Isaac Bell House, Newport


The Isaac Bell House in Newport, Rhode Island, in June 2015.

During the warmer months, hordes of Newport visitors converge on the Marble House and Breakers, a pair of former summer homes turned house museums now owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County. The buildings exemplify the excesses of the Gilded Age with their sublime architecture, sprawling grounds, and sensational ocean views.

To get to the two Bellevue Avenue landmarks, most patrons pass the Isaac Bell House, another Preservation Society property from the same era. Unlike its comrades down Bellevue, the more modest Bell House lacks features such as gold leaf ballrooms, saltwater baths, and Japanese tea house outbuildings. Instead, it is located on garden lot set back from the avenue and blends in nicely with its leafy neighborhood setting. What it lacks in showiness, it more than makes up for in taste and superior design.

The building takes its name from its first owner, Issac Bell Jr., a member of an established New York family who made a name for himself in the cotton business. In 1879, Bell’s brother-in-law, New York World newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett, commissioned fledgling architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White to design the Newport Casino. The Shingle style playground for the East Coast hoity toity proved popular, so Bell hired the same firm to design a summer getaway for himself on a lot a few blocks away.

McKim, Mead, and White created a Shingle style masterpiece that fuses colonial, European, and Japanese elements. Completed in 1883, the three-story building is distinguished by its steeply pitched gable roofs and two conical towers. The stone and brick cladding on the lower level gives way to cedar shakes on the upper floors. Deep porches and expansive windows allow plenty of shade and opportunities to catch breezes. Soaring brick chimneys top off the building. The imaginative design continues inside. The layout has an open floor plan, a Japanese design feature rare at the time in that part of the world. Frank Lloyd Wright would embrace this layout a few years later in his Prairie Houses, and the floor plan is a must for homes today. A fireplace with seating area with dark wood walls is located at the center of the house. Rooms with sliding doors radiate off the central hall. An intricate stained glass window is located along the central stair with an equally alluring skylight above.

Bell’s ownership of the house was brief.  He died in 1889 at the age of 42 after he served two years as the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands. New York attorney Samuel Barger rented the house while Bell was overseas, and Bargar bought it from Bell’s widow in 1891, renaming it the Edna Villa after his own wife. It remained in the Barger family until 1952. In the latter half of the 20th century, the building was used first as a nursing home and then divided into apartments. The Preservation Society of Newport purchased it in 1994 and commenced its restoration. The Bell House became a National Historic Landmark in 1997.

I first encountered the house in 2009 when I visited as part of Preservation Institute: Nantucket. Our two-day stay in Newport also included tours of the Hunter House, Marble House, Breakers, Chateur-sur-Mer, and Kingscote. All are richly furnished with not a cockeyed painting in sight. All also present a false sense of history. In contrast, the Isaac Bell has hardly any furniture, curtains, paintings, or the like; it instead is interpreted to allow its timeless design to stand for itself.

Note: Most of the photos below are from my latest visit in June 2015. Despite my request for permission, I was not granted permission to capture interior shots during my latest visit. The Preservation Society has a backward policy that bans interior photos–unless one is part of a tour group. They claim it is to protect the interiors, but non-flash photography has no effect, and the effect of flashes is negligible at best. If they want to be safe, they should ban flashes, but the blanket interior photography ban for amateur photographers is ridiculous. 



East facade facing Bellevue Avenue.


Even the downspout system is beautifully designed.


Deep front porch with floor to ceiling windows.



Bamboo inspired columns.




The side entry porch bottom stairs are two heights for both arrivals by carriage and foot.


Also note the dragon head canopy braces, another Japanese design inspiration.




Side entry porch and tower.


View of the building’s rear elevation.




The interior of the house is centered around the first floor firelpace, called an inglenook. Source: courtesy Gavin Ashworth/The Preservation Society of Newport County

The interior of the Bell House. Source: The Preservation Society of Newport County

Bedroom. Source: Instagram user miphall

Interior from my 2009 visit.

Stained-glass ceiling detail from 2009.

Stained glass window detail. Source: The Preservation Society of Newport County

Door roller detail. Source: The Preservation Society of Newport County

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Six-Year Anniversary

I debuted this blog six years ago today!

My career took a big step in the past year. Since 2011, I worked as an architectural historian for a small cultural resources management in Florida. But, in January, I began work in Maryland as a preservation planner for a municipality in suburban Washington, D.C. While I remain interested in Florida’s historic resources, the move has opened a smorgasbord of new historic places to visit.

Meanwhile, this blog carries on. In the past six years, its 97 posts have been viewed 55,160 times, though about 175 of those hits were me accidentally. This is up from 2,490 hits after the first year, 6,409 after the second, 15,542 after the third, 28,204 times at the four-year mark, and 40,998 views at five years.

