The Newport Architecture Diet

Where I stayed
The Breakers (Vanderbilt summer house, 1895) was just down the block
(photo by galen frysinger)
Rosecliff (1902)
The Gilded Age was comically so.
Clouds Hill, 1870s Gothic Revival
ceiling stencil work
Ames Memorial Hall floor mosaic, HH Richardson, 1881
Ames Memorial Hall, HH Richardson, 1881
18th century Newport: the sleeper hit of the trip!
We toured people's private homes, too (Miramar, 1913)
David Ford's entry hall was approximately 3 times the size of my apartment

Beryl Slocum Powell talks about the Meissen china and whatnots
guest room in a garden folly
"El Paso Horse Show, 1914"
Bill Wilson, architect and vintner, talks about his 1863 Gothic/Stick Style home
Being able to ring for the correct maid: priceless
When I told friends I was going to spend 9 days in Newport RI taking the Victorian Society's summer program on architecture and decorative arts I got reactions ranging from indulgent smiles to blank looks. And there was the one memorable, "that sounds fucking boring." Actually, in some ways I've never had a better time.

Participants came from around the country, Spain, Uruguay, Australia and England. There were MA and PhD graduates, museum professionals, architects and teachers with the odd serious dilettante like me thrown in. Lectures, walking tours, and bus trips all day, with the promise of wine, cheese, and pate (or pizza) on many nights. (By the end of the trip, someone said, our personal pie charts would read 2/3 cheese and crackers, 1/3 pinot grigio.) Despite the cheese I lost 2-1/2 lbs. In part this was because it was about a 1 mile walk to the nearest good cup of coffee, but also the fact that we started at 8 or 9 each day and kept walking virtually until 6pm. I havent been as consistently  engaged and challenged in years.

We visited many different types of buildings— moody mid 19th-century Gothic Revival gems, sophisticated 1880s Aesthetic Movement specimens, muscular Richardsonian Romanesque piles, pristine Georgian Revival confections. Also: an unexpected array of Colonial homes which were enchantingly intimate and often near the water. Its apparent that the Gilded Age behemoths completely overshadow the long history of Newport because I hadnt even realized there was such an extensive 18th century town to explore. In fact, the Newport Preservation Society was formed in 1946 to save the little Colonial boxes, the "vast blank white elephants"* be damned!

The program certainly gave a concentrated dose of late 19th century excess. Foremost exemplar: Vanderbilt summer house The Breakers. The seventy rooms of gilt, stained glass, marble, crystal, tapestry and bloated pomposity was once staffed with footmen in 18th century livery and wigs. (So much for "beachy-informal") The Elms, Rosecliff, Marble House, Ochre Court and many of the other really significant summer "cottages" were conceived in the waning years of the 19th century as America hit it's global stride. It was the era of the "American Renaissance" and there was the sense that this country had the power, money, and spit-shined gumption to take on anything. We were the new Athens, the modern colossus of Freedom, the shining beacon of human achievement. So what better way to manifest this sensibility of Democracy incarnate, the spirit of our own glorious Revolution and the simple nobility of our Federal heritage? Wholesale imitation of European palaces evidently. Many of the Newport mansion feature rooms literally ripped from French chateaux and reassembled. Sometimes the Newporters bought the art or books along with the room panelling housing them. (Instant collections). Sort of Ancien Regime meets Venetian palazzo with touches chinoiserie and Gothic. How did European friends or acquaintances keep a straight face?//

Edith Wharton wrote to a friend, "I wish the Vanderbilts didnt retard culture so very thoroughly. They are entrenched in a sort of Thermopylae of bad taste, from which apparently no force on earth can dislodge them."

* Henry James described the mansions of Newport as being "white elephants... their...owners roused from a witless dream, wonder what in the world is to be done with them. The answer to which, I think, can only be that there is absolutely nothing to be done; nothing but to let them stand there always, vast and blank for reminder to those concerned of the prohibited degrees of witlessness, and the peculiarly awkward vengeances affronted proportion and discretion."


Susan B. said...

This definitely doesn't sound boring. What can be better for somebody who enjoys architecture and studying that to stay for several days in this kind of company? Your photos persuade me to visit Newport. In some way it reminds me Cabbagetown in Toronto. It's charming neighbourhood from Victorian era with wonderful atmosphere. I can only recommend you a visit!

equilibrist said...

Ange--sounds like it was great. Engaging for both mind and body. Hope you had good walking shoes.

I wonder if there's a program like this for Charleston? That would be amazing, too.

I want to stay in that little guest room in the folly.



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