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Monday, June 29, 2009

The Houses of Newport, Rhode Island


Newport, Rhode Island is perhaps best known as the summer escape for the barons of the late 19th/early 20th century. The 'summer cottages' that they built are marvels of architecture and monuments to the excess of the wealthy families who built them for use only 8-12 weeks a year. I first visited Newport as a teenager; I remember being in awe of the mansions when I saw them for the first time over 20 years ago. Ten years after my first visit, when in my mid-twenties, I visited Newport again while my husband was attending graduate school in Boston. It was a tradition for the students to celebrate the end of the year at the 'Newport Ball', held in one of the mansions of Newport. I seem to recall that the students of my husband's class year were so raucous that they were banned from renting a mansion in Newport the following year. I don't have many fond memories of my visit to Newport on that trip!
I revisited Newport last week, 13 years after my last trip, and had an amazing time despite the fact that the weather was rainy and cold. I now have such an appreciation for the beauty of the town and its architecture. Although I loved seeing the mansions and taking a walk along the Cliff Walk (a walking trail that skirts the coast and goes right by many of the beautiful mansions), I actually found the humble houses of the Colonial craftsman in the town to be just as interesting. Newport has dozens of houses from the 1700s and 1800s that are intact, thanks in large part to the Preservation Society of Newport and the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF), established by heiress Doris Duke. Through the combined efforts of these two organizations, the architectural and social history of Newport from Colonial Times through the Gilded Age has been meticulously preserved.
The Cliff Walk skirts along the eastern shore of Newport.
The entire walk is open to the public, yet cuts across the back yards of many of the mansions on the prime waterfront property. Many of the borders of the individual properties are flanked with large gates, which are open all day.
A view of a property on that is perched at the edge of the shore. The weather was quite moody as you can see.
One of the mansions that can be seen on the walk - this one is the Breakers, perhaps the most famous of the Newport mansions. The Breakers was built by the Vanderbilt family, and is over 138,000 square feet - the largest home in New England. Rumor has it that the Vanderbilt family still uses the entire upper level of the Breakers.
This is Carey Mansion, part of Salve Regina University, also along the Cliff Walk. I love the turret in the center of the mansion.
Another one of the Newport Mansions, called 'The Elms'; this one is not waterfront. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside any of the mansions, but as you can imagine the interiors were fascinating. I thought that some of the bathrooms in the Elms were particularly interesting - two of them were done in white subway tile, and small hexagon tile on the floor. I have seen this in quite a few bathrooms renovated or built over the past few years; I guess it is a truly classic look! The Elms is the second largest home in Newport, and is just over 60,000 square feet.
The more humble buildings were found in the town center of Newport. Notice the dormers on this house; the middle dormer is a different shape. This is a historical property, although not one owned by the Newport Restoration Foundation.
In the late 1960s the NRF, under the guidance of Duke, set about buying and preserving buildings and homes from the 18th and 19th centuries. This was necessary as Newport was undergoing an urban renewal that threatened the older buildings; many older buildings were razed in order to build America's Cup Avenue, which brought an urgency to the formation of the NRF.
What is striking about this preservation effort was that many, if not most of these homes did not have the grandeur of the large historical properties; many of them were dilapidated and the humble abodes of the craftsmen and average townsmen built in the 1700s and 1800s.
The NRF preserved and restored these homes (71 in total), and in an interesting twist, rents many of these homes to 'tenant-stewards' so that the homes will continue to have a life instead of becoming sterile museums. The tenant-stewards are under strict order to maintain the homes as-is; the homes have been modernized with plumbing and electricity, but no additional changes can be made without permission from the NRF. The waiting list to rent a historical home owned by the NRF can be very long, and it often takes years to get to the top of the list!
The homes owned by the NRF have a white plaque with the name of the house and the date it was constructed. Interestingly, many of the homes have been moved from where they were originally built and moved to streets where they will not be disturbed. All painting on the exterior and in the interior must adhere to a strict color palette, inspired by the color palette from Colonial Williamsburg. The pictures above show the big variety in the color palette used by the original builders of these charming homes.
Largely because of the efforts of the Newport Restoration Foundation and the Preservation Society of Newport, the town of Newport maintains a charming feel of the past without any of the feel of a theme park. I highly recommend it as a destination for any of my readers with an interest in history and architecture! In my next post, I will reveal my favorite house from Newport - I saw it when I was on the trolley tour. It is not one of the famous mansions, but is instead a privately owned home with beautiful architectural details. Stay tuned!

