Category Archives: Newport

International Yacht Restoration School

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Sailboats created by students at the International Yacht Restoration School.

I felt like I was trespassing. Restoration Hall at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island, is often buzzing when school is in session, but it was empty on this Saturday in early June. The only sound was the rustling of sails on the wooden sailboats neatly arranged on sawhorses in the center of the expansive hall. As I inspected the student-restored boats–each a wondrous display of craftsmanship–and walked through the shop rooms, I understood why someone would be willing to pursue an education in wooden boat construction and restoration.

Newport is an ideal spot for the IYRS. The City By the Sea was a thriving port during the colonial era, and dozens of distilleries produced rum out of the sugar cane picked up in the Caribbean as part of the infamous transatlantic slave trade. The U.S. Naval Academy temporarily moved to Newport during the Civil War, and the Navy has had a presence in Newport ever since.

Southerners first discovered Newport’s merits as a summer getaway in the 1800s, and they were followed by the rest of the American monied class. The rich brought their mega yachts and passed the summer days on the water. The New York Yacht Club has decamped to Newport each summer since its founding in 1845 and hosted the America’s Cup there from 1930 to 1983.

Established in 1993 by yacht restorer Elizabeth Meyer, marine artist John Mecray and boat designer David Pedrick, the IYRS welcomed its first Boatbuilding and Restoration Program students in 1996 in the rehabilitated Restoration Hall. Ten years later, it added a Marine Systems Program, based in nearby Bristol, Rhode Island. In 2008, the school’s second building in Newport, the ca. 1831 Aquidneck Mill, opened and houses classrooms, offices, the library, and the Museum of Yachting. The IYRS’ third program, Composites Technology, was added in 2010. And now students can received associate’s and bachelor’s degrees through a collaboration with Roger Williams University.

The Boatbuilding and Restoration is a two-year program. The first-year students learn the basics of lofting, drafting, and hull modeling. Then they pair off to restore 12 1/2 foot Beetle Cats. Second-year students take a boatyard business class, and learn more complicated lofting and joinery techniques. They also work independently on a restoration project. Sign me up.

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Restoration Hall, a former electric generating station built circa 1903.

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The expansive interior of Restoration Hall.

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Work space in Restoration Hall.

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Colorful Beetle Cats constructed by IYRS students.

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I inspected sailboats awaiting restoration.

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The Coronet, a 131-foot schooner built in 1885, is undergoing a slow rebuild in a temporary building adjacent to the IYRS. Though not owned directly by IYRS, graduates are invited to work on the project.

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Coronet’s accessories are spread along the mezzanine.

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Even the Coronet’s piano awaits the yacht’s return to the water.

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Dock along the Coronet building. IYRS are encouraged to sail its fleet of vintage sailboats.

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The Aquidneck Mill Building, constructed in 1831, is perpendicular to Restoration Hall. It houses IYRS administrative offices, the Museum of Yachting, and offices for marine companies

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Isaac Bell House, Newport

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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. 

Links

http://www.newportmansions.org/learn/architecture/aspects-of-architecture-design/isaac-bell-house

http://www.historic-structures.com/ri/newport/bell_house.php

http://focus.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NRHP/Text/97001276.pdf

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East facade facing Bellevue Avenue.

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Even the downspout system is beautifully designed.

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Deep front porch with floor to ceiling windows.

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Bamboo inspired columns.

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

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

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Side entry porch and tower.

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View of the building’s rear elevation.

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The interior of the house is centered around the first floor firelpace, called an inglenook. Source: NewportHouseTour.com/Photography 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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Newport Casino

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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.

Circa 1902. Courtesy of Library of Congress

1905. Courtesy Library of Congress

1913 U.S. Nationals Championship finals. Courtesy Library of Congress

Circa 1915. Courtesy Library of Congress

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.

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Newport’s Cliff Walk

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It takes one glance at the Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island, to understand why it’s so popular–and why it’s so dangerous.

The 3.5 mile long hiking path follows the perimeter of the historic New England city’s eastern shoreline, from Memorial Boulevard to Bailey’s Beach, and sometimes rises more than three stories above the water. Animals and Narragansett Indians are credited with blazing the route. And opportunistic European wreckers followed the footpath in search of goods that washed up on the rocks below.

Shortly before the Civil War, wealthy Americans found wind-swept Newport a welcome respite from the diseased cities during the warmest months. By the late 1800s, Newport was the Hamptons of its day in an era aptly called the Gilded Age. The fortress-like mansions constructed along the Cliff Walk were owned by the country’s elite, and gawkers took to the trail to view the extravagances up close.

