Home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Newport Casino is no ordinary sports museum. Designed in the Shingle style–a distinctly American form of architecture that fused Queen Anne, Japanese, and Colonial elements–it was the first collaboration by famed design firm McKim, Mead, and White.
Originally a private club, the casino opened in summer 1880 and became a fixture of Gilded Age Newport’s social scene with spaces for lounging, drinking, dining, dancing, entertainment, and sleeping. Sports were another popular activity, and the nation’s wealthiest competed in such stressful pastimes as archery, lawn bowling, croquet, and, of course, tennis. Its reputation as a prime tennis venue was forever solidified when in 1881 it hosted the U.S. Nationals Championship, the precursor to today’s U.S. Open. The tournament was held at the Newport Casino for the next 33 years until it was moved to a larger facility in Queens.
Though the last U.S. Open was played there in 1914, over the next half century the Newport Casino hosted a tennis tournament that attracted top-notch players such as Bill Tilden, Don Budge, and Bobby Riggs. Since 1976, it has hosted the annual Hall of Fame Tennis Championships, the only grass-court stop on the ATP men’s pro tour.
By World War II, Newport’s reign as America’s premiere summer destination had ended, and the club suffered as a result. Though some of the spaces were used as a Navy officers’ club, the large complex was costly to maintain and showed it age. The issue was further exacerbated by a 1953 fire that caused $75,000 in damage. A developer saw an opening and proposed to demolish the casino and redevelop the prime property.
Members resisted. They recognized the casino’s place in U.S. tennis history and called for transforming part of the space into the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame. Dedicated in 1955, the museum concept was altered in 1976 to include international players and thus the name change to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
The museum’s steady occupancy has helped ongoing efforts to restore the sprawling casino to its Gilded Age grandeur. I visited the hall of fame in July 2009 on a whirlwind tour of Newport while attending Preservation Institute: Nantucket and returned last month to tour the grounds.
There was a lot going on at the Newport Casino when I returned. The facility, which fronts busy Bellevue Avenue, stretches a block and has ground-floor shops along the street. Between the shops, a tile-floored arcade leads to the picturesque Horseshoe Court. Tourists strolled to the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s entrance, stopping to pose for pictures and admire the statues. Across the grass court, diners yucked it up over lunch at La Forge restaurant.
At the back of the property, groundskeepers tended to one of the 13 grass courts. Locals squared off in an indoor match of court tennis, a game I didn’t know existed until then. A curious couple stepped into the recently restored theater, a historic entertainment venue that hosts opening night of the legendary Newport Folk and Jazz Festival, among other events.
I, of course, was there to admire the Shingle style architecture. Despite 130 years of fires, countless storms, and constant wear and tear, the Newport Casino is in great shape. I first became a fan of the architectural movement after touring the nearby Isaac Bell House, another McKim, Mead, and White design. The casino is the supreme Shingle example, so highly regarded that it was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
But, more important than architecture, the Newport Casino functions well in its myriad capacities–museum, entertainment venue, tennis tournament host, recreational venue, and restaurant–and shows how even the most architecturally significant old buildings can be adapted to suit modern needs without compromising their historic integrity. There’s just nothing like the real place.