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.

William Watts Sherman House, Newport, Rhode Island

The William Watts Sherman House on Shepard Avenue in Newport, sometime in the late 1870s. Image courtesy of the Cornell University Library, Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photographs Collection.

The house in 2017:

William Watts Sherman was born in Albany in 1842, and later moved to New York City, where he became a physician. However, he left the medical practice to enter his father’s banking firm of Duncan, Sherman & Company, and became a wealthy businessman. In 1871 he married Annie Wetmore, the daughter of prominent merchant William Shepard Wetmore. Originally from Vermont, Wetmore had been among the early summer residents in Newport, and built his Chateau-sur-Mer mansion on Bellevue Avenue in 1852.

A few years after their marriage, the Shermans built their own house on part of Annie’s late father’s property, just to the south of Chateau-sur-Mer on the opposite side of Shepard Avenue. For the design, they hired Henry H. Richardson, a recently-established architect who was already well on his way to becoming one of the most influential in American history. He is best known for pioneering the Richardsonian Romanesque style that was prevalent throughout the late 19th century, and designed a number of churches, railroad stations, libraries, and other public buildings. He did not design many private residences, but the Sherman house would become one of his most important works and would help to inspire the Shingle style of architecture that would go on to become ubiquitous in New England resort communities such as Newport.

Completed in 1876, the Sherman house was unlike anything that had been built in Newport up to this point. Most of the earlier homes had designs that were based on Greek, Italian, or French styles, but for this house Richardson blended elements from traditional English and American architecture, giving it a unique appearance that stood out among the other summer cottages in Newport. The house’s exterior, particularly the use of wooden shingles on the upper floors, proved highly influential, and the house became a prototype for Shingle-style architecture of the 1880s and 1890s. Richardson himself designed very few other houses, though, and  it would be two of his former assistants, Charles McKim and Stanford White, who would go on to create some of the finest Shingle-style homes.

Stanford White was involved in the design of the house, and he would play a larger role a few years later, when his firm of McKim, Mead & White was hired to design a large addition to the house. Built on the left side of the scene, this new wing substantially enlarged the house, while matching Richardson’s original exterior. The first photo here shows the house as it originally appeared, sometime before construction on the addition began in 1879. It was completed two years later, with Stanford White providing interior designs for both a parlor and a library in this wing.

William and Annie Sherman had two daughters, Georgette and Sybil, who were born in the early 1870s. However, Annie died in 1884 at the age of 35, and the following year William remarried to Sophia Augusta Brown, the 18-year-old daughter of the late John Carter Brown II. A member of the prominent Brown family of Providence, John Carter Brown II was the son of Nicholas Brown, Jr., the namesake of Brown University, and John himself would later leave leave his mark on the university when his rare book collection became the basis for the John Carter Brown Library. Curiously, William Sherman’s oldest daughter, Georgette, would later marry Sophia’s older brother, Harold Brown, making William Sherman both a brother-in-law and father-in-law to his daughter’s new husband.

With his new wife, William Watts Sherman had two more daughters, Irene and Mildred, and around 1890 they expanded the house again, adding a ballroom that was designed by local architect Dudley Newton. He continued to spend summers here until his death in 1912, and Sophia owned the house until her death more than 30 years later, in 1946. By this point the massive Gilded Age mansions of Newport had fallen out of fashion, and the mid-20th century saw many of these landmarks demolished or converted into other uses. In the case of the Sherman house, it became the Baptist Home of Rhode Island, a retirement home that opened in 1950.

Because of its architectural significance, the house was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and it is also a contributing property in the Bellevue Avenue Historic District, which is likewise a National Historic Landmark. In 1982, the property was purchased by Salve Regina University, whose campus includes many other historic mansions in the area. It is now a dormitory for sophomore students, and still stands as one of Newport’s finest architectural treasures, with hardly any differences between these two photos aside from the 1879-1881 addition on the left side.

Newport Casino, Newport, Rhode Island

The Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

 

One of Newport’s many architectural landmarks is the Newport Casino, which is located on Bellevue Avenue, just a little south of the present-day intersection of Memorial Boulevard. Its origins date back to 1879, when New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett, Jr., purchased the Stone Villa house on the west side of Bellevue Avenue, plus a vacant lot directly across the street where the Newport Casino would subsequently be built. Bennett had inherited a considerable fortune – including one of the nation’s leading newspapers – after his father’s death in 1872. Just 31 when his father died, the younger Bennett acquired a reputation as a flamboyant and eccentric member of New York society.