It was at this time that efforts began to limit access to the path, which passes through privately held properties. Then, as now, the uber-wealthy desired privacy and, with the exception of their servants, wanted the lower classes out of sight. Hedges, boulders, fences, and even attack dogs were used to deter strollers. But ancient public access laws prevented the rich from impeding access. Yet to this day, some landowners do all they legally can to keep Cliff Walkers at a distance.

Mother Nature has also tried to wipe out the Cliff Walk. Hurricanes in 1938, 1954, 1991 ripped out a few sections, but millions of dollars have been spent to rebuild, control erosion, and improve safety. However, people have been seriously injured on the Cliff Walk within the past 25 years–and two have even died. A man became a quadriplegic after a fall in 2000 and sued the city and state for negligence. Last year, a jury cleared Rhode Island of liability, but Newport had already settled with him for $2 million. In wake of the much publicized lawsuit, there have been calls to add more fencing. Opponents say this will further detract from the natural beauty.

Earlier this month, I returned to Newport for a wedding.  A visit to the Cliff Walk topped my itinerary. I first encountered the famed  seaside path at 40 Steps, a popular access point at the end of Narragansett Avenue. As the name suggests, 40 granite steps lead down to a balcony that overlooks the rugged coast below. I was surprised the balcony opened at one end and led out to a precarious rock ledge above the shore–not a place I would want to be when the waves are up.

Limited by time, I only walked from 40 Steps to the Tea House at Marble House–considered an easy stretch. But this part of the Cliff Walk is not without its perils. I imagine shin injuries are common on the boulder path at Belmont Beach, and a number of “unofficial” paths lure the brave down steep inclines to the water.

The visual rewards overshadow the risks, though.The Cliff Walk affords multiple scenic vistas,  and it’s understandable why the nation’s nobles staked out this area.

Then there’s the architecture.  The Cliff Walk passes behind such masterpieces as Ochre Court, Vinland, The Breakers, Anglesea, Fairholme, and Marble House. Though many of the houses have security hedges, they are often still visible from  a distance or through gaps in the vegetation.

Despite its dangers, the Cliff Walk is recommended to any Newport visitor as a great opportunity to exercise while enjoying nature, history, and architecture. Just watch your step.

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Newport Wrap Up

On Thursday, July 9, before leaving Newport and heading back to Nantucket we stopped at the Preservation Society of Newport County’s conservation offices. The group has 11 properties that have thousands of square footage each and contain thousands of artifacts, yet they only have three full-time conservators! I’m guessing they do a lot of outsourcing, but still. They’re just plugging leaks and not thinking long term. Lack of funding for preventative maintenance is a recurring theme in historic preservation, and it’s no different in luxurious Newport.

Some of the repairs we saw: A collapsed ceiling at Chateau-sur-Mer and a tedious restoration of a fraying chair from Marble House.

Our packed schedule and poor weather prevented me from seeing more of Newport, but here’s some other photos I took.

We stayed at Ochre Lodge, a residence hall at Salve Regina University.

We stayed at Ochre Lodge, a residence hall at Salve Regina University.

The colonial houses are plain.

Many colonial houses still stand in the Newport Historic District.

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Many of the restorations kept most of the historic integrity intact.

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Cardines Field is one of the oldest ballparks in the U.S. There's evidence a park was here in 1893. Many top black baseball players have played here, and big leaguers (Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, Phil Rizzuto) stationed at the nearby Navy base also played here.

The grandstands date to 1936. The park gets a lot of use. High school, college, Babe Ruth League, and New England Collegiate Baseball League teams all play there.

The grandstands date to 1936. The park gets a lot of use. High school, college, Babe Ruth League, and New England Collegiate Baseball League teams all play there.

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Newport Part 3

On Thursday, our third and final day in Newport, we went to The Breakers, the best-known of the city’s “cottages.” Though I think the Marble House was more extravagant, The Breakers certainly lived up to its expectations.

The 65,000-square-foot mansion has 70 rooms. It was finished in 1895 and cost $7 million to build. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect who designed The Breakers to look like an Italian Renaissance mansion (see, Mediterranean mega mansions also were sought after more than a hundred years ago). Like the Marble House, it was built for a Vanderbilt heir. Vanderbilt descendants still live on the third floor and they own all the original furnishings.

