These days of lingering summer traffic throughout the coastal resorts of the Northeast, one might find relief to learn that within a short drive inland from the cheek by jowl cluster of Newport Rhode Island’s Gilded Age cottages slumber multiple genteelly worn Victorian country estates.
Built in the second half of the 19th century, and early years of the 20th, these landmark homes, along the shoreline of Narragansett Bay, served as summer retreats for Rhode Island industrialists. And when locals think of New England’s Victorian industrialists, they imagine the owners of the imposing textile mills which dominated the landscape, from Connecticut to Maine, until the 1920s.
The mill technology began with Samuel Slater (1768-1835) and his younger brother John (1776-1843). Samuel emigrated first, in 1789, from the textile town of Belper in Derbyshire, England.
Having had the foresight to memorize the then state of the art Arkwright cotton spinning technology and the English mill’s industrial organization, Samuel arrived in the United States and offered his services to Moses Brown of Providence. Brown, seeking to reinvest a family fortune made in the Triangle Trade, opened a textile mill in adjacent Pawtucket, RI.
The experienced Slater was made a partner and there perfected the first water-powered roller textile mill in America, becoming, in the process, the “Father of the American Industrial Revolution”.
Investing in his own mills, Samuel sent for his brother John, and, in partnership, they expanded their textile interests in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut.
John Slater subsequently founded Slatersville, RI, the nation’s first model mill village in 1803.
John’s sons, John Fox Slater (1815-1884) and William Smith Slater (1817-1882) eventually divided the mills, with John Fox retaining those in Connecticut and William Smith those in Rhode Island.
John Fox, based in Norwich, CT, endowed the Norwich Free Academy, the Slater Library and, in 1882, established the Slater Fund, an endowment of one million dollars devoted to the education of emancipated slaves in the South; funds which benefited the growth of Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes.
Younger brother, William Smith, lived between Slatersville (Thomas A. Tefft, architect) and his wife Harriet Morris Whipple’s family home at 54 College St. (renovations by Alpheus C. Morse, architect) in Providence.
By 1872, William Smith Slater also began construction on a transitional Gothic Revival-Italianate granite summer home in the Cowesett section of Warwick, RI as a wedding present for his eldest daughter Elizabeth Ives Slater (1849-1917) on her marriage to Alfred Augustus Reed, Jr. (1845- 1895) of Boston and Warwick.
The site selected was a hilltop bluff overlooking Narragansett Bay, just north of the port of East Greenwich. The house was dubbed Clouds Hill.
Nearby were country retreats for the Browns, Goddards, Greenes, Ives, Lisles, Russells, Spragues, Washburns and Watermans. The by then widowed William intended the place as a retreat for himself and the newlywed Reeds. As construction was underway, he conveyed the property title to Elizabeth; this tradition, once established, led to the estate subsequently being inherited not by the senior male but by the senior female in the family over four succeeding generations.
The groom Alfred’s father, Alfred Augustus Reed, Sr. (1817-1878) had previously built an estate immediately to the north of what became the Slater-Reeds on his arrival in Rhode Island. Reed Sr. had invested heavily in the State’s textile mills and printworks on the advice of a Boston friend, Edward Darley Boit, Sr., father of the artist of the same name.
Reed’s investment was the fruit of a successful trading career in Batavia, Netherlands East Indies from 1845-1857 as representative for Paine, Stricker & Company of Amsterdam.
While in Batavia, Alfred Reed married Caroline Suzette van Son (1825-1861), granddaughter of Jacob A. van Braam, Chairman of the Council of the Indies. Retiring to West Roxbury, MA, where his wife died in 1861, Reed moved next to Boston, building a townhouse at 232 Beacon Street and the country retreat, known as Edgehill, in Warwick where he died in 1878.
With William Smith Slater footing the bills, Elizabeth Ives Slater Reed’s new 15,000 square foot summer home was designed by Providence architect William R. Walker with interiors by William McPherson & Co. assisted by furniture makers Doe & Hunnewell, both of Boston, and carpet merchant W. & J. Sloane and lighting supplier Mitchell, Vance, both of New York. Today their efforts survive almost entirely intact down to and including copies of original bills and correspondence.
