Summering in Newport
OK, here’s our latest vacation slide show post! By now, it’s become a regular content stream here. We’ve done Ireland (Galway & Dublin), New Orleans (a 5 part series), Salem, Burlington, Providence, and too many staycation destinations here in NYC to list. This past week was the Mad Marchioness’s birthday, but my time was somewhat limited by the fact that I am in rehearsals for The Iron Heel. So our trip needed to be close and the time spent getting there needed to be short. Our solution was to do what New Yorkers (of a class far more exalted than ours) did back in the Gilded Age — make for the shores of nearby Newport, Rhode Island. We both had special childhood memories of visiting the mansions there. And in addition to loving art and history and the beauty of nature, the Marchioness loves restaurants, and there is a very high number of good ones there.
And of course the place has some personal connections for me. I’m from the area. I have some ancestors among the town’s founders (see below) and I spent a very crucial summer there 30 years ago saving up the money that would get me (partway) through theatre school, which then launched me to New York. As I blogged here, I worked for a man named Michael Shorrock in the summer of 1986, making and hawking tee shirts in Rhode Island’s two principal resorts of Block Island and Newport. These are the only known photos of me during that time. I was 20 and working some party at a Newport mansion (giving away custom tee shirts as party favors):
The visor says “Tall Ships, ’86” — it makes sense that there would be another tall ship display a decade after the Bicentennial.
At any rate, we went into the Belly of the Sea-Beast last week, and I do believe we managed to sample each of Newport’s “Nine Cities” which Thornton Wilder wrote about in his novel Theophilus North.
We stayed at a highly eccentric complex called the Inns on Bellevue, in a charming 19th century guest house. “Charming” is our customary euphemism for no shampoo, unlaundered towels, a loud upstairs neighbor, a tv at a 90 degree angle to the bed (not the first time we’ve encountered this quirk) and a leaky toilet. The latter was the worst problem (use your imagination) and so we requested a move to a different room. We liked the new space better, with the one exception being the fact that the shower was in the bedroom! It was only mildly perturbing, mostly just surreal. It’s very disorienting to look over from bed and see a shower stall with no wall or curtain in between. The line between “New England charm” and “mental illness” can sometimes be very fine.
But we were in the perfect location, one of the reasons I chose the place. For one thing, we were about half a block from one of Newport’s best known landmarks, the Newport Tower. For many years, there was a spurious but popular theory abroad that the structure had been built by Vikings before the time of Columbus. On the other hand, locals have pretty much always known what it always was, a stone windmill built by Rhode Island’s first colonial governor Benedict Arnold, great-grandfather of the eponymously named traitor, and a distant relation of mine. The fact that the tower is located on Mill Road might give some clue. Still it wasn’t until carbon dating by some killjoys in the 1990s that the Viking theory was officially disproved. Still, this tower is the reason so many businesses in the area have the name Viking. (Our guest house was across from the Viking Hotel, for example).
We were pretty wiped out when we arrived, but we were also starving and eager to site-see, so we headed down the hill to Bowen’s Wharf and grabbed some seafood at the Wharf Pub, which was having a promotion for? Brooklyn Brewery. There’s no escape!
Then we roamed around the docks, where it became necessary to take this photo:
Somehow we got a second wind and took a LONG walk down Thames Street, past countless seafood joints and watering holes, both fancy and divey, heard countless bad cover musicians, passed many a boat-yard, and roamed around an antique shop in an old armory.
Complimentary breakfast at the inn. For once, the Marchioness was up and at ’em and eager to get started long before me. That never happens! This picture illustrates my slow attempts to attain her energy level.
Our inn was just a short bus ride from all of the mansions, with the vast majority of them literally located on the same street, Bellevue Ave. We headed first for the Breakers, which was the farthest away, and the one we had both visited previously in our childhoods. Built as the summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895, it’s the largest and most garish and gaudy of the mansions, built in an Italian Renaissance style, but with interiors that are a sort of vulgar mish-mash of whatever European plunder from whatever time period that Vanderbilt could get his hands on. This was intimated to us by our teachers as schoolchildren, but I’m sure most of us still just went, “I want a house like THIS some day!” I know I did. But this time I felt myself more interested in the butler’s pantry and kitchen. A changed perspective.
Anyway, for this reason and others, if at all possible I would recommend that travelers see this house LAST, so that you can see the smaller and simpler houses for context and comprehend what you’re even looking at. The Breakers was designed to be the last word in conspicuous opulence, in Newport, at least, so it is better to see all the other houses it attempts to outdo FIRST.
Ironically, one of the most gorgeous things about the Breakers is the view from the inside looking OUT:
And the house’s exterior is tasteful if imposing. It was designed by Richard Morris Hunt.