The most popular post this past year again was Cocoon House with 2,040 hits, bringing its all-time total to 6,713. Of the posts written in the past year, the top three most popular were:

All three places are located in Florida. My travels also took me to the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, Saratoga Race Course in New York, Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct in Pennsylvania, and Octagon House in D.C. My favorite post of the year was on the Rod and Gun Club, though it was fun to ride around on a bike in Key West to scout out the eyebrow houses.

The Gator Preservationist Facebook page, where I post my photos of old structures as well as links to preservation-related articles, is up to 244 likes, not including myself. Last year it had 188. I also still write for Curbed’s Past Lives series, which features unique multifamily rehabilitation projects. The Gator Preservationist blog content also remains available on the Field Trip smartphone app.

Until next year, thanks for reading.

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Octagon House, Washington, D.C.

The Octagon House looks like it’s about to be eaten by the AIA headquarters. Courtesy AIA

I was mesmerized by ghost stories when I was growing up. Once I exhausted the supply of ghost books from the library system, I turned to the Internet to feed my fascination. One location seemed to come up often: the Octagon House in Washington, D.C.

The story was the the building’s first owner, Colonel John Tayloe III, was a tyrant who killed not one but two of his daughters by shoving them to their deaths from the home’s grand central staircase. The building is also supposedly haunted by ringing bells, a man in black, and a lilac-loving Dolley Madison, who briefly inhabited the Octagon House with her husband, President James Madison, after the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. Add it up, and the Octagon was often bestowed with the title of most haunted place in D.C.–no small feat considering the White House is a few blocks to the east.

I recently relocated from Florida to the Washington, D.C., area, so on my first foray in the city it was only fitting that my first stop be the Octagon House. The building, designed by U.S Capitol architect William Thornton and completed in 1801, is owned by the American Institute of Architects and open for free, self-guided tours from 1 to 4 on Thursdays through Saturdays.

The Octagon’s surroundings have changed quite a bit since it was completed in 1801. Then it was a castle in the newly born city. Today, it’s ancient compared to the modern glass, steel, and concrete office buildings nearby. The AIA headquarters are just behind the Octagon, and the concrete hunk of a building appears about ready to eat the much smaller Octagon House.

The Octagon House does not appear as its name implies. Yes, it does have eight sides, but they’re not equilateral. It’s still a unique example of Federal style architecture. Its importance was recognized long ago as evidenced by the AIA’s purchase of the building in 1902. Now open as a house museum, the interior is sparsely furnished so as to not detract from the restored elements. I read some of the wordy laminated sheets available in each room, but I would like to go back for a guided tour, available for $10 outside of open hours.

Oh, and about that whole Tayloe was a daughter murderer story? Completely unfounded. He did have seven daughters, but none died at the house. The AIA actively tries to set the record straight, but it’s hard to quash a story that is more than 100 years old. No word on the validity of the other reported hauntings.


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Early 1900s view. Courtesy Harris & Ewing Collection (Library of Congress)

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Boy on stairs ca. 1920. Courtesy National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)


Early 1900s interior shot. Courtesy Library of Congress

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Early 1900s interior shot. Courtesy Library of Congress


The Octagon House today.



Looking toward the main entrance.



Incredible carved fireplace.


The detail–wow!


Looking up the infamous staircase.


No ghost. Just my wife.




The minimal furniture lets the real draw stand out: the architecture.


Subtle door.


The basement was less restored.

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Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct

Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct from Pennsylvania facing New York earlier this month.

In an era before flight corridors, interstates, and railroads, the Delaware and Hudson Canal was one of many manmade waterways dug in 19th century America to connect the fledging country’s coastal cities to its raw materials in the interior. The D&H Canal, which linked New York City to the coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania, took three years to dig and opened in 1828.

The journey was arduous. Mules dragged canal boats down the 108-mile-long tow path and had to pass through 108 locks as the elevation rose 1,075 feet. Dams originally were built where the canal crossed Rondout Creek and the Lackawaxen, Delaware, Neversink rivers. At these dams the mules and their drivers crossed on a rope ferry. Traffic jams plagued those four crossings, so in the 1840s the D&H Canal Company hired engineer John Augustus Roebling, fresh off his designs for two wire cable suspension bridges in Pittsburgh, to design aqueducts over the four waterways.

Completed in 1847, the wire cable suspension bridge over the Delaware River, known as the Delaware Aqueduct, consisted of four spans of a 134 feet each that ties Minisink Ford, New York, to Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania. The four stone piers were shaped like a V where they face upriver in order to break up ice floes before they smashed into the bridge. The wooden superstructure on top had a trough in the middle to hold the canal’s water and towpaths along the rim on both sides where the mules and drives walked. The canal operated until 1898. Shortly thereafter, water was drained from the aqueduct, and it was converted into a toll bridge first for wagons and then automobiles.