Decorator McPherson’s painted interiors are reminiscent of his contemporary work at the Connecticut State Capital in Hartford, with architect Richard Upjohn, and the Wetmore residence, Chateau-sur-Mer, in Newport, with architect Richard Morris Hunt. The influence of English Aesthetic Movement designers such as John Moyr Smith, who supplied Minton hearth tiles to the house, is felt throughout. Original Renaissance Revival and Eastlake style furnishings are joined by Italian ebony and ivory inlaid cabinets, family portraits, Rhode Island 18th-century vernacular furniture, Chinese Export and Continental ceramics and stone sculpture from Southeast Asia.
The most curious reception room is an Egyptian Revival Music Room with strikingly original high relief carved deities and painted decoration that seems more Cecil B. DeMille than Victorian.
Elizabeth’s brother, John Whipple Slater (1852-1924), meanwhile, was charged with the family’s business interests following studies at Brown University. He began, however, to show a progressively declining interest in textile mills. Having, in 1880, married a distant cousin Elizabeth Hope Gammell (1854-1944), heiress to Rhode Island’s Brown & Ives manufacturing interests, John Whipple divided his time between Providence, Slatersville, Newport, Washington, D.C. and Florida. His wife, “Hope” Gammell Reed, labeled amongst the country’s richest heiresses, soon noticed her husband’s frequent absences and extravagant tastes.
By 1882, Newport was abuzz over rumors of a pending divorce on grounds of abandonment. The suspense abated however with the death that year of William Smith Slater and the perhaps to be anticipated reconciliation of the refloated J.W. Slater and the Ives-Gammells.
Thereafter leading amicably independent lives, J.W. Slater built the 187’ steam yacht Sagamore in 1888 aboard which he cruised the world.
The yacht cost $150,000 to build at Bath, Maine and took between $50,000 and $60,000 per year to run. “Hope” Gammell Reed, expressed herself in architectural pursuits, erecting first, on her family’s cliffside land in Newport, a brick Georgian style summer cottage (completed 1902) with Peabody & Stearns, architects. Known as Hopedene, the house’s interiors were decorated in French neo-classical taste by Ogden Codman between 1901 and 1906 and further renovated by him in 1913.
Hope Slater also commissioned a Beaux Arts townhouse (1902) at 1319 18th St., N.W. in Washington, DC from architect Horace Trumbauer, for the winter season.
In 1920 Hope Slater rounded out this portfolio with Costa Bella, on Dunbar Road in Palm Beach, an early Mediterranean Revival villa by Addison Mizner.
Hopedene’s Codman interiors borrow from French historical styles ranging from a Renaissance library inspired by Catherine de Medici’s “Chamber of Secrets” at Blois, to a Louis XVI ballroom based on the salon of the Hotel de Bourbon-Conde in Paris.
Following Hope Slater’s death in 1944, the Newport estate was sold to Count Kurt von Haugwitz-Reventlow and his second wife (after Barbara Hutton), the former Peggy Astor Drayton; following their divorce, it was next the home of Charles C. and Amy Plant Paterson for many decades before being acquired by Britty Cudlip, followed by Craig and Michele Millard.
Now the property of Nicholas and Shelley Schorsch, the estate remains private and has undergone a major restoration. As for John Whipple Slater, he ended his days in Kissimmee, FL, where he invested in the timber industry and preferred shooting from his naphtha-powered launch on the Kissimmee River.
Memories of these chapters abound in the collections at Clouds Hill, together with those of the subsequent generations. Elizabeth Slater Reed’s daughter Helen married Philip Allen, from one of the State’s founding families, long distinguished in New England business and politics.
Their daughter, Anne Crawford Allen, named for her godmother Anne Crawford Allen Brown (Mrs. John Carter Brown, II), was a groundbreaking pilot, historian and first female fire chief in the world; her marriage to Monterey Holst produced the present Anne Holst who, in turn, served as the first female game warden in Rhode Island.
Trail blazing in industry, philanthropy, women’s rights and architecture, those Slaters deserve a second look as Clouds Hill celebrates the 150th anniversary of the 1872 commencement of its construction.
Standing in, fittingly, for the “Old Guard” Morris family city residence in Julian Fellowes’ HBO series The Gilded Age and featured in a Rhode Island PBS documentary film Slatersville, America’s First Mill Village, by filmmaker Christian de Rezendes, which debuted on September 16th, Clouds Hill and the Slaters provide a revealing footnote to the family directory of the American Gilded Age.
Clouds Hill is open by appointment year-round at 401-884-9490; www.cloudshill.org