Charlie Burns, a curator for the Preservation Society of Newport, showed us around. Photography isn’t allowed inside, but because we were were a special group, we were allowed. Some of the many guards had trouble getting used to this. Unfortunately, my camera isn’t the best and the combination of lack of light and giant rooms resulted in mediocre pictures. Then again, few cameras could do the place justice. Here they are anyway:

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The great room.

The Great Hall.

Dining room.

Dining room.

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It's hard to fathom the craftsmanship in The Breakers and all the Newport mansions we visited. I felt guilty giving a room a quick look over and moving on when so much labor went into each detail.

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The bathtub is carved from a single piece of marble and has faucets for hot and cold fresh water and hot and cold salt water.

The bathtub is carved from a single piece of marble and has faucets for hot and cold fresh water and hot and cold salt water.

The Great Hall is 50 x 50 x 50.

The Great Hall is 50 x 50 x 50.

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breakers ceiling light

Where the servants toiled.

Where the servants toiled.

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Newport Part 2

The agenda on Wednesday, our second day in Newport, was loaded. We started the day at the Hunter House, another building from Newport’s shipping heyday. Then we moved on to 19th century vacation mansions Isaac Bell House, Kingscote, Chateau-sur-Mer, and Marble House. We also had lunch at The Elms carriage house. And then in the evening I went to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which is housed in the Newport Casino.

One of the benefits of being a Preservation Institute: Nantucket student is that we got tours of the Hunter House, Isaac Bell House, and Kingscote (plus The Breakers on Thursday) from Preservation Society of Newport curators Charlie Burns and Paul Miller. They had insights we simply couldn’t have received from a tour guide (though the guide at Chateau-sur-Mer was good).

The Hunter House was first finished in 1754 and has undergone a few additions. It's now owned by the Preservation Society of Newport.

The Hunter House was finished in 1754 and has had a few additions. It's now owned by the Preservation Society of Newport, the organization that owns 11 properties there.

The house had a great collection of much sought after colonial Newport furnishings.

The house had a great collection of treasured colonial Newport furnishings. One rare piece had an estimated value of $25 million. I'm surprised so much valuable stuff is in house right on the water that doesn't seem to be very climate controlled.

The interior craftsmanship was high-quality, too.

The interior craftsmanship was high quality, too.

The Isaac Bell House was

The Isaac Bell House -- built in 1883 by famed firm McKim, Mead, and White -- was extremely innovative for its time. It's a Shingle style house and is a forerunner to Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School with its open floor plan and Japanese architectural elements.

It's undergoing restoration.

It was divided up into boarding rooms and nearly was torn down until it was saved at the last minute by PSN in 1996. Now it's undergoing restoration.

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It has an incredible glass light in the middle. We were given free reign of the house to take pictures, so I'll have to post the rest in a separate entry.

It has an incredible glass ceiling overlooking the first and second floors. We were given free reign of the house to take pictures, so I'll have to post the rest in a separate entry.

Kingscote was built in 1839 as a summer home for a Savannah planter in the Gothic Revival style. Famed architecture firm McKim, Mead, and White built an addition in 1881.

Kingscote was built in 1839 as a summer home for a Savannah planter in the Gothic Revival style. McKim, Mead, and White built an addition in 1881.

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It had an overwhelming interior.

Those are Tiffany glass windows.

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We had lunch at the carriage house behind The Elms, completed in 1901 and modeled after a French palace.

We had lunch at the carriage house behind The Elms, completed in 1901 and modeled after a French palace.

Chateau-sur-Mer was finished in 1852 and owned by the same family until it was donated to the PSN in 1969. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed in the interior.

Chateau-sur-Mer was finished in 1852 and owned by the same family until it was donated to the PSN in 1969. It's 37,000 square feet. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed in the interior.

We took our last tour of the day at Marble House. It was finished in 1892 and cost $11 million!

We took our last tour of the day at Marble House. It was finished in 1892 and cost $11 million!

This house didn't allow cameras, either. The extravagance was mind boggling. Marble House has a gold ballroom, enough said.

This house didn't allow cameras, either. The extravagance was mind boggling. Marble House has a gold ballroom, enough said.

This tea house was built in the back.

This tea house was built in the back.

The neighborhood.

The neighborhood.

The Shingle Style Newport Casino was built in 1880. It played host to the U.S. Open until 1914. Now it's the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The Shingle style Newport Casino was built in 1880. It played host to the U.S. Open until 1914. Now it houses the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

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