Thames and Pelham Streets, Newport, RI

The southeast corner of Thames and Pelham Streets in Newport, in 1895. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Known as the Newton Building, this Romanesque-style commercial block was built sometime between 1883 and 1893 at the corner of Pelham and Thames Streets. The first photo was taken when the building was still fairly new, but it shows the damage that it had sustained during a hailstorm. Nearly every pane of glass is broken on the upper floors of the Pelham Street side, and several people can be seen in the second-floor windows, looking at the photographer. At the time, the building’s commercial tenants included the Adams Express Company and the New York and Boston Despatch Express Company, along with Frank L. Powell’s pharmacy at the corner storefront.

More than 120 years after the first photo was taken, this building remains remarkably well-preserved, aside from minor alterations to the storefront and the addition of a fire escape on the left side. The paint does hide some of the original details, though, since Romanesque-style architecture usually featured unpainted stones of varying colors, but overall it stands as a good example of late 19th century commercial architecture. Along with the rest of the neighborhood, the Newton Building is now part of the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island

Marble House on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The house in 2017:

The Industrial Revolution, and the Gilded Age that followed, brought about the rise of vast personal fortunes, and perhaps no family better exemplified this than the Vanderbilts. The family’s wealth originated with Cornelius Vanderbilt, a working-class ferry operator from Staten Island who went on to become the richest man in the country through ruthlessly competitive practices in the steamboat and railroad industries. By the time he died in 1877, his estate was valued at nearly $100 million, almost all of which went to his son William.

However, despite their enormous wealth, the Vanderbilt family struggled to gain acceptance into New York society. Perceived by established New York aristocrats as being an uncouth, ill-educated member of the nouveau riche, Cornelius Vanderbilt had cared little for society’s approval, or for ostentatious displays of wealth. However, subsequent generations of the family, particularly his grandchildren, craved this acceptance, and spent vast amounts of money to attain it.

William H. Vanderbilt died in 1885, only eight years after his father, but in the interim he had managed to double his inherited wealth. It had been Cornelius’s intention to keep the family fortune intact by not dividing it between multiple heirs, but William ignored his father’s wishes and left the bulk of his $200 million estate to his two oldest sons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William K. Vanderbilt. As the oldest son, Cornelius received slightly more, but William inherited around $65 million, equivalent to around $1.8 billion today.

In 1875, a few years before his grandfather’s death, William K. Vanderbilt had married Alva Erskine Smith, a socially-ambitious southern belle whose family had lost much of their fortune in the aftermath of the Civil War. Once married, she wasted little time in working to bring social respectability to the Vanderbilt family. She and William built a massive Châteauesque mansion on Fifth Avenue, and held a lavish costume ball to celebrate its opening in 1883, with guests from New York’s most prominent families, including former president Ulysses S. Grant. Along with their primary residence, Alva also built a summer home, Idle Hour, on Long Island.

However, Alva’s truly lavish spending did not begin in earnest until after William inherited the $65 million from his father in 1885. The following year, she ordered the construction of a yacht, which was, of course, named the Alva. It was the largest private yacht in the world at the time, and its 285-foot length was comparable to some of the largest ships in the US Navy at the time. However, even the yacht, plus the Fifth Avenue mansion and Long Island summer home, did little to satisfy Alva, who aspired to join the many other prominent New York families who had seaside “cottages” here in Newport.

The elder Vanderbilt brother, Cornelius, had already joined Newport society, purchasing The Breakers, a large wood-framed mansion that had been built by tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard IV in 1878. With this in mind, Alva hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a house that would surpass anything that had previously been built in Newport. The house was a birthday present for Alva from William, and money was no object in its design or construction. The result was a Beaux-Arts style design that was influenced by Hunt’s early years at the École des Beaux-Arts in France, and was based on both French and classical Greek architecture. Hunt was the first American to graduate from the École des Beaux-Arts, and Marble House was among the earliest examples of the Beaux-Arts style in the United States.

