Spring and Pelham Streets, Newport, Rhode Island

Looking west on Pelham Street from the corner of Spring Street in Newport, around 1883. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Newport is well-known for its many Gilded Age mansions, but long before it was a summer playground for the rich and famous it was a prosperous seaport. Unlike the massive homes and spacious lawns of the Bellevue Avenue area, the center of Newport features narrow colonial-era streets, lined with historic 18th and 19th century houses. Spring Street, which runs from left to right through this scene, is one of the primary north-south streets in downtown Newport, and both it and its many cross streets have been remarkably well-preserved over the years, with few significant changes in the past two centuries.

When the first photo was taken, this scene was a mix of modest colonial-era buildings and larger, more elegant 19th century homes. The house at the corner was probably built sometime in the 1700s, as was the small gambrel -roofed house just beyond it on the right side, which predates the American Revolution. The exact date of this smaller house is unclear, but it was built sometime before 1771, and was the home of Lucina Langley. Just beyond the Langley house is a much more modern house at 41 Pelham Street. It was the home of Anthony Stewart, Jr., and it was built in 1859, although it appears to have been modified before the first photo was taken.

More than 130 years after the first photo was taken, the only significant change in this scene is the house on the corner. The original colonial-era house was demolished shortly after the photo was taken, and its replacement is still standing today. Completed in 1883, this house was originally the home of William M. Austin, a house painter who had a prosperous business here in Newport. He was a lifelong resident of the city, and served on the city council, representing Ward 4 from 1884 to 1890. He and his wife Emily had three children: Percy, Susan, and Edward. Susan died young, long before the family moved into this house, but their two sons followed their father into the painter’s trade, eventually taking over the business after William’s death in 1897.

Since then, this scene has remained essentially unchanged. His house is still there, and now operates as the Austin House Inn. Further down Pelham Street, both the Langley and Stewart houses are still standing, as are the other historic 18th and 19th century homes on the street. Like much of downtown Newport, this area retains its colonial-era appearance, and the neighborhood now forms the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Isaac Bell House, Newport, Rhode Island

The Isaac Bell House at the corner of Perry Street and Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1883-1895. Image courtesy of the Cornell University Library, Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photographs Collection.

The house in 2018:

Although not as large or ostentatious as many of the other 19th century mansions in Newport, this house is among the most significant, and stands as an architectural landmark. It is widely considered to be a masterpiece of Shingle Style architecture, and it was one of the early examples of this style, which would become popular in the late 19th century, particularly in New England coastal resort communities like Newport. It was also one of the first commissions of the New York-based firm of McKim, Mead & White, which would go on to become one of the nation’s leading architectural firms of its era.

Unlike most of the other architectural movements in 19th century America, the Shingle style was not an imitation of earlier European designs. Instead, it was a distinctly American style, and typically blended elements of colonial architecture while also using traditional building materials, such as the ubiquitous cedar shingles. Like the contemporaneous Queen Anne style, Shingle style homes tended to have complex, asymmetrical designs, often with turrets and large porches. However, Shingle style deliberately avoided the excessive ornamentation of Queen Anne architecture, and instead featured exteriors that were almost completely covered in shingles. As a result, these homes tended to blend in with their surroundings, instead of other types of houses that were specifically designed to stand out.

This house was completed in 1883 for Isaac Bell, Jr.,   a New York native who had recently retired after a brief but successful career as a cotton broker. He was just 31 at the time of his retirement, and with his inheritance from his father plus his own accumulated wealth he was able to establish himself here in Newport society. In 1878, a year after retiring, he married Jeannette Bennett, the sister of New York Herald owner James Gordon Bennett, Jr. Here in Newport, Bennett was well-known for his eccentric, often flamboyant behavior, but he was also the founder of the Newport Casino, one of the city’s leading social clubs. The Casino building, located a few blocks away from here on Bellevue Avenue, was also designed by McKim, Mead & White, and this family connection may have been the reason why Bell commissioned them to design his house a few years later.

Although retired from active business, Isaac Bell was involved in politics as a member of the Democratic Party. He was the president of Newport’s Democratic Club, and campaigned for Grover Cleveland in the 1884 presidential election. The following year, Cleveland rewarded Bell by appointing him as the US ambassador to the Netherlands, a post that he would hold for nearly three years. He was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1888, but later that year he fell ill with typhoid fever while here in Newport. He returned to New York and underwent surgery, but it was unsuccessful and he died a few weeks later in January 1889, at the age of 42.

