Rosecliff, Newport, Rhode Island

The Rosecliff mansion on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1910-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

The scene in 2018:

Rosecliff was one of the many Gilded Age summer homes that were built in Newport during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was completed in 1902, and was originally the home of businessman Hermann Oelrichs (1850-1906) and his wife, the silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs (1871-1926). The property had previously been owned by George Bancroft (1800-1891), a prominent historian, politician, and diplomat who had served as U. S. Secretary of the Navy from 1845 to 1846, Minister to the United Kingdom from 1846 to 1849, and Minister to Germany from 1867 to 1874. During this time, he maintained a modest summer home here in Newport, which was named Rosecliff for his extensive rose garden.

Following Bancroft’s death in 1891, the Oelrichs purchased the Rosecliff property. The old house was demolished, and they hired the prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to design a new, larger, and far more elegant replacement. Most of the design work was done by Stanford White, whose earlier Newport commissions included the Isaac Bell House. Although built less than 20 years after the Isaac Bell House, Rosecliff represented a significant shift in White’s designs, from the Shingle style of the 1880s to the Beaux-Arts style of the turn of the century. It also reflected the changes in tastes among the Newport elite, who increasingly demanded summer “cottages” that were modeled after European palaces. In this case, Rosecliff was based on the design of the Grand Trianon at Versailles, which had been built during the reign of Louis XIV.

Hermann and Theresa Oelrichs lived in New York, but spent summers here at Rosecliff, where Theresa was one of the leaders of Newport society. As such, her house was designed for entertaining. Its ballroom, which measures 40 by 80 feet, is the largest in Newport, and it occupies the entire central section of the first floor, between the two projecting wings. The entire house has a total of 30 rooms, is 28,800 square feet in size, and was built at a cost of $2.5 million, or over $73 million today.

The house was built using the wealth that Theresa had inherited from her father, James Graham Fair (1831-1894). Fair had come to the United States in 1843 as a poor young Irish immigrant, but he went on to make his fortune in silver mining following the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada. He also served one term as a U. S. Senator from Nevada, from 1881 to 1887, but was defeated for re-election in 1886. Despite – or perhaps because of – this vast wealth, Fair had a strained relationship with his wife and children, thanks in no small part to his serial adultery. His wife, also named Theresa, divorced him in 1883, and his daughter Theresa did not even invite him to her wedding in 1890. However, this did not stop the younger Theresa from accepting his $1 million wedding gift, nor the $40 million inheritance that she and her sister split after his death in 1894. She would eventually honor his legacy by building the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and naming it for him.

Hermann Oelrichs died in 1906, but Theresa continued to spend summers here at Rosecliff until her death in 1926 at the age of 55. Her only child, Hermann Oelrichs, Jr. (1891-1948) inherited the property, but by this point Newport’s massive Gilded Age mansions were falling out of fashion. This would only get worse in the wake of the Great Depression, and Oelrichs ultimately sold the house in 1941 for just $21,000. Adjusted for inflation, this was less than a half of a percent of what his parents had spent to build Rosecliff only 40 years earlier.

The new owner of Rosecliff was Gertrude Niesen (1911-1975), a singer, actress, and Vaudeville performer who was active during the 1930s and 1940s. She owned it for several years, but during this time the house sustained serious damage from a frozen water pipe. She subsequently sold it to Ray Alan Van Clief, who restored the interior, but he was killed in a car accident while on his way to visit the house for the first time after the completion of the renovations.

The next owner of the house was J. Edgar Monroe (1897-1992), a wealthy New Orleans businessman who purchased the property in 1947. He and his wife Louise spent summers here until 1971, when they donated Rosecliff to the Preservation Society of Newport County, a nonprofit organization that owns many of the historic mansions in Newport, including The Breakers and Marble House. The house was opened to the public, and over the years it has also been used as a filming location for a variety of movies, including The Great Gatsby (1974), True Lies (1994), Amistad (1997), and 27 Dresses (2008). Today, the exterior of the house has not significantly changed since the first photo was taken over a century ago, and it is now a contributing property in the Bellevue Avenue Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark district in 1973.

Lost New England Goes West: Palace Hotel, San Francisco (3)

The Palace Hotel in San Francisco, seen from the corner of Market, Kearny, and Geary Streets in San Francisco, probably on April 15, 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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The new Palace Hotel, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Bain Collection.

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The hotel in 2015:

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The first photo here shows the original Palace Hotel as it appeared shortly before it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The caption reads “The Palace April 15. Copyright 1906 Pillsbury Picture Co.”, so it appears to have been taken on April 15, 1906, just three days before the disaster. The hotel had been a San Francisco landmark since its completion in 1875, and as explained in an earlier post it had been specifically designed to withstand both earthquakes and fire. However, while its thick walls survived the earthquake itself, the building was gutted by the subsequent fires, as seen in the first photo of this earlier post, which was taken as the building burned. Yet another previous post, taken from almost the same spot as this April 15 scene, shows the burned-out remains of the hotel and other buildings along Market Street.

