Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Big Old Houses: Preservation Triage in Providence

Big Old Houses: Preservation Triage in Providence
by John Foreman


My glamorous father — foreign correspondent, explorer of Tibet — was the son of a penniless immigrant. My Delphic mother belonged to a (no other way to put it) degenerate branch of an old Southern family, distinguished in another era for political and financial contributions to the Confederacy. Because or perhaps in spite of this, I was, while growing up, imbued with a sharp sense of the word "background." My own is a sort of cocktail — 3 parts romance, l part adventure, 2 parts amazing luck and a whiff of sketchiness. I'm comfortable with it, but understand that it's distinct from the generations of accrued culture, personal initiative and distinguished public service that defined "background" in my mother's mind. For 114 years the descendants of Rhode Island Governor Henry Lippitt (1818-1891) lived in this grand Renaissance Revival manse, located at 199 Hope Street in Providence, R.I. These were people with background.

From 1875 to 1877, Henry Lippitt was the governor of Rhode Island. From 1895 to 1897 his son Charles was the governor of Rhode Island. Great-grandson John Chafee was the governor from 1962 to 1969 and great-great-grandson Lincoln Chafee is governor now, that is until Gina Raimondo takes office in 2015. Both Chafees, incidentally, were also U.S. senators, as was grandfather Lippitt's son Henry Jr. Other family members were mayors, state senators, Rhode Island general assembly members, operators of family textile mills, directors of banks, railroads, insurance companies and investors in Western mines. It was — indeed it still is — a big, distinguished, and influential family.
Before the Civil War, Henry Lippitt and his family shared a double house at 198 Hope Street, still extant and visible at left in the image below, with cousin James Coggeshall. I imagine the family had a lot of fun watching progress — stretched over 9 leisurely Victorian years — on the new house across the street. Planning and site preparation took 7 years; construction of the building took 2. Lippitt designed and contracted the place himself — creditably I'd say — and by 1865 the family was in.
A century later, on Christmas Day, 1962, the Lippitts of Hope St., their number now augmented by Hunters, Chafees, Doolittles, Steedmans, etc., gathered together outside that pair of hooded french doors visible on the right side of the image above. Mary is Mary Doolittle, one of Henry Lippitt's granddaughters; the man on her right is Rhode Island's newly elected governor, John Chafee.
The carriage entrance on Angell Street is not the front door.
Preserve Rhode Island, owner of the Lippitt House today, unfortunately has no idea who labeled the photos in this old album. Jeanie was Gov. Lippitt's eldest child, struck deaf and dumb by scarlet fever at the age of 4. Her mother turned this catastrophe into a mission to improve the lives of the deaf. She helped her daughter become the first deaf person in America to become fluent in lipreading. Jeanie is reputed to have spoken English and French with nearly unnoticeable distortion, an amazing accomplishment, distortion or no distortion. Together she and her mother lobbied the Massachusetts and Rhode Island legislatures to establish schools for the deaf.
Here is the great man himself, Henry Lippitt, apotheosis of the Victorian paterfamilias, painted in 1887 by Charles W. Stetson and hanging ever since in the main hall at 199 Hope Street. Looks capable, doesn't he? What's in Lippitt's right hand? Answer: a drawing of the Rhode Island Building at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
Shortly after his one term as governor, Mr Lippitt, I'm not sure why, deeded 199 Hope Street to his equally capable looking wife, the former Mary Ann Balch (1823-1889). Mrs. Lippitt bore him 11 children of whom 6 survived, among them the aforementioned Jeanie. Mary Lippitt also began the unusual custom of passing 199 Hope down the family's female line.
Henry Lippitt stayed at 199 Hope after his wife's death, even though ownership had by then passed to his eldest daughter, Jeanie. During two busy years following his own death in 1891, his daughters Jeanie, Mary and their youngest sister Abby (seen below, 1861-1946) married and moved out, after which the house was closed for 18 years.
In 1902 Abby's husband Duncan Hunter suddenly died, after 9 years of marriage and the birth of 4 little girls. I'm not sure what the Lippitt sisters did for the next 9 years, but in 1911 Jeanie deeded 199 Hope to Abby and Mary. Then Mary deeded it to Abby, and Abby, by then 48 years old, threw open the shutters, pulled off the sheets, collected her 4 daughters, and moved back in.
Here's Abby Lippitt Hunter surrounded by grandchildren at 199 Hope, in a photo, judging from her shoes and stockings, taken sometime in the 1920s.
Here's Abby Hunter's eldest daughter Mary Lippitt Hunter (1893-1989), who debuted at 199 Hope in 1911, married Lytton Doolitle here in 1917, and ... raised 5 children in the old house (I know, one is missing in the photo) ...
... before she and her husband retreated together to an old folks' home in 1970. (Had it been me, I'd have managed those stairs if I had to drag myself up on my belly).
Back in 1865, Mary Lippitt got a nice note from a Providence neighbor named Anne Woods. "I have never seen any mansion to compare to yours," gushed Mrs. Woods, in the wake of a house tour. "(R)eally it is a source of pride that we have a house so refined and elaborate in our midst." At first blush, you might think nothing has changed. As noted above, even Gov. Lippitt is still on the wall. When the Doolittles moved out, however, the family was at a loss over what to do with the old place. The 1970s were a dangerous time for big old houses — indeed, they were perfectly wretched years for American architecture in general. But, I digress.
After standing vacant for another 11 years, prospects for a old barn like 199 Hope weren't much improved. Determined to preserve it, however, the family donated the house in 1981 to the Heritage Foundation of Rhode Island, forerunner of today's Preserve Rhode Island.

