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Newport Symposium: Brilliant on All Counts!

Trust members at the Nightingale Brown House in Providence, RI.

Newport, RI treated us to beautiful weather, incredible lecturers, and exclusive house tours, making this spring’s symposium one of the best ever.

The day trip to Providence on Thursday was filled with excellent Rhode Island furniture collections, 18th century mansions of the Brown family and the treasure filled 1846 John Carter Brown Library of Brown University where we enjoyed an exhibit on Simon Bolivar and an exhibit bringing together the early books that Lawrence Wroth wrote about in The Colonial Printer. The kind people of the Rhode Island Historical Society arranged for us to see the house of Louise Herreshoff, whose collection of Chinese export porcelain now resides at the Reeves Center at Washington and Lee University. They informed us that the house once belonged to Edward Bannister, African-American painter and one of the leading founders of the Providence Art Club. At lunch at the charming Providence Art Club, Trust members were greeted by the Club president who displayed for us his own beautiful painting by Bannister from the second half of the 19th century. After lunch, Trust members enjoyed a visit to the home of Stanley and Beth Weiss, avid collectors of American decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries.

From its early days, Newport has always seemed like a town preserved in another time. The first homes in Newport were modest buildings that reflected the Quaker sentiments of the time. The Industrial Revolution failed to impact Newport and so it remained a quaint community. The serenity and cool breezes of this island community plus the lack of mills and factories made Newport a resort town that attracted people from the south before the Civil War. But in the mid-nineteenth century, the wave of summer residents arrived and the building of luxurious “cottages” began. Architects Stanford White, Horace Trumbauer and Richard Morris Hunt designed and built many of the new fashionable houses for Newport’s wealthiest. The house styles drew from many sources: medieval Europe, French neoclassical and Japanese elements among them.

Fabulous rotunda at Bellevue House.

The idea of joining many stylistic elements is especially apparent in the Stanford White dining room addition at Kingscote. Lecturer Cait Emery discussed the intricate details of this great room in her Sunday lecture and later gave Trust members an exclusive tour of the house.

The Kingscote dining room combines Japanese, Moorish and Islamic architectural ideas. It brings together the new with the old to pay homage to the town’s characteristic features: a shell over the cabinet echoes the shell within the cabinet at Hunter House and seven-foot mahogany panels are reminiscent of the fashionable carved woodwork at Chateau-Sur-Mer. The room also ties in new details of a flower motif that is similar to Breton furniture and Japanese flower images.

Silver and glass at Whitehorne House.

The furniture that filled the 18th century houses also reflects the distinctive style of Newport taste. As Brock Jobe said in his lecture, Newport furniture is a puzzle. In the context of other cities like New York, Portsmouth, Boston, Philadelphia, etc. that copied the English precedent, Newport craftsmen like John Goddard and the Townsends, cut their own path. Newport furniture has a different aesthetic from the rococo of Philadelphia and Charleston, for example. Newport craftsmen created outstanding pieces that are set apart by a restraint and consistency in their design. Key elements in these designs are the famous carved shell of the Townsend and Goddard shops, the undulating Baroque skirt on tables and the block and shell form.

In addition to the well-known houses on Bellevue Avenue, there are other wonderful collections that we were honored to explore with local experts. Elaine Bunnell delivered a dynamic lecture about the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, founded in 1747. The library has continued to be a lending library since Abraham Redwood and 46 founding fathers started the first collection in the neoclassical building, the first such building in the United States. The original collection held 700 titles and 1,000 volumes on religion, philosophy, medicine, law, and architecture. During the Revolutionary War, the building was preserved because the British used it as an officers’ club. However, the collection did not fare so well; after the war 50% of the original collection was gone. Fortunately, thanks to donations and purchases, and despite a fire, a collapsed ceiling, and water damage, over 91% of the original inventory has been replaced. We had the great privilege of visiting the library on Saturday afternoon. Trust members toured the library with Elaine who showed us examples of rare books and other special objects including paintings by Charles Bird King, Townsend silver, and the oldest Windsor chairs in New England, which still have their original paint.

Cabinetmaker Townsend's bed at the Samuel Whitehourne House.

Touring houses was the main event of this symposium. At Whitehorne House, 1811, of Doris Duke’s foundation, our guides opened drawers and encouraged Trust members to crawl under tables for a up-close look at the craftsmanship. The Hunter House was also a wonderful treat for members who could walk through the rooms with Brock Jobe for an exceptional study of Townsend and Goddard Newport furniture. This depth of study shared by our lecturers and guides continues in Newport. The Redwood Library has an ongoing project to recollect the original collection and Kingscote still has many original family treasures that are waiting to be researched. We look forward to hearing more news of these excellent collections!

We must give a special thanks to two stars of the Preservation Society of Newport County—John Tschirch and Paul Miller, for lecturing and welcoming us at The Breakers, The Elms, Chateau-sur-Mer, Marble House and Kingscote.

We are also grateful to the Doris Duke Foundation who welcomed us to Rough Point, Doris Duke’s home, where we had a fabulous tour on Sunday afternoon. Rough Point was such a treat to see and it has a connection with the Trust: Trust member Nancy Barnard of Lincoln, MA, a textile historian and consultant, created the reproduction draperies in the music room and Doris Duke’s bedroom, having the purple fabric woven in Thailand where Doris Duke purchased the original fabric in 1959. Nancy also did the new Roman shades in the great hall.

Samuel McIntyre inspired folly in the Bellevue House gardens.

For those of you who have dreamed of creating a garden filled with historic elements executed at the highest level, you must hear Ronald Lee Fleming lecture about his Bellevue House and garden. Trust members were absolutely wowed by the ideas and details Flemings discussed. He planted 9,000 daffodils last winter (and they were all blooming when we visited, wine glasses in hand!), and these surround historical references such as a pergola in homage to Rosemary Verey, Ogden Codman, Jr.’s lattice work copied from the Mount, Pomona, goddess of the orchard, a teahouse folly copying one by Samuel McIntyre from 1799, a cupola folly of a church built in Salem, Mass., in 1804 and 1805 by McIntyre, inspiration from Studley Royal in England, etc. Fleming ended by showing Trust members the architectural drawings of a Hen Palace based on the Temple of Diana. After that he plans to add a library that you can swim to.

The excellent weekend ended with a cocktail party at the home of Bobbie Carpenter, wife of the late Ralph Carpenter, a true Newport dynamo and advocate for 18th century Newport preservation. Bobbie was so kind to open her home and collection to members. Her hospitality reflects the warm welcome that we received from the Newport organizations and private homeowners who allowed Trust members to experience an exclusive and informative array of lectures and visits.


Pieter Roos, Executive Director of the Restoration Foundation, Dean Failey, Moderator of the symposium, and Paul Miller, Curator, The Preservation Society of Newport County. Pieter and Paul lectured on Friday morning.

Dean Failey makes a toast to our hostess Bobbie Carpenter who is standing with Brock Jobe.

Robert Marks, Trust member from Chicago, chats with another member during drinks at the New York Yacht Club

Sculpture on the lawn at Rough Point suggests the camels Doris Duke kept there as pets.

Cait Emery talking to Trust members about the exterior of Kingscote, 1839.

Marble House as Trust members depart.