I was much more enamored of Marble House, built by Cornelius’s brother William K. Vanderbilt in 1892, just a few years prior. It was also designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the Beaux-Arts style. Its name comes from the marble used on the building’s exterior, which was inspired by Versailles. My favorite spot was the nautical trophy room, full of souvenirs from William’s yachting activities. Apparently lots of Frenchmen like to come there and put their grubby hands on things:
Some other interesting features include a spectacular staircase that was used in the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby (in which one of the teachers at my high school was an extra), the Chinese Tea House on the back lawn, and the dark, atmospheric Gothic Room which has the atmosphere of a church.
Interestingly, three years after it opened, the Vanderbilts divorced. The mansion was already in Alva Vanderbilt’s name — she’d been given the house as a birthday present. She went on to marry Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (to whom I am distantly related on his mother’s side) and became the mistress of Belcourt, another Richard Morris Hunt mansion. Belcourt was still open as a museum until recently. In 2012, it was sold to private owners(!) This struck me as a startling tipoff as to where wealth equality is headed in this country. In similar news, that same year Beechwood, the Astor’s Newport Mansion which was also long a living history museum, was sold to billionaire Larry Ellison but he reportedly intends to turn it into an art museum.
From here we went to Rosecliff which opened in 1902 and was designed by McKim, Mead and White. I definitely recognized some of the interiors in this house from that same movie of The Great Gatsby (e.g., the scene where they are sitting in a sun room at Tom and Daisy’s and the sea breeze is wafting the curtains). At Rosecliff we heard tales of decadent parties with the likes of Houdini as entertainment, and scandalous guests such as a chimpanzee who swung from the chandeliers. These bashes were intended to compete with the annual balls thrown by Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish at her Newport mansion Crossways, a house which still stands but now houses condominiums.
By now, we were footsore and starved so we went and had seafood at a place called The Landing on Bowen Wharf
From here we stayed closer to the old town waterfront. We visited the modest Museum of Newport History, located in an Old Brick Market built in the 1760s.
There I found this portrait of Rev. Gardner Thurston (1728-1802), pastor of Newport’s Second Baptist Church, and a distant relative. Our mutual ancestor is Edward Thurston (1620-1707) one of Newport’s founders (see below)
This is apropos of nothing except that I thought it was cool. It is an actual printing press used by James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother. Ben had been apprenticed to him as a printer in his youth, acquiring skills that allowed him to achieve international prominence as newspaper editor and publisher, and author.
One thing you’ll hear about at this museum (and very few other places in town) is Newport’s past as a slave trading center. Prior to the American Revolution, Newport was America’s fifth largest city, and its wealth came largely from its participation in the Triangle Trade. The city was occupied for a time by the British; a large portion of its population fled and never returned. While Rhode Island had the North’s highest per capita concentration of slaves of any New England colony or state, it was gradually banned by legislation in 1784 (an effort driven largely by local Quakers). In the 19th century, after the last of the slaves had died, the town’s connection to the hated practice continued when the first millionaires who made their summer homes here were Southern slaveholders who came North for the cool breezes. This ceased with the advent of the Civil War. Thereafter Newport would be the playground of the rich from New York and Boston. At any rate, I’ll be blogging more about my home state’s complicity in the slave trade as a follow up to this broader one about the North.
Drinks were in order at this stage; we had them at the colonially themed Clarke Cooke House on Bannister’s Wharf. where we sat and listened to some exceedingly cheesy preppies bleat loudly about the things they bought and owned — a vital part of the Newport experience.
Then we took the first of our two boat rides, this time the 55 minute loop on the Newport Harbor Shuttle. We shared the boat most of the way with three giggling drunk ladies and received interesting information from the vessel’s pilot/ tour guide Paul. The coolest sight we saw on this trip was the tall ship Oliver Hazard Perry which was moored just outside Fort Adams.
It’s not so visible in my photo but there was a crew of student sailors aloft in the mast; the ship is used for training — in the unlikely event you will be able able to secure a job as a crew member of a 19th century sailing ship.
After this we stopped at the historic Black Pearl on Bannister’s Wharf. I sampled their famous chowder, my third portion of chowder since arriving, I wanted to compare and contrast. Their chowder was okay, but I was more knocked out by their hot buttered rolls — and by the fact that they served hot buttered rolls.
While it may look like we did a lot on our first full day, we enjoyed the second day even more. It began with a little rubbernecking at some places close to our hotel.
We were startled to stumble upon something called Audrain, a storefront automobile museum. This place (founded 2014) is so new it wasn’t in my guidebook. That’s okay, I can live without visiting an automobile museum (and why do they have one in Newport?) but we ended up seeing it anyway. The entire display (it’s an admittedly gorgeous and impressive collection) is visible from the street through the windows for free. Someone should tell these novice exhibitors to invest in some curtains and some very good signs or they’ll lose a lot of potential admission fees.
