Snapshots from Newport

From Washington to Wharton with the Victorian Society

by Karen L. Mulder

Richard Upjohn’s eclectic and gothic villa, Kingscote, for Savannah trader Nobel Jones (1838), was one of Newport’s earliest summer homes. Painter Maitland Armstrong, Stanford White and Tiffany Studios lavishly redecorated an addition in 1881.Fascinated by Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of nine cities overlapping each other during excavations in Troy, novelist Thornton Wilder’s protagonist in Theophilus North conducts a literary excavation of Newport, Rhode Island. Teddy North identifies nine distinct cities, describing them as “variously beautiful, impressive, absurd, commonplace, and one very nearly squalid.” 1 In North’s Newport of 1926, life’s absurdities still revolved around an impressive American aristocracy, served by the apparently commonplace, and shadowed by denizens of the squalid city—tabloid journalists, crashers or those shunned by genteel society for sensational misdeeds.

All things considered, Newport’s renaissance since 1979 ought to figure into Wilder’s scheme as a bona fide Tenth City, drawing 70,000 employees and hundreds of tourists from all corners, bringing an estimated $4.6 billion into Rhode Island’s economy each year.2 Historians of all stripes inhabit this city, poring over Newport’s multidimensional textbook of sterling architectural representations from every major American period since its 1637 founding. Newport provided Revolutionary War headquarters for Washington and Rochambeau, a bustling port-of-call for international traders and the geographical anchor for a stalwart chain of military installations along the eastern seaboard. As the first state to separate formally from England, Rhode Island set the bar for New England’s notorious Yankee self-assertiveness. Newport-based Peter Harrison’s serene neoclassical Redwood Library (1748) ostensibly tendered an architectural declaration of independence from England, diverging from the Anglo-Georgian precedent that usually dignified Colonial civic buildings. As the earliest surviving Greek temple façade in the country, Redwood Library prefigured the neoclassicism that Thomas Jefferson and others eventually championed as the signature style of the new American Republic.

By the 1850s, Newport had assumed its more familiar role as the resort of choice for America’s wealthiest families, who quaintly described their elaborately designed marble palaces as “summer cottages.” Initially attracting wealthy traders and merchants from Charleston and Savannah, Newport’s heathful air, refreshing sea breezes and accessibility by steamboat made it the natural summer destination for New York’s kings of industry and commerce. Edith Wharton’s fictions implied that Newport summers provided much more than a heavenly summer respite for the Missus, particularly when the Master wanted to cavort with his mistress in New York. In his droll 1907 travelogue, The American Scene, occasional Newporter Henry James drubbed Newport’s huge, elaborately ornamented mansions as “white elephants” and “witless dreams” of “lumpish” proportions. Wharton archly critiqued the decorative excesses of the Vanderbilt and Astor dining rooms as a “thermopylae of bad taste.”3

Intellectually distant from their own Victorian upbringing, Wharton and James doubtlessly commisserated on America’s dubious cultural status and Newport’s social pretensions while they toured southern France in Wharton’s newfangled motorcar. Wharton’s stinging disdain for Newport’s self-conscious preening, most clearly expressed in vignettes titled “The Valley of Childish Things,” arose from her close acquaintance with it as a resident. Written from the remove of her tasteful digs at 884 Park Avenue in New York, her Pulitzer-winning Age of Innocence implied that interior decoration provided the most telling barometer of personal character. For Wharton, the places where Americans lived and made carefully orchestrated entrances and exits through life provided the primary arena for the arts. To wit, domestic interiors and façades functioned as stage sets and virtual barometers of sophistication. Wharton’s Victorians considered Taste as a “far-off divinity” that “ruled supreme” over Form, and Good Form as a set of strict conventions rather than good sense.4 But all this was about to change.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Henry Hobson Richardson’s Oakes Ames Memorial Hall (1879–81) provided the crown for the family’s planned manufacturing town in Easton, Massachusetts, exemplifying the heavy Romanesque masonry style that Richardson innovated.Wharton’s 1897 The Decoration of Houses editorialized in no uncertain terms that a nation’s handling of the arts infallibly exposed its level of civilization. Co-authored with architect and designer Ogden Codman, the book set out to elevate America’s awareness of appropriately modern displays of taste and form. Profusely illustrated for its time, it revolutionized interior design by advocating a lightened aesthetic approach, unhampered by the heavy draperies and overstuffed upholstery of Victorian parlors. Wharton and Codman shared their conviction that the proper application of exacting symmetry, correct proportion, purpose-driven plans and articulated inner spaces directly shaped proper character. Emphasizing a notion of private life that diehard Victorians discouraged as improper and selfish, The Decoration of Houses advanced the benefits of segregated rooms for personal use and privacy. The dialogue clearly transcended mere furnishings and accoutrements: Wharton meant to raise America’s cultural cachet in the world’s eyes, and judging by the widespread and enduring popularity of her book, Americans seemed eager for her advice.5