Named Marble House, for its prolific use of its namesake stone, the house was completed in 1892, at a cost of $2 million ($55 million today) for the structure itself, plus another $9 million ($250 million today) that Alva spent to decorate the interior. It was the finest house in Newport, and among the finest private homes in the country, but it would soon be upstaged by the other side of the Vanderbilt family. Only months after Marble House was completed, The Breakers was destroyed in a fire, and the ashes had hardly cooled before Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt hired Richard Morris Hunt to design a new house of their own. The new Breakers was completed in 1895, becoming the ultimate symbol of Newport’s Gilded Age elegance and surpassing Marble House in every way except for the price; at $7 million it actually cost significantly less to build.

Notwithstanding William’s $11 million birthday gift to Alva, their marriage was not happy. In 1895, only three years after Marble House was completed, Alva divorces William, citing infidelity. At the time, such extramarital dalliances were certainly not unheard of among wealthy men, and were passively tolerated by New York society, but divorces were considered to be major scandals. Despite this, though, Alva retained her prominence in society, and also received a significant settlement in the divorce, including ownership of Marble House.

In the same year as her divorce, Alva’s oldest child, Consuelo, married Charles Spencer-Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. Alva had long envisioned Consuelo marrying a member of the European nobility, in order to solidify the family’s social status. In that regard, the marriage was a success for both parties, with the cash-poor Duke of Marlborough receiving a sizable dowry, while Vanderbilts now had a duchess for a daughter. However, Consuelo’s marriage was as loveless as her parents’ had been, and she and the duke separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921.

In the meantime, Alva remarried in 1896 to Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a prominent New York banker whose Newport home, Belcourt Castle, was located nearby. After his death in 1908, Alva was in possession of two Newport mansions, and retained ownership of both until 1932, when she sold Marble House shortly before her death the following year. By this point, Newport’s ostentatious Gilded Age mansions had fallen out of fashion, and she sold the house to Frederick H. Prince for just $100,000, less than one percent of its original construction costs 40 years earlier.

Frederick H. Prince was a stockbroker from Boston, and he owned Marble House for over 20 years, until his death in 1953. A decade later, his family sold the property to the Preservation Society of Newport County, who purchased it with funds provided by William and Alva’s youngest child, Harold, who was nearly 80 years old at the time. Today, very little has changed in the house’s exterior appearance, and it is still owned by the Preservation Society, which operates it as a museum along with several other Newport “cottages,” including The Breakers. Because of their historical and architectural significance, both of these iconic Vanderbilt homes are now designated as National Historic Landmarks, and they are both part of the Bellevue Avenue Historic District.

Ochre Point Avenue Gates at The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The western entrance to the driveway of The Breakers, seen from Ochre Point Avenue at the corner of Victoria Avenue in Newport, around 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

These imposing gates stand at the Ochre Point Avenue entrance of The Breakers, which was built as the summer residence of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Constructed over a two-year period from 1893 to 1895, at a cost of $7 million, it was the largest of the many Gilded Age homes that were built here in Newport as seaside “cottages” for some of the nation’s richest families. The house is situated at Ochre Point, on a 13-acre lot that is bordered on three sides by a 12-foot-high wrought iron and limestone fence. The fence is broken by two gates, one here and one on Shepard Avenue, that rise 30 feet above the driveway. They were manufactured by the William H. Jackson Company of New York, and are flanked on either side by smaller gates for pedestrian access to the property.