The bridge looked nothing like Roebling’s design by the time the National Park Service purchased the span in 1980. No longer needed to hold water, the trunk walls had long since been removed, and flimsy wood guardrails stood in their place. The stone piers and cable suspension’s remained, however.

The NPS undertook a restoration of the bridge’s superstructure in the 1980s and 1990s to return it to its original appearance while remaining a vehicular bridge. Of the four aqueducts that Roebling designed for the Delaware and Hudson Canal, the Delaware Aqueduct is the only still in existence. It’s also the oldest wire cable suspension bridge in the United States and a National Civil Engineering Landmark. The entire former D&H Canal system was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Roebling went on to engineer the Brooklyn Bridge, though he died in 1869 after he suffered injuries sustained while planning that landmark’s construction. His son Washington Roebling oversaw the bridge’s completion 14 years later.

Though nowhere near as grand and as celebrated as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Delaware Aqueduct is still a fascinating remnant of engineering history sympathetically rehabilitated to suit modern needs.

The aqueduct as it looked before the truck walls were removed. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Underside. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Aerial of the bridge after it was an aqueduct and before its rehabilitation in the 1980s. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Pre-rehabilitation. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA


Looking toward New York from Pennsylvania. The road and middle of the bridge was once the Delaware and Hudson Canal.


The original cables still support the bridge. The wood trunk walls have been rebuilt to match what the bridge looked like in its aqueduct days.


Three pieces are pointed facing upriver to break up ice.


The north walkway. This is where the mules and drivers would have walked.


Only one car can pass at a time.


Early March ice on the Delaware River.


Driving to New York.


This toll house was built after the bridge switched form canal boats to wagons. It’s now a small museum.


New York state historic markers are simple and to the point.

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Belle Haven Apartments, Sarasota


The Belle Haven as it appeared in December.

One of the finest Boomtime buildings in Sarasota, Florida, is at risk of demolition after years of vacancy. Sound familiar? In the 1990s, it was the John Ringling Towers, which was razed in 1998. This time it’s the Belle Haven Apartments.

Designed by revered local architect Dwight James Baum in the Mediterranean Revival style, the Belle Haven debuted in 1926 as the El Vernona Apartments, luxury accommodations for seasonal residents on Sarasota Bay just north of downtown. Rooms featured linen and silverware, and guests could pass those frigid Sarasota winter days on the dock that stretched into the bay. The site was intended to be the centerpiece of the Central Broadway development, but the those plans were quashed in the 1927 land bust. The Belle Haven was converted into offices in 1984, and the building closed about a decade ago. Yet the building has remained relatively untouched in its nearly 90 years, surprising considering its location on such a visible and desirable tract. It was locally landmarked in 1984.

The Belle Haven’s surroundings sure have changed a lot in the past 90 years though. Sarasota went from winter getaway to thriving small city after World War II, and buildings sprouted up near the bayfront to reflect its heightened status. The bay itself is now farther away from the Belle Haven after fill was added in the 1960s. Next door, the hulking Quay entertainment complex rose in the 1960s and then came crashing down in 2007 when a $1 billion project was planned for the site. That project died during the financial crisis, and nothing has been built to replace it, so the Belle Haven sits idle amid a sea of scraggly grass lots.

Change is on the horizon. A developer bought the former Quay property and Belle Haven last year with plans to build a hotel, commercial space, retail, and residences. As of now, the Belle Haven is to be integrated into those plans. But that could quickly change. Or the Belle Haven could be left vacant and not maintained. It’s up to preservationists to remain vigilant and remind the developer and public officials of the building’s architectural significance.  Sarasota doesn’t need another loss like John Ringling Towers.

Source: Sarasota County History Center

The building was surrounded by empty lots when it was built. Now it’s surrounded by empty lots again.

1927 shot.

1946 aerial of downtown Sarasota. The pier belongs to the Belle Haven, which is in the foreground. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,


The Belle Haven entryway today.






The metalwork fire escape appears to be original.




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Florida Keys Memorial, Islamorada


The Florida Keys Memorial with crypt in the foreground.

The cremated remains of hundreds of hurricane victims are encapsulated in a crypt in the Florida Keys Memorial near US 1 on Upper Matecumbe Key. The approximately 300 dead were killed on September 2, 1935, by the Labor Day Hurricane. The Category 5 storm had winds of more than 200 mph and is the most intense hurricane on record to hit the United States.