By the mid-twentieth century, high modernists had assigned Victorian eclecticism to the lunatic fringe, ironically marginalizing Wharton and others who had mounted equally fervent campaigns in their day to modernize and sanitize domestic design—albeit with Louis Quatorze furniture. A nation that touted its modern identity as a progressive, technologically advanced democracy would naturally decry Victorian-era predilections as irrelevant, reactionary vestiges of a bygone past. All too often, sagging Victorian piles and turn-of-the-century marvels were allowed to disintegrate or meet with the wrecking ball. The largest and most prominent victim in a series of architectural slaughters, McKim, Mead and White’s elegant Pennsylvania Station (1906–10) came down in 1965.

In 1966, a frustrated but vocal minority with an appreciation for the past, including architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock and New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, formed the Victorian Society in America to protest the irreplaceable loss of Penn Station.6 Following in the footsteps of its British counterpart, the VSA aimed to contest the wanton destruction of late-nineteenth-century architecture. VSA events aired revised assessments of the Victorian aesthetic as an exuberant celebration of visuality and texture, and an unfettered pictorial approach to space and surface decoration, rather than an unprincipled or indecisive abuse of disparate elements excerpted from architectural pattern books. Victorian eclecticism became redefined as a rational, disciplined outgrowth of picturesque Romanticism, with an intentioned predilection for invention in form, material and ornament.7 Forty years later, regional chapters reinforce VSA’s original goal so effectively that the editors of Old House Journal heralded the Victorian Society’s founding as one of the twenty-five most important events in American preservation history.8 VSA Summer Schools in Newport and London offer unparalleled journeys into history, packed with rare inside tours, reviews on the latest research, guest lectures by experts and behind-the-scene glimpses of restorations in progress that far exceed typical tourist fare.9

The Society’s American Summer School in Newport celebrates the Victorian era and its successor, the neoclassical American Renaissance, through the combined lenses of the Newport Historical Society, the Preservation Society of Newport County, the Newport Restoration Foundation, the Newport Art Museum, private collections and individual homeowners. Hardly anyone knows Newport’s various layers as comprehensively and intimately as Richard Guy Wilson, a leading American architectural historian from the University of Virginia, who has ably guided the VSA’s American Summer School since 1978. Wilson’s extensive Newport curriculum unpacks a narrative about human agency in a shifting cultural context, and greatly enhances flat textbook depictions of the Newport mansions or their less spectacular, though equally significant relatives. Proceeding more or less chronologically, Summer School lectures illustrate the emergence of a distinctive American style, in a country still feeling its way in the world, on one hand, and brashly confident of its distinctions as a democratic republic, on the other.

School participants stay at Dudley Newton’s picturesque Ochre Lodge (c. 1890), on the campus of Salve Regina University, a Catholic college that received Ogden Goelet’s mansion at its founding in 1947. Richard Morris Hunt designed Ochre Court in 1888, when the Goelets owned approximately 25% of Manhattan’s real estate. Like many mansions, the house became little more than a financial burden for the family, especially since it only opened for one or two key social events during a few months out of the summer, even in its heyday. Goelet’s brother Robert (who ordered a shingle house for his own use in 1882 from McKim, Mead and White) deeded the cavernous limestone château to Salve Regina, and for many years the fifty-room mansion comfortably accommodated the entire college. While Ochre Court ostensibly represents a case of creative readaptation, the disheveled piles of audio equipment, drum sets and religious images hanging over Louis XVI-styled mirrors seem jarringly out-of-context in the Goelets’ gilded ballroom, where contemporary worship services currently take place. Nevertheless, Ochre Court is the keystone of Salve’s seventy-five-acre “living laboratory,” on a campus with twenty-one significant historical buildings acquired at bargain-basement prices or donated during Newport’s virtual abandonment before the 1970s. To care for this magnificent heritage, Salve recently established a historic preservation degree, funded in part by the first Getty preservation grant awarded to a New England campus.