We also looked at the famous Newport Casino, designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1880, the site of the first U.S. Opens and, since 1954 the home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. We had a peek around back and caught a glimpse of the charming, impressive tennis stadium, which you’d never dream exists from the modest looking streetfront (undoubtedly by design, for it started out as a private club):
From thence we went to nearby Kingscote, which we absolutely loved. Without reservation, I would recommend this as the FIRST stop in any tour of Newport mansions. It provides a crucial foundation for the history of all that came after. Originally built in 1839 by Southern plantation owner George Noble Jones, it was acquired during the Civil War by China Trade merchant William Henry King and remained in his family for nearly a century. The primary style is Gothic revival; the main house was designed by Richard Upjohn, with more modern additions later by McKim, Mead and White (one of their first commissions). Among the pleasures (besides the Gothic atmosphere we so deeply love) is the fact that the house was acquired by preservationists when its last private owner died with great suddenness in 1973. This meant that all of the family belongings (books, china, art, silver, etc) were still inside and were acquired along with the house. It looks and feels like a home that somebody lived in…and that is a major part of the context it’s hard to get a feel for in those later, larger mansions.
Then came what I can safely say was the highlight of our trip, a visit to the too-little known National Museum of American Illustration. I can’t say enough good things about this experience — our jaws were dropping. The experience is a double whammy. First, it is located in the gorgeous 1898 mansion Vernon Court, designed by the firm of Carrere and Hastings (who also designed the Frick), so at its base level it’s yet another house tour (of an extremely tasteful and beautiful house). But…on top of that, it’s full to the rafters with original paintings and drawings by so many of the American illustrators the Marchioness and I both love: Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, John Clymer, and many others. And also, there were countless John Rogers sculptures, a not entirely dissimilar artistic phenomenon. Our eyes were popping out of our heads. This place deserves to be better known. It’s relatively new — founded in 1998, by polymath collectors Laurence and Judy Cutler. We don’t just want to go back, we want to live there. Not so much for the mansion as for the art. I declare the National Museum of American Illustration the most significant museum of Rhode Island, more important in its way than the RISD museum. The benchmark for this bold statement being, “What museum has the sort of collection that you HAVE to go to this particular museum to see? And WOULD you travel to this museum to see it?” Not to pick on the RISD Museum, I love it, but it is the sort of place I might pop into if I happened to be in town. But I might easily be persuaded to travel 180 miles JUST to see the Illustration Museum.
But we had places to see and…places to see.
The last (and my favorite) of the big mansions we saw was The Elms, built by coal magnate Edward Julius Berwind in 1901, designed by Horace Traumbauer in the style of a French chateau. A bit slavishly perhaps. It seems a very faithful copy to my untutored eye, and that was what I liked about it. There seems to be more taste in its conception and very little monkey business. The house is full of art, prints, paintings, sculpture, tapestry, but it all seems appropriate, it seems to fit organically. (Although the Marchioness was amused by the bust of Caesar presiding over the dining room table from a nearby mantelpiece. As she observed, these houses seem designed to intimidate one’s enemies as much as anything else). Here she is surveying the grounds in her new birthday sun hat.
After a quick and cheap lunch at Griswold’s Tavern (the meaning of whose name we wouldn’t learn until the next next day), it was on to the day’s next big event: a harbor sail on the schooner Aquidneck.
This was just a pleasant 90 minute excursion around the harbor, scheduled at dusk for maximum beauty. The crew of three not only manned the sails, but kept topping off our complimentary cups of champagne. It’s the only way to travel. I had never actually sailed before (not even on a sunfish), so it was a wonderful experience for me when the canvas was unfurled and the vessel began to move ahead silently, with the engines cut. It was quite magical.
A view of the Newport bridge from Narragansett Bay:
The birthday girl in restful repose:
A lousy photo of Fort Adams State Park: (So close and yet so far! The Newport Folk Festival was opening the next day, featuring a pair of our favorite entertainers Flight of the Conchords, but we had to get back to the city, and it was sold out anyway):
Hammersmith Farm, the family home of Jackie Bouvier (Kennedy Onassis). It was formerly opened to visitors…but now is not. Interestingly, it’s virtually next door to a house that Eisenhower used as a summer White House.
We capped off the evening with the Marchioness’s birthday dinner at the historic White Horse Tavern, established in 1673. It was easily the best food I ate during our stay, and the unseemly faces I made while I consumed it hopefully communicated my appreciation.
