NYSD House

Big Old Houses: Something New and Different in Newport

Big Old Houses: Something New and Different in Newport
by John Foreman


Frank Lloyd Wright
startled the architectural world in 1935 with a house outside Pittsburgh called Falling Water; Philip Johnson rattled architectural cages in 1949 with his Glass House in New Canaan; and Frank Gehry left me, at least, stunned in 2010 with the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. (Google it; you'll be stunned too). McKim Mead and White did the same thing, albeit to a more innocent audience, with their 1882 summer cottage for a Newport socialite named Isaac Bell Jr. (1846-1889).
A lot of people look at this house, nod sagely, and think, "Ah yes, the Shingle Style" — which is a simplification, and wide of the point. The Bell house is the apotheosis of what critics of the day called the Modernized Colonial. Architectural historian Paul Miller explained it as "a new vernacular style ... created from the purification and reinterpretation of New England colonial forms." OK, there's a comment that requires a bit of digestion. The Modernized Colonials of the 1880s reflected a distillation of research and experimentation undertaken by young architects striving to create a new, indeed an indigenous, American style of architecture. The pioneering houses they built were often covered with shingles, but that speaks less to art than it does to construction costs.
Isaac Bell Jr. was a Rhode Island cotton broker who married Jeannette Bennett (1853-1936), sister of James Gordon Bennett Jr. (1841-1918), the scapegrace socialite publisher of the "New York Herald." Jeannette Bell not only opened social doors for her husband, she put him in line for fat investment deals, courtesy of her wheeler-dealer brother. Notable among these was the Commercial Cable Company, which in 1884 broke Jay Gould's stranglehold on the transatlantic cable business. Isaac and Jeannette Bell were the sort of young, rich, attractive and slightly fast people who changed the character of Newport in the 1880s, to the dismay of many older residents.

Isaac Bell Jr.
Why post a boring photo of James Gordon Bennett Jr. — called just Gordon — when I've got Julius LeBlanc Stewart's evocative painting of his yacht, titled "On the Yacht Namounia." Like Bennett himself, Namounia is ripping along at breakneck speed, her passengers holding on for dear life. Bennett's guests are people used to luxury, confident of their privileged world, aware but not very interested in the uniformed guardian who stands discreetly at the bow. I suspect they were all amusing, their host being a man who spent a lot of time pursuing amusement.

On New Year's Day, 1877, towards the end of what was essentially an upper class pub crawl through upper class drawing rooms (New Year's Open Houses were then a New York tradition), a drunken 36-year-old Bennett whipped it out and took a long and horridly loud piss in Dr. William May's drawing room fireplace. Miss Caroline May was scandalized; her brother challenged Bennett to a duel. This actually took place, complete with surgeon and seconds, in secluded woods on the Delaware-Maryland border.