For professionals and hobbyists alike, nothing compares to the experience of walking through architectural spaces and feeling the architects’ handling of interior-to-exterior correspondences, lighting solutions and traffic flow. Seeing gleaming High Victorian color schemes firsthand not only far exceeds the effect of printed reproductions, but incontrovertibly proves that Victorian interiors were not routinely dark or gloomy. At William Ralph Emerson’s Stanford Covell House (1870), currently run as an elegant bed-and-breakfast by the original owner’s granddaughter, an interior atrium majestically ascends from the house’s foyer to the attic level, with glorious bands of crisply painted decoration that seem directly excerpted out of color plates in Owen Jones’s classic 1856 Grammar of Ornament. Likewise, nothing prepares the student for the actual interior of Henry Hobson Richardson’s Watts Sherman House (1874–76), cherished by all architectural historians as America’s first Shingle Style house. The interior foyer of the Watts Sherman is usually illustrated solely by Stanford White’s simple pen-and-ink cutaway of the entry foyer. While this view is widely published, it hardly captures the sensual richness of gilded leather wall coverings, sepia or delft-blue bedroom fireplace surrounds by Walter Crane, White’s teal-green library room or the effect of hundreds of hand-painted glass panes that light up the first-story landing. Even though Salve Regina students currently use and abuse the house as a dormitory, the spatial and ambient effects remain palpable. They also prove nearly impossible to photograph.

Although the façade features Dudley Newton’s addition to Henry Hobson Richardson’s stunning Watts Sherman House (1874–76), which is now used as a dormitory by Salve Regina University, the house’s southern exposure clearly demonstrates the exuberant Victorian predilection for texture and ornate surface treatments.Although McKim, Mead and White’s Isaac Bell House (1882) is only partially restored, VSA participants observed the Preservation Society’s meticulous renovation in progress. Curator Paul Miller shared his delight over a recent discovery involving the intricate ball-and-spindle carvings that Stanford White used around the imposing central fireplace. As it turns out, these came directly off bed closets, or closed sleeping cabinets, from the kitchens of Brittany’s old farmhouses in France. White ostensibly amassed quite a collection of these on one of his prodigious European shopping sprees, rather than commissioning the intricate carving in the States. Restoration has painstakingly stripped away a heavily varnished ceiling only to uncover a lost gilding process, now starting to glint off the ceiling in an unusual abstract pattern of pigmented and gilded splatter marks. One of the house’s delights, which never appears in print, is a simple, but exotic dining room clad from floor to ceiling in a soothing monochromatic tapestry of woven rattan framed by light wood accents. This spacious area adjoins the other social spaces in the plan, which can all be partitioned by huge sliding doors floated by an innovative pulley system, or closed off for privacy and heat conservation. The light wooden framing and open spatial effects immediately bring Frank Lloyd Wright to mind—even though Wright had yet to discover his organic métier in 1882. Still, as a rebuttal to those who pigeonhole McKim, Mead, and White as Beaux-Arts classicists, the Bell House resonates with organic innovations and Zen-like serenity.

Naturally, Newport Summer School members also investigated every gilded nook and festooned cranny of the extravagant great houses, including William Wetmore’s Château-sur-Mer, William K. Vanderbilt’s Marble House and coal magnate Edward Berwind’s Elms.10 Miller pointed out that, while Newport’s architects borrowed liberally from French châteaux or Gothic sanctuaries to embue their creations with an aesthetic cachet, they more accurately emulated the precedents set by leading American families in Europe. This intercontinental effort to “keep up with the Rothschilds” on a grand scale inspired decorators, such as Allard et Fils or the Herter Brothers, to improve on real European details by redrafting, recasting or recombining decorative elements for their American clientele. Others pilfered pieces of Europe for storage in East Coast warehouses, alongside the cases of 1864 Châteaux-Lafitte. Stanford White’s encyclopedic inventory of architectural bric-a-brac purportedly required a two-day auction, after his sensational assassination in 1906.11 Miller explained that many American scions seemed largely unconcerned with provenance or propriety, as long as the result convincingly conveyed a “pure” French Louis, Second Empire or Empress Eugénie sense of style. Some apparently did not fuss over reconfigured chunks of the Bank of France or Versailles in their façades, nor the Rococo ballrooms supposedly inspired by medieval French châteaux that, in fact, never housed such rooms. The Fontainbleau or Blois effect was enough to signify taste, and thus secured aristocracy by association.