Last day! And for once I woke up early enough to spend a couple of hours taking some history snaps around the city while the Marchioness slept in. I basically had the town to myself, the only sounds were me and the sea gulls. It was lovely.
This is Touro Synagogue, a source of pride for any Rhode Islander with half a brain. It is the oldest synagogue in the country; and America’s second oldest Jewish congregation. It eventually dawned on us why we saw the occasional Orthodox families running around this still-WASP-ish enclave. They were making a pilgrimage!
WASP or no WASP, I feel a close affinity to this congregation, for its founders and my own ancestors came to this place for the very same reason. As I blogged here, Rhode Island is one of the first places to make true freedom of worship the law of the land.
Because I am descended from colonial Newport Quakers like Christopher Holder and Edward Thurston, and am related to the Hopkins family (you may recall the Quaker Stephen Hopkins from the musical 1776), I took great interest in this:
The Freinds’ Meeting House was interesting: huge and barn-like, unlike any other buildings in the area, reminding me of places much farther afield like Pennsylvania (which makes sense) or the South.
In surroundings such as these, one might be forgiven for mistaking Quakers for Houyhnhnms (look it up).
Also, there is this. Newport’s United Baptist Church is essentially the second Baptist church in America. The oldest, in Providence was of course the one founded by Roger Williams, my (10th) great grandfather who fled persecution not only in England but also in Massachusetts and Plymouth. My (9th) great grandfather Obadiah Holmes was one of the first pastors at the Newport branch.
After this I managed to locate the remains of one of my ancestors in tiny Coddington Cemetery:
Here is the marker for my (10th) great grandfather Edward Thurston:
It is amazing how much maintenance these markers require. Thurston’s is covered with lichen at the moment. But here is a photo of the same stone someone took a few years ago:
I also walked to the outskirts of town to the Common Burying Ground where I know many of my relatives are interred. But there are 5,000 graves there, and no time to sort through them all. So after a brief sweep, I pressed on.
It seems like almost every house in Newport has a sign telling its age and its original inhabitants, and the surnames are more often than not names from my family tree. In most cases I’ll go out on a limb and say I and those people will be related, with earlier colonial ancestors in common. (Most of these historical houses are from the 18th or early 19th century. The common ancestors would be from the 17th century.) I photographed a couple, but quickly realized it was silly…there were too many. But this one is particularly interesting:
The Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House is the oldest house in Newport (built c. 1697). I am related both to its original builder and owner Stephen Mumford, and to a later owner Daniel Lyman, a Revolutionary War soldier and Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
And, just becuz, here’s St. Mary’s Church, where JFK married Jackie. It is the first Catholic parish in the now heavily Catholic State of Rhode Island, dating from the early 19th century (more evidence of Rhode Island’s religious tolerance):
This is the tee shirt shop I mentioned above, where I worked to earn the money to go to theatre school. I had to hunt for ages to find this place. It had been 30 years! It’s a pretty crucial piece of my life. If only I’d known about my family history in the area at that time — I only dug out these facts about a year ago.
Okay! Now the Marchioness was up, and so we squeezed in a couple of additional museums before we catch our train. Both were practically next door to our hotel.
The first was the WONDERFUL Redwood Library and Athenaeum, established in 1747. This is just the kind of quirky local institution I can’t get enough of. A private membership library and club, and public museum. Its merits are too many to name: the building itself was designed by America’s first architect Peter Harrison, and there are the library’s original collection of centuries-old books, and antique clocks, and 18th century portraits by local artists with national reputations like Charles Bird King (from Newport) and Gilbert Stuart (who is from just across the bay in Saunderstown). And there was a traveling exhibition in the space, about mid 20th century futuristic car design, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. But because of the weird multipurpose nature of the institution, the place had a sort of tension which I relished. There was a very funny portrait on the wall of a minister with crossed-eyes. I wanted to show it to my girlfriend so we could laugh together about it, but there were two club members sitting in high backed chairs, scowling, reading the newspaper and clearing their throats.
The last place we visited was sadly the least impressive. The Newport Art Museum may have enjoyed the early support and involvement of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and may have shown many important artists over the years, but its mission may be said to be more artist-friendly than visitor-friendly. Its mission seems to be to support work by contemporary local artists. And we did see some interesting work. But we were in town for the history. Maybe if we lived there, we’d find it more engaging. By the way, this museum is located in the John N.A. Griswold House, designed by Richard Morris Hunt (which is reason the pub we mentioned above bears the name — it is across the street). the Griswold House and Redwood Library feel of a piece and of a time with nearby Kingscote, an earlier era than the monster mansions up the way.
At any rate, shortly after this we came down off our cloud and boarded the bus for home. And if there is anything that will bring you down to earth, it’s taking the bus.