In 1891, Jeannette sold the property to Samuel F. Barger, a prominent New York City lawyer who was a longtime director of the New York Central Railroad. One of the most important railroads in the country, the New York Central had been acquired by Cornelius Vanderbilt, and in that same year Barger began serving on the board of directors. Two years later, the railroad was merged with the Hudson River Railroad, which was another of Vanderbilt’s holdings, and Barger became a director of the consolidated corporation. Barger would continue to serve on the board alongside two more generations of Vanderbilts, outliving Cornelius, his son William, and William’s son Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who built The Breakers here in Newport. He served on the board into the 20th century, and was the last surviving member of the consolidated railroad’s original 1869 board.

Upon purchasing this house, Barger named it Edna Villa, in honor of his wife, Edna LaFavor. The couple had married in 1869, and they had three children: Maud, Edna, and Milton. Maud was an accomplished tennis player, winning the singles title in the 1908 U.S. National Championships and finishing as the runner-up in 1906 and 1909. She did not start playing tennis until she was about 30, but she played competitively well into her 40s. In 1912, at the age of 42, she was the runner-up in the women’s doubles championship, and three years later she was still ranked among the top 10 in the world. In 1958, a few years after her death, she was inducted in the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1958, which is located at the Newport Casino, just a quarter mile away from here.

During Samuel Barger’s ownership, this house was altered several times, including an addition to the southwest corner in the late 1890s, as well as the removal of the carriage house on the left side of the photo around the same time. After Samuel’s death in 1914 the property remained in his family for many years, and another addition was built on the west side in the 1920s. His daughter Edna would eventually inherit the property, and she owned it until finally selling it in 1952. By this point, Newport was no longer the exclusive summer colony that it had once been, and massive Gilded Age mansions had long since fallen out of fashion. A relic of a bygone era, the house was converted into a nursing home, and was later divided into apartments.

In 1996, the house was sold to the Preservation Society of Newport County, which operates many historic house museums in Newport, including The Breakers and Marble House. The Preservation Society restored the house, and subsequently opened it to the public as a museum. Unlike most of the organization’s other properties, this house is only minimally furnished, in an effort to highlight the architectural details of the interior. Despite the many changes over the years, the interior has remained well-preserved, and very little has changed in this view of the exterior since the first photo was taken some 125 years ago. Because of this level of preservation, along with its architectural significance, the house was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1997.

Cliff Walk, Newport, Rhode Island

Looking north on the Cliff Walk from Ochre Point at The Breakers in Newport, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

One of Newport’s most popular attractions is the 3.5-mile Cliff Walk, a trail that runs along the rocky cliffs on the southeastern side of Newport. It is famous for both the scenic beauty of the Atlantic coastline, as well as the architectural grandeur of the Gilded Age mansions on the opposite side, but its origins were far more practical than recreational. Much to the chagrin of millionaire property owners who would come several centuries later, the legal concept behind the Cliff Walk came in 1663, when King Charles II granted Rhode Island a charter that, among other rights, allowed all colonists to fish along the shoreline. This doctrine of publicly-accessible shores was later enshrined in the state constitution, and is still in effect today.

In the early years of Newport’s history, this right was of little significance here on the sparsely-settled southeastern shore, and there was not much to prevent people from walking along the cliffs if they felt so inclined. However, by the mid-19th century Newport was becoming a popular summer resort, and the right of people to walk along the cliffs soon came into conflict with the privacy and the property rights of the millionaires who built their summer homes here along the coast. As a result, many of the landowners built fences or hedges for privacy, making many of the mansions completely invisible from the trail.

The first photo was taken from the easternmost part of the trail, at Ochre Point behind The Breakers, the famous home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The gates in the distance on the left mark where the trail leaves the Vanderbilt property, and beyond the gates is the roof of Ochre Court, the home of prominent real estate developer Ogden Goelet. Like The Breakers, this house was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, and was the largest in Newport when it was completed in 1892, although it would soon be surpassed by The Breakers itself, which was completed in 1895. However, by the time the first photo was taken only about a decade later, both Vanderbilt and Goelet were dead, although the houses would remain in their families until well into the 20th century.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, this landscape has remained remarkably unchanged. Although not visible in the 2017 photograph, both The Breakers and Ochre Court are still standing, as are many of the other Gilded Age mansions along the Cliff Walk. However, most of these are no longer privately owned, thanks to changing tastes and the incredible upkeep costs of these houses. What had been an extravagant symbols of wealth in the late 19th century had become expensive white elephants by the mid-20th century, and today The Breakers is a museum while Ochre Court is the administration building for Salve Regina University.

