Victorians in Newport

I recently returned from the Victorian Society of America’s Summer Program in Newport, Rhode Island. It was pretty amazing—and exhausting! For nine days, Richard Guy Wilson, architecture historian extraordinaire, led us on tours of Newport and surrounding areas’ mansions, mills, private houses, libraries, houses-cum-B&Bs, and more. We were so fortunate to see inside the homes of private owners, some of whom have restored (or attempted to restore) residences to their nineteenth-century splendor, and others who have proven you can successfully live a modern life in a Victorian dwelling.

Yes, this is the original—no iPhone effects or Photoshop adjustments made!
View from the Cliff Walk on my last day in Newport, June 9. Yes, this is the original—no iPhone effects used or Photoshop adjustments made!

We stayed on Salve Regina’s campus, a few short steps from the Breakers—the Preservation Society of Newport County‘s most-visited mansion museum—and other beautiful buildings. The campus sits near the Cliff Walk, the breathtaking path along Newport’s eastern shore where it’s nearly impossible to take a bad picture. And most of our lectures took place in the Peabody and Stearns–designed Vinland (1882–83). There’s nothing like watching a PowerPoint in a room with gilded details. Victorian conspicuous consumption was an ongoing theme, even when we visited mills and saw servant spaces.

Wilson’s house tours have been called “Wilson’s death marches,” a somewhat accurate description of our first two days chasing our beloved leader through Newport; we explored at least fifteen buildings before day three. (That was when my camera battery finally gave out and I had to resort to subpar iPhone photography.) It’s hard to say if I had a “favorite” house or not. Some were extraordinary for their opulence of decor, the Breakers, Chateau Sur Mer; others for their opulence of materials (and decor), Alva Vanderbilt’s aptly named Marble House; others for their intricate wood carving or detail work, often the ones who today have private owners.

Dining room at Marble House, built for Alva Vanderbilt, 1888–92, designed by Richard Morris Hunt.
Dining room at Marble House, built for Alva Vanderbilt, 1888–92, designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

Wilson and guest lecturers, including Pauline Metcalf, John Tchirsch, Paul Miller, and James Yarnell, spoke on a variety of topics related to Victorian architecture and culture. After Jennifer Carlquist’s lecture on regional differences in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century furniture, I will never look at claw-and-ball feet the same way again. Ronald Onorato spoke on vernacular architecture—a fresh breath from the opulence. One in every six to eight buildings in Newport was by John Dixon Johnston, Dudley Newton, George Champlin Mason Sr., or George Champlin Mason Jr., he explained. Many thought these buildings were “bad” or ugly; if they were built in the 1980s, they’d have been called pastiche. I liked them, if only because they gave a taste of what “regular” people in Newport wanted for their homes in the nineteenth century. The architectural details may have been inelegant at times, but they are what compose, rather than stamp, Newport streetscapes. Tschirch’s lecture on servant spaces in Gilded Age Newport gave a behind-the-gilding look at the 2,225 servants living in Newport in 1895—and the restrictions of the rich. Alva Vanderbilt could not, after all, pop down to the kitchen for a midnight snack if she wished. She, like her servants, followed codes of behavior deemed appropriate to her station in life.

Yarnell and Wilson also introduced us to artist/designer John La Farge, who created decorative windows with opalescent glass, previously a utilitarian material, to amazing effects. Unfortunately cloudy skies and rain prevented us from seeing some of his best work, at Unity Church in North Easton, MA, to its full performance with light. But even so, the difference between the sometimes minute pieces of glass, layering of glass, and deeply embedded colors are strikingly different from any other stained- or painted-glass windows.  (Louis Comfort Tiffany thought so, too, and became famous for his use of opalescent glass; La Farge believed Tiffany ripped off his idea, leading the two to bitter competition.)

View of painted walls and painted ceiling in Lippitt House, Providence, RI.
View of painted walls and painted ceiling in Lippitt House, Providence, RI.

There is absolutely nothing as informative and insightful as seeing buildings first hand, especially a string of them that represent contemporary fashions. I saw more Dutch tiles than I could have I imagined, including the unique aubergine-color delftware at Hunter House. I took enough photographs of mantelpieces, from the ornate and detailed to the simple and basic, to fill a book. Specific buildings also held particular charm or mystery that simply could not be appreciated in a book or online in the same way. At the 1865 Governor Henry Lippitt House, it seemed nearly every surface was painted; the walls were faux-wallpaper, the ceilings faux-wood, the walls faux-marble.

We also attended receptions held by generous hosts who allowed us to explore their homes, and met amazing Newporters, scholars, and fellow students. An unforgettable nine days!

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