Both men prudently fired in the air and, while both claimed satisfaction, an embarrassed Bennett promptly yachted off to Paris, where he lay low, relatively speaking, for a year. He was back in 1878, however, introducing Newport to the sport of polo by importing the entire British Polo team, complete with horses. Inevitably, a certain Colonel Candy, on a bet from Bennett, rode his pony into the exclusive Newport Reading Room, evoking much hilarity on the part of the polo team, but succeeding in getting Bennett bounced out of the club. Furious, he decided to build his own club, one with a sportier attitude, and hired the brand new firm of McKim, Mead and White to design the Newport Casino. Completed in 1880, it came out so well he told his sister Jeannette that she and her husband should hire the same firm. Which they did.
Much of the impetus for that search for "American" architecture came from the famous Centennial Exhibition, a sort of cultural breast-beating held in Philadelphia in 1876. An unexpected star of the fair was the Japanese Pavilion, whose garden and bazaar were filled with objects of clean design and quiet elegance that precipitated a national "Japan-o-mania." Our cutting edge architects were quick to toss a bit of Japan into their new "American" architecture, efforts usually invisible to modern day visitors. At the Bell house, among other things, are dragons on the porch eaves and porch pillars meant to suggest bamboo.
Japonism, as it was called, represents only a pinch of oriental seasoning in what is essentially a compote of colonial American elements — gables, multi-paned windows, shutters, Dutch doors, covered porch, and yes shingles — all reinterpreted in what at the time were startlingly original forms.
A library addition was done so skillfully you'd think it was there from the start.
Who was Edna, and why is her name chiseled into one of the driveway standards? Answer: she was the daughter of New York Central lawyer Samuel F. Barger (1832-1914), who bought the Bell house in 1891. By some lights, it might more properly be called the Barger house, since the Barger family owned it for 61 years and the Bells were only here for 8. Indeed, Isaac Bell was only alive for 6 of those 8 years, dying of typhoid fever in 1889 at the age of 43. Barger met Commodore Vanderbilt in 1867, and counselled him and 2 succeeding generations of Vanderbilts during the New York Central's transformation from a regional Hudson Valley service to a vast complex of interlocking lines that conneccted the Northeast to the Midwest. The Commodore's son, Cornelius Vanderbilt II of the Breakers, was the man who introduced Barger to Newport.
A lot is going on in this first floor plan. For one thing, the traditional colonial stair hall has mushroomed into a "living hall," the architectural homage to English manorial halls that was all the rage in the 1880s. The fireplace inglenook on the western wall conjures images of colonial hearth-sides, while sliding doors to the drawing room on the other side of the room recall shoji screens of exotic Japan. The wall paneling, in both simplicity and proportions, suggests a sort of acquired Japanese aesthetic, quite a contrast to the usual low dado, heavy cornice and involved ceilings of the typical upper class house.
The inglenook, in lieu of the kitchen sink, incorporates salvaged bits of 19th century Breton folk furniture with, at least to my eye, mixed results.
This Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) photo of the hall, taken during the Barger period, shows the shoji sliders mostly closed. Note the exposed track mechanism; note also the wonderfully softening effect of furniture and rugs, an effect, I would argue, that significantly enhances the architects' intentions, namely, that this is a welcoming space for living breathing people. I recently wrote about a house called Planting Fields out on Long Island, a house that illustrates vividly the dramatic change intelligent refurnishing can make to formerly cold and empty interiors.
The usual reception and drawing rooms face east across a lawn to Bellevue Avenue. Not everything is new and revolutionary here. The fireplaces, for example, could be in pretty much any old house from 1880 to 1900. If you raise the lower sashes on the drawing room windows all the way into the wall pockets above, you can walk right out onto the porch.
The door to the left of the drawing room fireplace connects with the dining room where, in addition to the usual mahogany paneling, the walls and ceiling are decorated with highly unusual Japanesey looking rattan panels.
After the Bargers left in 1952, and the DeSantis family in 1956, the Bell house became a nursing home for 15 years, then an apartment house for 23 more. By the time the Preservation Society of Newport County came along in 1994, a great deal of original fabric — particularly old mechanicals of the sort I love — was long gone. Ergo, the condition of the serving pantry today, which only suggests how it once was used. The kitchen has survived better, but still looks stripped.
Today's staff uses the servants' hall for a break room. A vaguely period-looking bathroom has been installed under the main stair.
Let's return to the main hall, glance quickly north into the dining room, then proceed south to the library. Judging from the look of the library fireplace, I'd guess this room was added in the early 1890s, probably very soon after Mr. Barger bought the property from Bell's widow.
The second floor, notwithstanding certain decorating flourishes, is a conventional exercise in the so-called Queen Anne Victorian style.
A spectacular amount of money and effort has been devoted to the careful restoration of this building. The consensus at present, however, is that it will better illustrate the art of McKim Mead and White without the distraction of furniture. I think this is a mistake. Despite, or perhaps because of, its eerie perfection, the Bell house comes across as a little dry, indeed almost unlivable, an impression its designers most certainly did not intend. This is a pity, since there's considerable charm in the bowed walls of the owners' bedroom, the boudoir window seat and basket weave wall treatment, and the 20-over-1 window sashes. These features were meant to harmonize with furniture, not to stand alone without it.
For me, it's especially hard to imagine living here without the bathrooms. I stress in every column I write that bathrooms and kitchens and pantries and servants' quarters are crucial parts of every historic house, just as important as the fancy libraries, reception rooms and even ballrooms and boudoirs. The former bathrooms in the Bell house are now empty featureless little rooms. I doubt anyone has seriously considered reconstructing them.
What was presumably servants' rooms on the 3rd floor are occupied by research fellows, chosen annually by the PSNC to pursue 6-month to 1-year study sabbaticals on subjects related to history, culture, design and the arts. Wonderful as this is, it prevented me from seeing the third floor. Ah well ... let's return to the drawing room for a few last words on James Gordon Bennett Jr.
Would that Gordon Bennett had more to do with this place than he did, since he is one of New York Society's juiciest figures. Bennett's New York Tribune pioneered the concept of news as entertainment — a phenomenon we labor under to this day — and literally paid people to make it. Among the projects his Tribune undertook was the outfitting of African explorer Henry Morton Stanley's (1841-1904) famous 1871 quest for a missing Scottish missionary named David Livingstone. As described by the Tribune, at the head of Stanley's party "marched a tall Sudanese with the flag of the New York Yacht Club. Then Stanley on a henna-stained mule, with silver-plated trappings that glittered in the sun ... (followed by) a compact force of three whites, thirty-one armed freeman of Zanzibar as escort, 150 porters and 27 pack animals."

Discovering his (probably astonished) quarry at last, Stanley stepped from his mule, extended his hand, and said, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" Stanley also discovered the headwaters of the Nile, claimed the Congo for the King of Belgium, and is remembered by fellow explorer, diplomat and Egyptologist Sir Richard Francis Burton, as "shooting negroes as if they were monkeys."

The Isaac Bell House is one of the famous Newport mansions owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County. It's open to the public on a seasonal basis; the link is www.newportmansions.org.
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