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The Breakers, seen from the Cliff Walk in Newport, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

Newport is renowned for its many 19th and early 20th century summer “cottages,” which were built by many of the nation’s wealthiest families and represented some of the finest examples of residential architecture in this era. However, none could quite compare to The Breakers, which was completed in 1895 as a summer home for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the prominent railroad tycoon who had inherited much of the Vanderbilt family fortune from his father William and grandfather Cornelius. With 70 rooms and over 125,000 square feet, it dwarfed all of the other Newport mansions, and it would go on to epitomize the luxury, grandeur, and excess of the Gilded Age.

The Breakers is situated on Ochre Point, a rocky promontory on Newport’s eastern shoreline, and was built on the site of a previous mansion of the same name. The original Breakers was a wooden, Queen Anne-style mansion that had been designed by the prominent architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns for tobacco merchant Pierre Lorillard IV. It was completed in 1878, but he owned the house for less than a decade before selling it to Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1885 for $450,000, in what was at the time the largest real estate transaction in Newport’s history.

As the favorite grandson and namesake of the family patriarch, Cornelius Vanderbilt II had inherited $5 million after his grandfather’s death in 1877. Nearly all of the remaining family fortune, close to $100 million, had gone to Cornelius’s father, William H. Vanderbilt, who managed to double this amount in jut a few years. However, William died in 1885, just a few months after his son purchased The Breakers, and Cornelius inherited nearly $70 million from his estate, equivalent to nearly $2 billion today.

Cornelius’s younger brother, William K. Vanderbilt, had received a similar inheritance from their father, and he and his socially ambitious wife Alva soon set out to build Marble House nearby on Bellevue Avenue. This lavish mansion far exceeded the original Breakers in opulence, and its $11 million construction costs dwarfed the paltry $450,000 that Cornelius had spent to purchase his summer home. Marble House was completed in 1892, but later that year The Breakers was destroyed in a fire, providing Cornelius with the opportunity to eclipse his brother and sister-in-law in constructing a new summer home.

At the time of the fire here in Newport, Cornelius was just finishing a $3 million expansion of his massive Fifth Avenue mansion, making it the largest private home in New York City’s history. Despite this, he and his wife Alice spared no expense in rebuilding The Breakers. They hired Richard Morris Hunt, the same architect who had designed Marble House, and within six weeks of the fire he had produced preliminary designs for the house. Cornelius and Alice ended up choosing his second design, though, which was inspired by Italian Renaissance-style architecture, and construction began in the spring of 1893.

The house was completed in just two years, thanks to the efforts of some 2,000 workers who worked in shifts, both day and night, to ensure that it was completed as soon as possible. It was much larger, and had been built in far less time than Marble House, but at $7 million it had actually cost significantly less to build, with William having spent $7 million just on marble alone. It would be Richard Morris Hunt’s magnum opus and, as it turned out, his last major commission, as he died in Newport while supervising the finishing touches in the summer of 1895. The house’s completion came none too soon for Cornelius Vanderbilt, though, who was only able to enjoy one summer at the house in good health before suffering a debilitating stroke in 1896.

Cornelius, Alice, and their children would continue to spend several more summers here at The Breakers, but Cornelius never fully recovered his health and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in September 1899, a day after returning to New York City from Newport. Alice would outlive him by 35 years, and became known as “Alice of the Breakers” for her long ownership of the house. However, the Gilded Age was rapidly drawing to a close at the turn of the 20th century, as was the Vanderbilt family’s wealth and prominence. William H. Vanderbilt’s children, including Cornelius, had done little to grow the family fortune, but excelled at spending it, particularly on lavish mansions in New York and summer houses such as The Breakers, Marble House, and the Biltmore Estate.

By Alice’s death in 1934 at the age of 89, the family fortune had been squandered and divided among so many descendants that it was essentially gone. Most of the New York City mansions, including her own Fifth Avenue home, were gone, replaced by modern high-rises, and the many summer homes in Newport and elsewhere were already antiquated white elephants from a long-gone era. During Alice’s later years, taxes alone on The Breakers amounted to $83,000 per year, plus operating expenses that included paying nearly 60 servants and other employees, along with 150 tons of coal to heat the house each winter. She eventually took to alternating years spent in Newport and New York, so that both houses were never open simultaneously.