Faced with financial imperatives attendant on mechanical upgrades and museum conversion, the Foundation in 1986 made a kind of architectural "Sophie's Choice," an act of preservation triage, if you will.

The building was divided into 4 separately owned condominiums. The museum would occupy and restore the first and second floors of the main block, while the 3rd floor above that and each floor in the 2-story service wing would become separately owned residential units.

The kitchen suite and the bathrooms, not surprisingly for the 1980s, were considered to be utterly without importance and summarily demolished. Regular readers can imagine my feelings on that. Preserve Rhode Island eventually bought back the service wing apartments and rents them out today for income. The top floor still belongs to someone else.

Immediately to the left of the front door is the drawing room.
If you're reading the old labels you may wonder what "Susanna's Boudoir" is all about. It refers to the marble statue in front of the mirror on the right, booty from a European tour in the 1870s. According to the Bible, the virtuous Susanna, while bathing in the buff, was spotted by a couple of Talibani who told her either to put out or be slandered as a slut which, in so many religious traditions, is a death sentence. Somehow or other, Susanna bucked the normal anti-woman outcome, and the Talibani were executed instead. An ennobling tale.
The vintage view of the hall below, among other things, shows what was, but is no longer. The door in the distance on the left still leads to the billiard room. Behind the door on the right, however, the corridor that once led to the kitchen suite has been truncated, its near end converted to a restroom.
Here's the reception room, located on the opposite side of the front door, seen before and after. Victorian clutter was much maligned during the last century, but it is not without a certain charm.
Every gentleman's house had a library. In this case it's located in the middle of a south facing enfilade between the reception and dining rooms. A great deal of care went into the design and decoration of this room, and probably an equal amount into its restoration, although judging from the vintage image below it's no more invitingly furnished today than it was in the 1860s. Gov. Lippitt, it would also seem, was not much of a reader.
The dining room is at the eastern end of the enfilade.
Beyond the partly screened door on the left of the fireplace is the sole surviving element of the kitchen suite, the serving pantry. Volume 17, No. 4, of the Winter 1982 "Winterthur Portfolio" contains an extremely detailed (to say the least) article by Elizabeth A. Cogswell titled "The Henry Lippitt House of Providence, Rhode Island." Every table, chair, bowl, lamp, knick knack, portrait, sofa, loveseat, etc., etc. is carefully described and annotated. Numerous illustrations show the house in what was still its original condition. Alas, not one of these records the condition of the kitchen, servant hall, maids' rooms or any of the baths.
I walked in here thinking, "Wow, I can't wait to see the kitchen." But of course, there is no kitchen to see. The sink in the image below was inserted into a door connecting the pantry to the service corridor (see plan above). Although this door (annoyingly) doesn't appear on the plan, you can easily figure out where it was.
Let's retrace our steps across the dining room (stepping in and out of the past), rejoin the main hall at its eastern end, and have a peek at the restroom that now inhabits the end of the service corridor.
At some point the billiard table was exiled from the billiard room, which then became a music room, although I don't think they ever called it that. Like the rest of the first floor, it has undergone a quite gorgeous restoration. The small powder room located in a closet under the main stair isn't new, but I doubt it was part of the original plan.
The billiard room is the last of what we can see on the first floor, so let's go upstairs.
The museum occupies about 2/3 of the second floor. The nursery rooms and the owners' suite (labeled Lippitts' bedchamber) comprise one of the two museum-owned condominium units that have been reconfigured (I have no idea to what extent) and rented out for income.
The first door at the top of the stair leads to the billiard room chamber, so called because it's located directly over the billiard room. It was variously used as a guest and family bedroom.
What is this unusual lever? Answer: a very different looking call mechanism for servants.
The vintage view below shows the hall before the nursery rooms over the kitchen were blocked off.
Here's the upstairs sitting room (labeled sewing room on the plan) seen "before and after." It's now an office and not open to the public.
It's easy to take the impressive restoration work in this house for granted, until you see how things were.
The principal guest room (drawing room chamber on the plan) is also off the tour. How interesting to see what's under the blue paint. There was, as a matter of fact, an awful lot of blue paint up here in 1981.
The Lippitts' bedroom, seen in the vintage image below, is a part of the second floor rental apartment, so heaven only knows what it looks like now.
Jeanie's old bedroom is on top of the library, a part of the museum, but full of storage. Shyness occasionally overtakes my hosts on these tours. It was all I could do to get into the sewing and main guest rooms, but Jeanie's was a no fly zone that simply defeated me.
The only way you'll get up to 3 is if you know them, whoever they are. The top floor was originally shared by servants and male children. A room belonging to one of the latter is illustrated in the vintage view below.
I wish I could have seen more of the Henry Lippitt house, but I was 33 years too late. What I did see was pretty great, however, as is the entire Hope-Power-Cook Historic District, located adjacent to Brown University and filled with grand old houses and attractive young people. The Gov. Henry Lippitt House, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976, has been open to the pubic since 1993. The link is www.preserveri.org.
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