Tag Archives: National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference

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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2009 National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference

Nashville

I was lucky enough to represent the University of Florida at the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference last week in Nashville. (Thanks, Florida taxpayers!)

The conference consisted of preservation lectures, trips, meals, and booths with an estimated 2,000 students and professionals attending. From Civil War battlefield tours to sustainability lectures to Jack Daniels distillery tours to a lunch with Laura Bush, there was something for everyone.

After driving into rainy and cool Nashville on Tuesday evening, my conference kicked off Wednesday morning when I took a bus tour titled “Footsteps of Andrew Jackson: Case Studies in Preservation Leadership.” We visited the Hermitage, Jackson’s plantation, along with Stone Hall and Two Rivers Mansion.

I didn’t know much about the Hermitage beforehand, and I came away impressed. I just wish the tour had more time to see everything. First, I was surprised by the site’s size — the property is more than 1,000 acres. There’s also a number of outbuildings, many added after the Hermitage became a museum in 1889. There’s also a lot of original artifacts inside — the workers boast they have more than Mount Vernon and Monticello combined. The curatorial staff take incredible pains to add missing objects. For example, extensive research and discussion went into the dining room chairs and carpeting — they didn’t just throw out any antique.

As you can see, the Hermitage is currently undergoing a restoration.

As you can see, the Hermitage is currently undergoing a restoration.

It looks nicer from the back. The house was commissioned by Jackson in 1819. He lived there until his death in 1845.

It looks a little nicer from the back. The house was commissioned by Jackson in 1819. He lived there until his death in 1845.

The graves of Jackson and his (legal?) wife, Rachel.

The graves of Jackson and his (legal?) wife, Rachel.

Alfred's Cabin, also undergoing restoration, is a former slave cabin that dates to 1841.

Alfred's Cabin, also undergoing restoration, is a former slave cabin that dates to 1841.

Stone Hall was built in 1918 out of local limestone.

Stone Hall was built in 1918 out of local limestone. Now it's owned by the city and part of a greenway.

The cabine

A cabin on the property, Eversong, overlooks the Stones River and is believed to date to the Civil War.

A cabin on the property, Eversong, looks over the Stones River and is believed to date to the Civil War.

It literally hangs over the edge.

Two Rivers Mansion was built in 1859. Here's what it looks like from behind.

Two Rivers Mansion was built in 1859. Here's what it looks like from behind. It too is owned by the city and is used for weddings. However, it's not in the best shape and needs funding for some work.

Sideview of the front porch.

Sideview of the front porch.

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Afterward, I attended the Save America’s Treasures luncheon. SAT is a public-private partnership that awards grants to preservation projects. Bowling Green, Ky., Mayor Elaine Walker and her husband, Dorian Walker, gave an excellent presentation on their efforts to restore neglected circa 1900 houses in their hometown. Another speaker talked about grants, not my cup of tea but important nevertheless. Before the lunch ended, Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust and everyone’s favorite preservationist, made a surprise appearance. That night, I missed the Opening Plenary, but I attended the Opening Reception at Frist Center for the Visual Center, which used to be a Post Office. Wow.

Thursday morning, I boarded another bus again for “Nashville Overview.” It was a superb way to get a quick lesson on the city’s history and preservation efforts. We stopped at Fisk University, a historically black school, and the Parthenon, a scale reconstruction of the original in Greece. However, it was difficult to see everything in downtown simply because there was so much in such a condensed area. Areas of note:

  • East Nashville, a once blighted area now has pricey restored homes and is a trendy part of town;
  • Music Row, the business side of Nashville’s music industry has recording studios, law firms, and other offices in former single-family homes;
  • The Gulch used to a be an industrial area now it’s the site of incredible Modernist condos;
  • and the Second Avenue North clubs and bars that used to be warehouses on the riverfront wharf — great adaptive uses.
The Parthenon was finished in 1931 after 11 years of construction.

The Parthenon was finished in 1931 after 11 years of construction. That's a lot of concrete.

The Athena Parthenon statue on the inside.

The Athena Parthenos statue on the inside.

That's a lot of concrete. I didn't like the Parthenon. But as preservationists, we're taught to avoid reconstructions.

Though I respect it as an engineering feat, I didn't see the point of cloning the Parthenon.

Thursday afternoon, I attended the lecture “Extreme Makeover: Transform Yourself Into an Effective Advocate for 1950-70s Landmarks.” Preserving post World War II housing is big in preservation now and it’s only going to get bigger. The lecturers suggested ways preservationists can improve advocacy for these often overlooked structures. Thursday evening was the University of Florida and friends gathering.

Friday morning I attended the “Considering a Preservation Career?” lecture in the morning. In the afternoon, I took another bus tour, “Keep it Country: Rural Preservation in Nashville’s Bells Bend.” Bells Bend is a rural area very close to Nashville, and the residents there are fighting off developers to retain their laid back way of life. We visited two recently created nature parks and met with activists who helped fend off a recent effort to plop a new urbanism community out there. It was nice to get a perspective on preservation that doesn’t include just buildings.

The conference rivals Preservation Institute: Nantucket for the best preservation experience I’ve had. Just meeting and talking with students from other schools made it worthwhile. And getting to talk to working professionals about what they face day to day was icing on the cake. I can’t wait for Austin next year!

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