Of Alice’s seven children, she outlived all but three of them. Her first child, Alice, had died as a child in 1874, and she subsequently lost her oldest son William to typhoid fever in 1892 while he was in college. Alfred died aboard the RMS Lusitania, when it was sunk by a German submarine during World War I, and Alice’s youngest son, Reginald, was a compulsive gambler and alcoholic who died of cirrhosis in 1925, a year after the birth of his daughter, future fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt. Her only other son, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, was disinherited by his father for his unapproved marriage, and neither he nor his sister, the famous sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, had much interest in acquiring The Breakers.

As a result, the mansion ultimately went to Alice’s youngest child, Gladys, who was 47 at the time and married to a Hungarian count, László Széchenyi. She owned the property for the rest of her life, until her death in 1965, but in 1948 she began leasing the house to the Preservation Society of Newport County, and for the first time it was opened to the public. She would continue to maintain an apartment on the third-floor, as would her daughter Sylvia, but otherwise the rest of the house was preserved as a museum. Sylvia ultimately sold The Breakers to the Preservation Society in 1972 for just $365,000, substantially less than what her grandfather had paid for the original house 87 years earlier, although the sale included a stipulation that she be allowed to continue to use the third floor apartment for the rest of her life.

After Sylvia’s death in 1998, the third floor continued to be used by her children, Paul and Gladys Szápáry, for the next 20 years, but in early 2018 the Preservation Society asked them to leave, citing safety concerns. This move came shortly after the Szápárys voiced their opposition to the Preservation Society’s controversial decision to build a welcome center on the property, which many critics argued would mar its original landscape and historic appearance. Their departure ends four generations and nearly 123 years of the Vanderbilt family living here, but it also gives the Preservation Society the opportunity to restore the third floor and make it accessible to the public for the first time.

Today, The Breakers is one of the nine historic Newport homes that are owned by the Preservation Society and open to the public. It is is one of the nine historic Newport homes that are owned by the Preservation Society and open to the public. Aside from the colonial-era Hunter House, all of these are Gilded Age mansions that represent some of the finest examples of residential architecture in 19th century America, including William and Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House. However, The Breakers remains, by far, the largest and most impressive of these homes, and has been well-preserved over the years, as these two photos show. Because of its architectural significance, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994, and it is now one of Rhode Island’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting over 400,000 visitors per year.

Central Congregational Church, Providence, RI

The Central Congregational Church on Angell Street in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The church in 2016:

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Established in 1852, the Central Congregational Church was originally located on Benefit Street, in the western part of the College Hill neighborhood. However, within 40 years the congregation had outgrown their first home, and in 1893 they moved into this building on Angell Street. This area is located on the opposite end of College Hill, furthest from downtown Providence, and was developed as a residential neighborhood in the last decades of the 19th century.

The new church building was designed by Carrère and Hastings, a prominent New York architectural firm who designed a number of prominent Beaux-Arts style buildings at the turn of the 20th century. Designing at the height of the Gilded Age, the firms’s works ranged from grand hotels in Florida, to mansions in Newport and the Berkshires, to the New York Public Library. However, their Renaissance Revival-style design for the Central Congregational Church was among their early commissions.

With yellow brick and plenty of terra cotta, it has a Mediterranean appearance that almost seems out of place in New England, but it has stood here for over 120 years. The original tops of the two towers were damaged in a hurricane in the 1950s, and were replaced with far less ornate ones, but otherwise the church’s exterior appearance has remained the same in both photos. Today, the building is still home to the Central Congregational Church, and it is a contributing property in the Stimson Avenue Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Robinson Hall, Brown University, Providence, RI

Robinson Hall at the corner of Waterman and Prospect Streets, on the campus of Brown University, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2016:

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Robinson Hall was built in 1878, with funds provided by John Carter Brown. The son of the school’s namesake, Nicholas Brown, Jr., he was an 1816 graduate of Brown and a book collector, and in his will he left the school this plot of land at the corner of Waterman and Prospect Streets, along with money to build a library here. This brick, Gothic Revival building was used as a library for only a few decades, though, before the completion of the much larger John Hay Library across the street. In 1912, the old library building became the home of the Economics Department, and was later named in honor of Ezekiel Robinson, who had served as the school’s president from 1872 to 1889. Today, very little has changed in its appearance, and it remains in use by the Economics Department. Although the building is no longer used as a library as John Carter Brown had intended, his legacy on campus has not been forgotten. His extensive book collection later formed the basis for another campus library, the John Carter Brown Library, which opened in 1904 and still serves as one of the school’s seven libraries.