The victims–many of whom were World War I veterans–were in the Keys to construct US 1, a Civil Conservation Corps project. Weather forecasting was nothing like it is today, but people did know a storm was coming. An 11-car train was dispatched from Miami to travel down the Florida East Coast Railway tracks to pick up the vulnerable workers and locals. A series of delays held up the evacuation train, and it reached the workers at about the same time as the full brunt of the storm. People scrambled into the cars. The train crawled ahead in the slashing rain and wind. It only made it to Islamorada before tidal waves of up to 20-feet high shoved all but the locomotive and its tender off the track. An estimated 400 people died in the storm. About 260 were veterans.

Initially, the plan in the aftermath was to collect the bodies and ship them to Miami for burial. But the intense heat accelerated decay and made the plan unfeasible. Instead, many of the bodies were burned in funeral pyres and the remains were collected.

The Moderne style Florida Keys Memorial, also known as the 1935 Hurricane Monument, was completed in 1937 at Mile Marker 81.5 to serve as a final resting place for the victims. It cost for $12,000. The 65-by-61 foot monument was built of coral limestone quarried nearby. It features an 18-foot tall frieze featuring waves and coconut palms blowing in the waves. The crypt is 22 feet long and has a tile map of the Keys on top. Artists with the New Deal’s Federal Art Project created the memorial. Harold Lawson came up with the memorial’s design, and sculptor Lambert Bemelmans carved the frieze. Ceramacist Adela Gizbet, craftsman William C. Shaw, and designers Allie Mae Kitchens and Emigdio Reyes completed the tile crypt.

More than 4,000 people attended the monument’s dedication on Nov. 14, 1937. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Islamorada and the Florida Keys have long ago recovered from the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, and visitors from across the globe congregate there to enjoy the year-round warmth and clear waters. In contrast, the Florida Keys Memorial is a powerful reminder of nature’s fury.

Read “Last Train to Paradise” by Les Staniford for more on the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.

The Florida East Coast Railway train sent to evacuate the people in the storm’s path. All but the locomotive and tender were flung from the track.

Veterans housing after the storm. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Miami Star Tribune coverage. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Bodies lined up. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Funeral pyre at Snake Creek. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Dedication ceremony on Nov. 14, 1937. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

The casket’s remains contain an unknown veteran. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

1957. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,







Remnants of a sea creature in the limestone.



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Key West’s Eyebrow Houses


525 Margaret St. built in 1886.

Many a Key West visitor has spotted the disproportioned roof on an eyebrow house and thought, The carpenter must have really screwed up on that one. But Key West’s trademark form of architecture is supposed to look that way.

The Classical Revival style eyebrow houses are side oriented gable-roofed buildings usually five bays wide and 1 1/2 or two stories tall. They are distinguished by a gable roof extension that creates a large awning over the top floor windows. The roof extension is the reason they have the eyebrow moniker, though I think “eyelid house” would be more fitting.

Most of Key West’s historic residences were built with one goal: block out the sun. Eyebrow houses take this to the extreme. Back in the late 1800s when most of these houses were constructed, sun-shading vegetation was sparse in Key West. There is no natural source of freshwater on the island, so, historically, Key Wester’s relied on cisterns and desalination plants–and they sure weren’t going to waste that precious liquid on water-chugging trees and plants. That changed once a water pipeline reached Key West in 1942, and the junglelike Key West we know today was born. The proliferation of shady trees–along with air conditioning–has freed up Conchs to focus on more important features when building homes, like where they’re going to put the bar.

Alex Caemmerer suggests in his “The Houses of Key West” that the eyebrow house is derived from either the Louisiana five-bay center hall house or saltbox of New England. Key West’s residents were inspired by both locales, so either makes sense.

The eyebrow houses repelled rays, but they probably didn’t do much for airflow on the top floor. Maybe that is why they seem to limited to Key West. According to the Historic Florida Keys Foundation, approximately 75 historic eyebrow houses exist. Photographed below are those I spotted while biking around the city last month.


643 William St. built in 1889. It was built by Edward Roberts, a ship’s carpenter from Ireland.


708 Southard St. built in 1874.


623 Southard St. was built in 1874.


410 Margaret St. built in 1892.


917 Grinnell St. built in 1889.


710 Ashe St. built in 1889.


1115 Southard St. built in 1889.


1108 Southard St. built in 1885.


1121 Southard St. built in 1889.


614 Grinnell St. built in 1889.


618 Grinnell St. built in 1889. A number of Bahamians lived in the home until 1938, when it was purchased by Quaker activist Adele Scott Saul. She owned it until 2011. It was recently restored.


804 Elizabeth St. built in 1874.


The Sapodilla Villa at 807 Elizabeth St. was built in 1890.


What a perfect example–a little too perfect. That’s because it was built in 1998 in the Truman Annex at 62 Front Street.

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