Category Archives: historic places

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, 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 on historic elements, 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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Thomas Elfe House

Despite my many visits to Charleston, South Carolina, over the past few years, there are still a lot of historic places I have yet to visit (Fort Sumter, the Hunley museum, most of the house museums). I was able to cross the Thomas Elfe House off my list during a recent trip there.

Thomas Elfe was an English-born woodworker in Charleston before the Revolutionary War. His records indicate he completed 1,500 high-end pieces for some of the city’s wealthiest residents.

Elfe built a house for himself on Queen Street in about 1760. Jump ahead 200 years, and it was falling apart before it was moved back from the street and restored. It’s amazing the  Georgian-style house has survived because of its desirable location on Queen Street and diminutive size (only four original rooms) compared to many of the other surviving structures from that era.

Current owner Bill Ward bought the house in 1994 and added a kitchen and bedroom to the back of the house. It’s certainly interesting to see the house’s original, finely crafted woodwork, but it’s the collection of period antiques that really make it stand out. For $8, you can see for it yourself on weekdays from 10 to noon.

The Thomas Elfe House, at 54 Queen Street.

The quaint back garden. I wouldn’t want to be there when that ancient oak tree falls down.

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Nantucket Part 5

Thursday, Day 11, included a lecture on authenticity, one of my least favorite topics because it’s so subjective. Everyone has a different opinion on it, and who’s to say what’s right?

A conversation starter used in class was whether trees blocking the view of a mountain from Herman Melville’s former home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, takes away from the authenticity. Apparently he was fond of the view of a mountain from his house and it inspired him. My thoughts are that the one natural feature Melville is associated with is the sea because of “Moby Dick” (which was based on the story of a whaling ship based in Nantucket, by the way). So no, I don’t think having the view of the mountain blocked takes away from the authenticity. If a view of the ocean was blocked, that would be a different story.

Another example was whether not stuccoing the coquina walls on the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida, takes away from the authenticity. When it was in service, the fort’s walls were stuccoed. But now, business owners like the old, gray look the fort has when the coquina is allowed to show and vehemently oppose any plans to stucco it despite the fact covering it would help preserve the coquina. I say yes, the authenticity of the fort is ruined by not stuccoing. Plus it makes sense form a conservation point of view. But I’m a bit biased. My favorite undergraduate class at the University of Florida was taught by the esteemed Florida historian Dr. Michael Gannon, and he was a proponent of covering the coquina.

Thursday afternoon our subgroup for the Maria Mitchell project analyzed the exterior of two downtown structures: the 1823 Methodist Church, just across the street from Sherburne Hall, and the 1775 Pacific Club at the head of Main Street. Overall, the Methodist Church appears to be in OK shape, just some peeling paint and oxidizing nails. The Pacific Club is in worse shape, with cement-shaped fill-in bricks, vines growing on one side, cracked bricks, drainage issues, delaminating sandstone, and just a lot of wear and tear — what you would expect from a building that age.

Friday, I received my introduction to the house I’ll be documenting with a partner as part of the Nantucket Preservation Trust interior easement program. An interior easement places restrictions on any changes inside the house and the homeowner may get tax credits in return. Exterior easements are relatively common, but I think interiors are a new thing.

The house I’ll help document is the Florence Higginbotham House, which was built sometime during the Revolutionary War by a freed slave and was owned by blacks for the next 200 years, with the exception of one year. There’s not a whole lot of black people on Nantucket, so this house and the African Meeting House located across the street from it shine light on what seems to be an overlooked part of island history.

I had some free time Friday, so I visited a few Nantucket Historical Association properties.

The Old Gaol was built in 1806 and operated until 1936. It's missing a staircase.

The Old Gaol was built in 1806 and operated until 1936. It's missing a staircase.


Not the most pleasant place to visit.

I wouldn't want to stay the night there.



The Quaker Meeting House was built in 1838. Quakerism was the dominant religion on Nantucket during its whaling heyday. As you can tell, the Quakers weren't flashy.

The Quaker Meeting House was built in 1838. Quakerism was the dominant religion on Nantucket during its whaling heyday. As you can tell, the Quakers weren't flashy.

The Old Mill was built in 1746.

The Old Mill was built in 1746.

It still grinds corn making it the oldest still operating mill in the U.S.