Three years later, the hotel was rebuilt on the same site, as seen in the second photo, and it retained its status as one of the city’s premier hotels. Several years after the second photo was taken, President Warren G. Harding died in an eighth-floor suite on this side of the building. He was visiting the city during a tour of the west coast, arriving on July 29, 1923. His health had been rapidly deteriorating amid a busy schedule, and he spent several days in the hotel before his sudden death from an apparent heart attack on August 2.

Today, not much has changed in the “new” Palace Hotel’s exterior appearance. It remains a prominent San Francisco hotel, and the buildings on either side of it are also still standing from the second photo. Market Street is as busy as it was in the early 1900s, and trolleys still run down the middle of the street as they did a century ago. Part of the “F” line of the Muni system, it runs historic streetcars, a few of which date back to the era the second photo was taken. The one in this particular 2015 scene is a PCC streetcar that was built in 1948, making it still far closer in age to the first two photos than to the present-day.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

President Taft in Springfield, Mass

President William Howard Taft speaking behind Old First Church on April 25, 1912. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Bain Collection.

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The scene in 2014:

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The 1912 presidential election was an unusual one, brought on by a rift in the Republican party between President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt.  Both sought the Republican nomination, and on April 25, Taft was making his way through Massachusetts before the primary five days later.  April 1912 was an eventful time – when the photo of Taft was taken, Fenway Park had just opened five days earlier, and five days before that, the Titanic sank. However, at the time, the most pressing political issue in the country was the apparent fracturing of the Republican Party.

The Massachusetts voters ended up choosing Roosevelt for the Republican nomination, but at the national convention a few months later, the party bosses chose Taft. It would end up being a Pyrrhic victory for them, though, because Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate, which split the Republican vote in he November election and gave Democrat Woodrow Wilson an easy victory.  In the end, Taft won just two states and eight electoral votes, a dismal showing for an incumbent president.

For the speech, Taft stood behind Old First Church, facing what was at the time the newly-cleared extension of Court Square, which went from the back of the church to the railroad tracks next to the Connecticut River.  The brick section in the back of Old First Church is still there today, although it was substantially renovated in 1947.  The windows behind Taft have since been bricked up, but their outlines, formed by lighter-colored bricks, are still visible.

Hilltop Park, New York (4)

Another scene inside Hilltop Park, during a game between the New York Highlanders and the Boston Red Sox in 1912. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Bain Collection.

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A similar scene in 2014:

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In 1912, the New York Highlanders played their last season at Hilltop Park, losing 102 games in the process.  In the meantime, the Boston Red Sox played their first season at Fenway Park, where they still play today, and won a franchise-record 105 games on their way to a World Series championship.  They seemed like two teams headed in totally opposite directions, but just a decade later, following the sale of Babe Ruth and other star players to the Yankees, it would end up being the Yankees winning 100+ games on a regular basis, while the Red Sox frequently lost over 100.  The runner sliding in the photo is New York outfielder Guy Zinn, who played for the Highlanders in 1911 and 1912, before spending a year with the Boston Braves and two years with the Baltimore Terrapins of the short-lived Federal League.  The Red Sox first baseman in the photo is probably player/manager Jake Stahl, although it could be Hugh Bradley, who also played first base for the Red Sox during the 1912 season.

The photos aren’t taken in the exact same spot; the actual location of the first photo would be somewhere inside Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.  However, both photos show the one surviving landmark from scenes in Hilltop Park: the three apartment buildings across 168th Street.  These buildings were particularly helpful in figuring out the orientation of some of the historic images of Hilltop Park, as the landscape has completely changed in the past 100 years.

Hilltop Park, New York (3)

Another scene inside Hilltop Park, before the 1911 home opener against the Washington Senators. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Bain Collection.

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The same scene in 2014:

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Taken the same day as the photo in this post, the Highlanders played their first home game shortly after the photo was taken, losing 1-0 to the Washington Senators.  Today, the Highlanders are the Yankees, the Washington Senators are now the Minnesota Twins, and Hilltop Park is now Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.

Hilltop Park, New York (2)

Opening Day at Hilltop Park on April 14, 1908, when the New York Highlanders took on the Philadelphia Athletics. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Bain Collection.

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The same location in 2014:

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Hilltop Park wasn’t much of a Major League stadium, and the 1908 Highlanders weren’t much of a Major League team.  Although they would defeat Philadelphia 1-0 in this Opening Day game, they would only win 50 more games, finishing the season with a franchise-record 103 losses that still stands today.  The park was closed following another 100-loss season in 1912, and the team, no longer located on the highlands of New York City on Washington Heights, was renamed the Yankees.  The park was demolished in 1914, and the site remained vacant until the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center was built in the late 1920s.