47 comments:

  1. Thanks for the tour. I sure would like to see for myself. You are hinting you have more pictures, right? The mansions are hard to get my mind around. But folks can aspire to live in these handsome smaller houses. I wish more of our new houses were so modestly dignified and elegant.

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  2. Oh, what gorgeous finds TTI! Sounds like an utterly lovely visit - those old mansions seem to work perfectly with gloomy weather. Wish I could see inside!

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  3. In the hotel, I read an article from a local magazine that featured one of the smaller homes that a retired woman is renting. It is small - 1700 sf - and the ceilings are very low. The woman even claims to have evidence of a friendly ghost!

    According to the article, the wait list for renting one of these historical properties in town is long, and it can take many years until you get to the top of the list!

    Terry, I have a few more pictures, but not many more. I was with a group most of the time, and I was already slowing down the progress of the group with my picture taking.

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  4. I think anyone who can appreciate a great design will be awestruck by the building design. But if Newport underwent an renewal, how did these building survive?

    Nicolette
    http://www.furnitureanddesignideas.com/

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  5. Beautiful pics! We weren't able to squeeze Newport in to our New England trip a couple years ago and after seeing your photos I wish we did it!

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  6. Huge "summer home"! Love the metal work on the gates and fence.

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  7. Nicolette- Newport was going through an urban renewal, and many of the historic homes were being torn down. So, Doris Duke formed and funded the NRF to save the properties that remained. Some of the properties were saved within days of being demolished! There is probably more information on the website, and as I understand it, they saved about 10 properties a year since the late 60s and continue to save historic properties from demolition.

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  8. These are monumental -particularly the view from the sea. The restored, very symmetrical buildings are wonderful too. If you ever get a chance to fly over this area do it - the perspective and sheer size of the buildings is stunning.

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  9. Cliff Walk is one of my favourite places in the US. It looks so delightfully romantic in your misty photographs. I have always wanted to visit Newport at Christmastime.

    Did you perhaps stay at The Inn at Castle Hill??

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  10. I am usually all about the pretty pictures - but I thoroughly enjoyed this read and didn't want this post to end.. What a wonderful tour of Newport, and I will be on my way to exploring these mansions further.

    Also, the gloomy weather made fantastic photos - adds to the mystery of these retired homes.

    Thanks for this
    vitania

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  11. Vitania, thank you for the kind words! I was afraid the post was too 'wordy' and tried to edit it tightly, so I am glad to hear that you enjoyed reading it as well as looking at the pictures.

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  12. The Elms was my favorite when I visited many years ago- I loved the steps in the backyard.

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  13. aren't you lucky ??
    i would love to be there right now !!
    the moody weather of new england is what i am craving (it is so hot here).

    and i do love their rules & regulations about colors.
    the world might be a prettier place if designers picked town colors.
    wink wink

    xx

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  14. I was just in Newport last week, too! How neat! The weather was quite bad for a beach vacation, but it gave us the opportunity to visit lots of the mansions! Hope you had a great time!

    ~Lindsey

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  15. How wonderful for one place to not only have some of the most unbelievable mansions but also the beautiful cottages. I havn't been to Newport, but what a great vacation, even with bad weather. Hugs, Marty

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  16. I live in Massachusetts and have toured The Breakers, The Elms, Marblehouse and Rosecliff. I went a few years ago around Christmas. I think it was Rosecliff that was decorated that year and was beautiful! I don't know why they don't let visitors take interior photos. :(

    Thanks for the tour! I think it's time for me to visit again.