It still grinds corn making it the oldest operating mill in the U.S.

I don't know how much is original, but there's certainly a lot of old wood in it.

I don't know how much is original, but there's certainly a lot of old wood in it that looks like it was salvaged from boats.

It was too windy to operate on Friday.

It was too windy to operate on Friday.

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Filed under Castillo de San Marcos, Florence Higginbotham House, Herman Melville, historic places, Nantucket, Nantucket Historical Association, Preservation Institute: Nantucket

Drayton Hall

Drayton Hall is a Mecca for preservationists. It blows my mind how little has changed over the years in the house, completed in 1742 and located just upriver from Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a wonder the place even survived the Civil War, because it was one of the only plantations along the river to not be burned down by Union soldiers. The rumor is the house flew a flag indicating it was a smallpox hospital and the soldiers wanted no part of that. After the war, the plantation way of life was impossible to upkeep and Drayton Hall served as a family retreat. Because it wasn’t a full-time residence the Drayton family saw no need to add electricity, bathrooms, or a kitchen. Ultimately, it was sold to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1974. The National Trust has done an excellent job with Drayton Hall. Instead of restoring the property and cluttering it with furniture, they’ve kept repairs to a minimum and the interior is relatively empty. But the handcrafted architectural details provide plenty to look at. And some places in the house only have two layers of paint: the original and a second from the late 1800s. I visited in March and I highly recommend it. My tour guide, Kate Ruhf, was extremely informative; you get the impression everyone who works there feels privileged to be part of it. My only complaint was that there’s not enough time to look around at the interior, so I didn’t get as many photos as I would’ve liked. The reason is that they don’t want people wandering around unaccompanied, so it’s understandable.


Facing Ashley River Road.


Facing Ashley River.

Riverside closesup.

Riverside closesup.

It's not in immaculate condition.

It’s not in immaculate condition.

Amazing ceiling.

The lack of furniture accentuates the architectural details.

What a ceiling.

What a ceiling.

Not much has changed here in 270 years.

Not much has changed here in 270 years.

Great craftsmanship.

Great craftsmanship.

More on the inside.

More on the inside.

Drayton Hall 9


Filed under Drayton Hall, historic places

Bungalow Terrace

Though I haven’t lived full time in the Tampa area since 2001, I’ve returned frequently in the past eight years and feel like I know the city fairly well. But I didn’t know Bungalow Terrace existed until a few months ago when one of my professors (who grew up in Tampa) mentioned it in class. I was recently in south Tampa and had some time to kill, so I visited.

Bungalow Terrace is a block of 19 bungalows packed along a sidewalk in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Tampa, one of the oldest and most upscale areas of the city. Construction on the houses began in 1913, and they all appear to be in excellent condition. Besides the basic bungalow characteristics, none looks the same.

I must add that the bungalows found here seem average compared to others in Hyde Park and throughout the city, but it’s a good collection nevertheless. The unique layout amid a grid system is worth the visit in itself.

Street signs marking the entrance to the sidewalk.

Street signs marking the entrance to the sidewalk.

View from the opposite end.

View from the opposite end.


This one's available.

This one’s available.

No two are alike.

No two are alike.



Porch scene

Porch scene

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Manatee Village Historical Park

My first foray into my historic preservation education came last fall when I did an independent study cataloging two historic buildings in the Manatee Village Historical Park in Bradenton, Florida, as part of a disaster preparedness measure. Because I was still working full time at a newspaper in Naples, I would spend a day every week or two measuring, photographing, and diagramming the materials of the 1889 church and 1860 courthouse, the oldest of its kind in the state. My two favorite structures in the park are the boat building shop (because I’m a big fan of wooden boat building) and the 1912 Cracker house (not named after the derogatory term for a white person but for early Florida ranchers who were named after the sound of the whips).

Historic building parks get a lot of flak from preservationists, but I don’t mind them. Sure, the first choice for an at-risk building should be to try to keep it in its current location. If that’s not possible then if it could be moved to a place where it will be protected, it should. Historic  buildings parks provide the community a one-stop location to learn about the area’s past. And sometimes the buildings can serve as more than just giant museum pieces. For example, the church at the Manatee Village Historical Park still is consecrated and hosts weddings and other religious events.

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Filed under Bradenton, historic places, Manatee Village Historical Park