that harmonized with the landscape. Kingscote (1839–1841), designed by the English architect Richard Upjohn (1802–1878) for the Georgia planter George Noble Jones, and Malbone (1848–1849), by Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892), are examples of Gothic Revival cottages by the leading proponents of the style in America. Upjohn also built the Italianate Edward King House (1845–1847), featured in The Architecture of Country Houses (1850) by Andrew Jackson Downing, the influential theorist and promoter of picturesque cottage architecture.

The Isaac Bell House (1881–1883) is a masterpiece of the Shingle Style and among the most influential buildings in the history of American architecture. It was revolutionary for its open plan and fusion of elements from a variety of historical sources including American Colonial, Japanese, and classical design. Photography by Richard Cheek.

Between 1860 and 1890, a new generation of architects, well traveled and formally trained in Europe, transformed Newport yet again. Richard Morris Hunt (1827–1895), the first American to attend the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, designed the J. N. A. Griswold House (1862–1864) in the Stick Style, with wood cross-sections reminiscent of medieval French building. Henry Hobson Richardson (1838–1886), another École des Beaux Arts graduate, created the William Watts Sherman House (1874–1875), an American version of the Olde English style covered in a New England material—the wood shingle. Charles Follen McKim (1847–1909) and Stanford White (1853–1906) were apprentices to Richardson on the Watts Sherman House. In 1879, they formed their own firm and created several Shingle Style villas in Newport, including the Samuel Tilton (1880–1882) and Isaac Bell (1881–1883) houses. Contemporaries referred to the new style as “modernized colonial.” These cottages combined the shingled walls and high gables of colonial American buildings with English, European, and Japanese motifs.

The Newport cottage became a palace in the period 1890 to 1914. Richard Morris Hunt introduced Beaux Arts classicism and Parisian opulence to Newport with Ochre Court (1888–1891), a French Renaissance chateau for the Ogden Goelets; Marble House, a Louis XIV style showpiece for the William K. Vanderbilts; and The Breakers (1893–1895), an Italian Renaissance palazzo for the Cornelius Vanderbilts. Inevitably, as the build-out of Newport progressed, examples of each previous generation of architecture were remodeled or demolished to make room for the next.

Designed by Richard Upjohn, the Gothic Revival style Kingscote (1839–1841) was one of the first summer cottages in Newport. At its center is one of America’s greatest dining rooms, with Tiffany glass and a unique cork ceiling. Photography by Andrea Carneiro.

In 1907, Henry James referred to Newport’s grand houses as “white elephants.” By the 1940s, the upkeep of the great houses of Newport had indeed become burdensome. Yet a few families persisted in maintaining their great houses. The Rives family preserved Kingscote until the 1970s. Julia Berwind, the last heir to reside in The Elms, maintained the grand style until her passing in 1961. The outstanding High Victorian Chateau-sur-Mer (1851–1852) benefited from the same kind of family devotion. The Vanderbilt family held onto The Breakers until 1972, when they sold it to the Preservation Society.

At the end of World War II, an urgency for preservation engaged Newporters. To protect a critical colonial property, the Nichols-Wanton-Hunter House (1748), The Preservation Society of Newport County was founded in 1945. Today, eleven properties are under the Preservation Society’s care, as well as over eighty acres and eighteen hundred specimen trees. Seven of these sites are National Historic Landmarks.

Private citizens have also restored critical properties. However, historic preservation is too important to be left to the winds of economic fortune alone. Newport’s nonprofit historic community, including the Redwood Library, the Newport Art Museum, Fort Adams, and Touro Synagogue, among others, are banding together with the Preservation Society, Newport Restoration Foundation, and the Newport Historical Society to develop common strategies and tools to encourage historic preservation and interpret the city’s rich history. Our job is to keep legendary Newport alive. 

The Elms (1899–1901) was the summer residence of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind of Philadelphia and New York. Berwind made his fortune in the Pennsylvania coal industry. In 1898, the Berwinds engaged Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer (1868–1938) to design a house modeled after the mid-eighteenth-century French chateau d’Asnieres (ca. 1750) outside Paris. Photography by John Corbett.

Trudy Coxe is CEO and executive director of The Preservation Society of Newport County, which is the loan exhibit at the Winter Antiques Show, January 25–February 3, 2013, Park Avenue Armory, 67th and Park Ave., New York, NY.