While these lavish settings provided the stage for the lives of the rich and famous, recent research trends also focus on their tenders, breaking open an aspect of Newport Society that was once hermetically sealed. Preservation Society architectural historian John Tschirch treated VSA members to a private viewing of the servants’ quarters in the attic of the Elms, where they discovered period photographs and heard eyewitness accounts that added dimension to an understanding of the house’s daily existence. Rather than presenting limited snapshots of the summer cottages as mere repositories for the decorative arts, new audio tours will also highlight the vivid memories of former servants, who saw the Gilded Era from another angle entirely. After all, the Vanderbilt clan alone employed approximately 2,200 servants in Newport over a two-year period, and this underground community required highly efficient corporate management schemes, including its own state-of-the-art paging system.

As a city of stages, layers and overlapping communities, Newport still attracts thousands of visitors seeking a crash course in American history or decorative arts. Its many ghosts still speak narratives with wry eloquence or bawdy intrigue bordering on the titillating and the absurd, as Thornton Wilder so accurately conveyed. When a pal of New York Herald owner James Gordon Bennett, Jr., trotted his calvary horse into the lobby of the toney Newport Reading Room, Bennett—already socially shunned for using a fireplace as a pissoir—celebrated the officer’s ejection from the club by founding an alternative, the Newport Casino. Bennett appointed the then-untried firm of McKim, Mead and White, who eagerly took on the Casino as its first major commission in 1879. Polite society eventually overlooked Bennett’s impolitic behavior, turning their opera glasses to racketeering—as in tennis tournaments. Half a century later, historians heralded the Newport Casino’s curvaceous, shingle-clad, vaguely Queen Anne bungalow as an exemplary expression of the new Shingle Style—one of the earliest distinctively American contributions to architecture.

In 1882, Oscar Wilde stirred audiences from the stage of the Newport Casino theater, long since shuttered and draped under plastic sheets until it can be properly fireproofed and buttressed. In a country still reeling from the Civil War, the self-proclaimed “Apostle of Aestheticism” passionately encouraged his American listeners to embrace art and beauty, despite the ruins and broken families that seared its landscape. No doubt, the entire house probably enjoyed a huge guffaw at its own expense when Wilde hazarded his observation that America was “the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” Newport’s history begs to differ.12

Notes 

1. Wilder, Theophilus North (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 14.
2. Annual Report 2003–2004 (Preservation Society, 2004), p. 14.
3. Richard Guy Wilson, “Edith and Ogden: Writing, Decoration, and Architecture” in Pauline Metcalf, Ogden Codman and the Decoration of Houses (Boston: David R. Godine, 1988).
4. Wharton, 1993, p. 14.
5. See Metcalf, 1988.
6. Norval White and Elliot Willenskey, AIA Guide to New York City, fourth edition (Three Rivers Press, 2000), p. 236. In a twenty-first-century form of architectural penitence, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill began resurrecting the spirit of the old [New] Pennsylvania Station from McKim, Mead and White’s colonnaded Post Office on Eighth Avenue in 2001.
7. “Introduction” in Vincent Scully, The Shingle Style and the Stick Style: Architectural Theory and Design from Downing to the Origins of Wright (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971, revised edition).
8. “About the VSA,” in The Victorian, no. 1 (2004), p. 7.
9. Contact information: Susan McCallum, (908)-522-0656, vsasummerschools@att.net; Victorian Society in America, 205 S. Camac Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107; (215)-545-8340; info@victoriansociety.org
10. Architects: Château-sur-Mer, Seth Bradford (1852) and Richard Morris Hunt (1872); Marble House, Hunt (1892); the Elms, Horace Trumbauer (1901).
11. David Garrard Lowe, Stanford White’s New York (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1999).
12. Wilde, Personal Impressions of America (New York: Leadville, 1883).