Tag Archives: Shingle Style

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: 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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Filed under historic places, historic preservation, Newport

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.


Filed under Newport