Together, these two main gates weigh more than seven tons, and feature intricate details, including Cornelius Vanderbilt’s initials in a monogram at the top of the gate. Other decorative features include acorns and oak leaves, both of which served as important symbols for the Vanderbilt family. Reflecting the saying that, “from little acorn a mighty oak shall grow,” the symbols represented the life of Cornelius’s grandfather, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, who rose from humble beginnings as a teenage Staten Island ferry operator to become the wealthiest man in America. As a result, acorns and oak leaves can be found throughout The Breakers, along with other Vanderbilt buildings such as New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

If the 1899 date for the first photo is accurate, it would have been taken sometime during Cornelius Vanderbilt’s last summer at The Breakers. He had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1896, only a year after the completion of the house, and he never fully recovered. He left The Breakers for the last time on September 11, 1899, to attend a railroad board meeting in New York, and he died the next morning from a cerebral hemorrhage. His widow Alice inherited both his mansion in New York and The Breakers, and she went on to own the latter until her death 35 years later.

The Breakers would remain in the Vanderbilt family until 1972, when it was sold to the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1972, and it is now open to the public as a museum. Very little has changed in this scene except for the trees, which now hide more of the property than the newly-planted ones did in the first photo. The house is now the centerpiece of the Preservation Society’s many historic properties in Newport, and it is the most popular tourist attraction in the state, drawing over 400,000 visitors through these gates each year.

Newport Tower, Newport, Rhode Island

The Newport Tower at Touro Park, around 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This stone tower is generally considered to be among the oldest existing structures in Newport, as well as one of the oldest in the entire state. However, the actual age of the tower has been the subject of much speculation over the years, leading to a number of alternate theories regarding its origins. Conventional historical evidence suggests that it was built in the 1670s as a windmill, but others argue that it is actually much older, with construction variously being ascribed to Vikings, the Knights Templar, medieval Portuguese explorers, and even the Chinese.

The most credible explanation is that the tower was once a windmill that had been built by Benedict Arnold (1615-1678), the colonial president and governor of Rhode Island whose great-grandson of the same name was the notorious traitor of the American Revolution. The tower appears to have been built on his property at some point in the early 1670s, and was mentioned in his 1677 will as “my stone built Wind Mill.” The overall design, with a stone exterior supported by arches on the ground floor, is also consistent with contemporary English windmills, such as the Chesterton Windmill in Warwickshire, which gives further credence to the fact that this tower was a 17th century windmill.

Despite this credible evidence, over the years many have suggested alternate explanations, with probably the most widespread theory claiming that it was built by Vikings during their pre-Columbian explorations of North America. Long considered to be myths, the Norse stories of trans-oceanic explorations were not given much serious attention until 1837, when Danish historian Carl Christian Rafn proposed that these ancient sagas were based on actual voyages to North America. He included the Newport Tower, as well as the nearby Dighton Rock in Massachusetts, as evidence of Norse settlement of the area, and the theory was further popularized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1841 poem “The Skeleton in Armor,” where he writes:

There for my lady’s bower
Built I the lofty tower,
Which, to this very hour,
Stands looking seaward.

As it turned out, Rafn was correct about Norse settlement in North America, with archeological evidence verifying that Vikings briefly established a colony in Newfoundland. However, the southward extent of Viking exploration is unclear, and there have been no other definitive archeological finds beyond Newfoundland. There is no evidence that Vikings carved the mysterious Dighton Rock, and the connection to the Newport Tower seems equally spurious. Additionally, the tower bears little resemblance to anything in Norse architecture, while strongly resembling other 17th century English windmills.

Other alternate theories have included speculation that it was built by medieval Scottish Knights Templar, by 15th century Chinese explorers, or by early 16th century Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real. However, all of these theories, including the Viking one, face a number of challenges. Newport was settled by Europeans in 1639, and the island had been thoroughly explored more than a century earlier by Giovanni da Verrazzano, yet there are no surviving accounts of this tower, which would have undoubtedly stood out to early settlers as being highly unusual if it had been there when they arrived. In colonial-era documents,s such as Arnold’s will, it is referred to only as a stone mill, and it would not be for another two centuries after Newport’s establishment that people such as Rafn began to question its origins.