    Jane

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  17. I adore those old New England homes. The mansions are amazing too but don't seem real, but those little saltbox houses are so homey and welcoming. Thanks for sharing this!

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  18. just popping by to say congrats on the Washington Post blog watch mention

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  19. What great post. I love Newport, RI. I've only been a handful of times, but it made a lasting impression the very first time. I love the cliff walk. Great post!

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  20. What great images. I love the historical houses that look like that old saltbox style. And the varied dormers- fantastic. Can't wait to see what your fave is!

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  21. What a beautiful tour! I have never been to RI and I so appreciated "walking" with you. I love the architecture of the mansions and the coastline. Stunning.
    Blessings...

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  22. Great tour! It's been several years since I've been there - so thanks for the memories!

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  23. It's a real American treasure. Thanks so much for the fantastic tour!

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  24. Great tour -- I can't believe I never made it to Newport at some point during my 4 years in New Haven (in my defense, I didn't have a car). These homes definitely seem to capture the best of New England.

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  25. Oooooh LOVE those BIG HUGE houes... WOW!

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  26. I am dying to visit Newport! It looks and sounds so gorgeous!

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  27. Glad you're back...I've missed my "Things That Inspire" fix!!

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  28. Great post! I would love to tour some of these fabulous homes of a bygone era!

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  29. How fabulous! Thank you for the tour! I live so close - and yet so far (the northwest corner of CT really feels far from everything) - but this is a great daytrip!

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  30. Thanks for the tour, I would love to travel to these places and thanks to you I can live vicariously through your travels :)

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  31. When I was a little girl, my father was attached to the Naval War College in Newport, and we lived there for several years. I have many happy memories of picnics with my mother and sister along the Cliff Walk.

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  32. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful homes/mansions. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to live in one of those mansions. I would need one of those Segways to get to breakfast in the morning!

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  33. i love doing the Cliff Walk on cool misty mornings...man I miss New England!!!!
    I love how big the little cottages are but I guess if you're a Vanderbilt to you it is a cottage.
    In town is more me. Too big is well, too big.The red house was charming!!!
    I must also give a shout out to Block Island too!!!

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  34. I was in Newport three years ago, and oggled all of those lovely houses. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane !

    Kate

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  35. I was there in the early '90s and it was one of my favorite vacations ever. Went on every tour imaginable and loved them all. Back in those days, Hammersmith Farm was open for tours, though I think it has since been closed to the public, and it was fascinating to see where John and Jackie Kennedy had their wedding recption and to see Mrs. Auchincloss' decor. I remember her sunroom was painted black. Anyway, great posting.

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  36. I live in NE...hubby and I spent some time there last year...did you get to tour the dollhouse at the Breakers, big enough for a summer cottage and to think it was their playhouse ??

    We love it there, thanks for such a nice post :)

    Kathy :)

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  37. It is also my summer hideaway - I have seen many others, Newport is still the most breathtaking and old-worldly elegant. I would not trade her!

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  38. What a lovely walk. I will add this to the places I want to visit.

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  39. Newport is so beautiful and has some of the most amazing homes. My favorite is Rose Cliff- it would be a dream to get married at a place like that- so out of this world beautiful!

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  40. Thank you for a wonderful historic walk around the grounds of these incredible homes.
    And I agree the home that you feature for the 4th does pay quiet respect for our nation's holiday.
    Well done!
    Lisa

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  41. Amazing !! It looks attractive, calm, spacious and featured with lots of good qualities.

    Boise real estate

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  42. beautiful homes! One day! One day i'll have my own hahahaha

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  43. Just went here for my first time a few months ago! amazing! new to your blog and just wanted to say I love it! -carlee

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