Along with the historical evidence, scientific evidence has also cast serious doubt on the alternate theories and further bolstered the windmill theory. An 1848 study compared the mortar in the tower to that of other 17th century buildings in Newport, and found the samples to have essentially the same composition. Nearly 150 years later, radiocarbon dating futher verified this, finding that the mortar dates back to sometime between 1635 and 1698. Along with this, archaeological digs in the vicinity of the tower have found plenty of 17th century artifacts, but absolutely nothing from earlier centuries.

The tower, along with the surrounding property, was donated to the city in 1854 by Judah Touro, a wealthy New Orleans businessman and philanthropist whose father, Isaac Touro, had been the rabbi of Newport’s Touro Synagogue. This land, located between Mill Street, Pelham Street, and Bellevue Avenue, became Touro Park, with the tower serving as its centerpiece. By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the tower’s alleged Viking connections were already well-established, and at least one contemporary guidebook, the 1916 A Guide to Newport, mentioned both the Viking and windmill theories, but more strongly argued in favor of the former. Certainly, the romantic appeal of the tower as a place where Viking warriors defended their settlement is far greater than that of a windmill where Benedict Arnold’s ancestors ground cornmeal, but the historical, archaeological, and scientific evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

Today, very little has changed in this scene, nearly 130 years after the first photo was taken. The park’s landscaping is essentially the same, and the tower is still surrounded by a short iron fence, with no changes to the tower itself. Although most likely not a Viking ruin, nor an artifact from some other previously-unknown visitors, the tower is undeniably an important historic landmark as a rare surviving 17th century windmill and one of the oldest structures in the state. Along with the rest of the neighborhood, it now forms part of the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark district in 1968.

Brick Market, Newport, Rhode Island

The Brick Market on Thames Street, opposite Washington Square in Newport, in 1890. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Downtown Newport is renowned for its many colonial-era buildings, but one of the finest is the Brick Market, located along Thames Street at the western end of Washington Square. It is a prominent architectural landmark, and is one of only a handful of surviving buildings that are known to have been designed by Peter Harrison, one of the first formally-trained architects in America. Born in England in 1716, Harrison came to Rhode Island in 1740 but returned to England a few years later, where he studied architecture. Upon returning to the colonies, he designed several prominent buildings in New England, including King’s Chapel in Boston, Christ Church in Cambridge, and the Redwood Library and Touro Synagogue here in Newport.

The Brick Market was the last of his confirmed works, and is shows the influence that English architecture had on his designs. The building’s design was based on the Old Somerset House in London, with Harrison copying elements such as the arcade on the lower floor, the pilasters on the upper floors, and even the alternating arched and triangular window pediments. He designed the Brick Market in the early 1760s, and construction began in 1762. However, financial difficulties delayed the construction, and it was not completed until 1772.

Upon completion, the building consisted of an open-air market on the ground floor, similar to other contemporary New England marketplaces such as Faneuil Hall, while upper floors were used for offices and dry goods storage. However, over the years the building’s use changed several times, starting in the 1790s when the upper section was converted into a theater. Then, in 1842, the building was converted into Newport’s city hall, which included removing the third floor and replacing it with seating galleries. It was still in use as city hall when the first photo was taken in 1890, and it would remain so for another decade, until the current city hall was completed in 1900.

By the early 20th century the Brick Market was in poor condition, but it was restored in the 1920s by Norman Isham, an architectural historian and professor who specialized in preserving colonial-era buildings in Rhode Island. The building is now owned by the Newport Historical Society and operated as the Museum of Newport History, where it stands amid modern shopping plazas. All of the other historic buildings on the west side of Thames Street between Marlborough Street and Memorial Boulevard have since been demolished, and today the only other building still standing from the first photo is the one on the far left, at the corner of Thames and Touro Streets. Known as the Henry B. Young Building, it was built in 1861 but was heavily altered in the 20th century, including the removal of the top floor, and today it bears little resemblance to the building from the first photo.

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 2017:

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.