Bennett’s famously erratic behavior included an incident in New York in 1877, when he urinated in the fireplace during a party at his fiancée’s house. The resulting outrage ended their engagement and also resulted in a duel between Bennett and his would-be brother-in-law, although neither man was injured. Another oft-repeated – though probably apocryphal – incident happened in Newport in 1879 when, according to the tale, Bennett dared a friend to ride his horse onto the porch of the Newport Reading Room, an exclusive social club for the city’s elite. Supposedly, the friend lost his membership, and Bennett was said to have resigned his membership in protest before establishing the Newport Casino as a social club of his own.

Whether or not the story is entirely true, it speaks to Bennett’s reputation for impulsive behavior, and either way he soon began work on building the Newport Casino on the vacant lot opposite his Bellevue Avenue mansion. For the designs, he hired McKim, Mead & White, a newly-established architectural firm whose subsequent meteoric rise to prominence would be due in no small part to their work here on the Newport Casino. The result was an architectural masterpiece, which was built in 1880 as one of the first significant Shingle-style buildings. McKim, Mead & White helped to pioneer this distinctly American style of architecture, which would go on to become predominant in New England coastal resort communities in the late 19th century.

In 19th century terminology, a casino was not specifically a place for gambling, but instead referred more broadly to a social and recreational facility. At the time of the casino’s opening in the summer of Newport, the city had already been well-established as the premier summer resort for New York millionaires, and the casino quickly became its social center. The building offered a wide variety of amenities, including stores along the Bellevue Avenue facade, plus a restaurant, a ballroom, a theater, and tennis courts. Unlike the elite Reading Room, it was also less exclusive, with both the wealthy members and the general public able to enjoy the facilities.

The casino would go on to play an important role in the early history of tennis. Originally referred to as lawn tennis, so as to distinguish it from the earlier game of court tennis, the sport came to America in the 1870s and was played under a variety of rules until 1881, when the United States National Lawn Tennis Association – today’s United States Tennis Association – was established to standardize the rules of the sport. Given its reputation as an affluent summer resort, Newport was chosen as the site of the association’s first championships in 1881, with the newly-built Newport Casino serving as the site for both the men’s singles and men’s doubles championships.

The men’s doubles championships would be played here at the Newport Casino for the rest of the 1880s, and the men’s singles championships through 1914. During this time, the sport was dominated by Richard Dudley Sears, a Boston native and Harvard student who won the first seven singles championships from 1881 to 1887, plus the doubles championships from 1882 to 1887, before retiring from the sport at the age of 26. In later years, other prominent winners here included Oliver S. Campbell and Malcolm D. Whitman, who each one three singles titles, and William Larned, who won in 1901, 1902, and from 1907-1911.

In 1915, the tennis championships were moved to the West Side Tennis Club in the Forest Hill neighborhood of Queens, which was more conveniently located and could accommodate more spectators. The Newport Casino continued to be used for other tennis events over the years, but both the building and the city entered a decline in the first half of the 20th century, as Newport began to fall out of fashion as a summer resort. Many of the Gilded Age mansions were demolished in the middle of the century, including James Gordon Bennett’s house across the street from here. Demolished in 1957, the site of his Stone Villa is now a shopping plaza, and a similar fate nearly befell the Newport Casino, which had been threatened with demolition a few years earlier.

The Newport Casino was ultimately preserved, though, thanks to the efforts of Jimmy Van Alen, a Newport native and former court tennis champion who established the International Tennis Hall of Fame here in 1954. Since then, the building has remained well-preserved, with hardly any changes in this scene since the first photo was taken. The Hall of Fame is still here, along with indoor and outdoor tennis courts, plus one of the country’s few remaining courts for court tennis. Along Bellevue Avenue, the building’s first floor houses upscale retail shops and a restaurant, and it forms part of a continuous row of historic buildings that extends the entire block from Memorial Boulevard to Casino Terrace. Because of its level of preservation, its architectural significance, and its role in the early history of tennis, the building was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

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.

Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island

The Touro Synagogue on Touro Street in Newport, sometime between 1870 and 1890. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The synagogue in 2017:

Rhode Island was established by colonists seeking religious freedom, and for many years it was a haven for a variety of religious minorities. Some of the first Jewish settlers in the present-day United States arrived in Newport as early as 1658, and by the mid-18th century there was a sizable Jewish community here, drawn by both religious tolerance and business opportunities in the thriving seaport town. The decades prior to the American Revolution were Newport’s heyday as a commercial port, and one of the most prosperous merchants was Aaron Lopez, a Jewish immigrant from Portugal who arrived here in Newport in 1752.

Together with Rabbi Isaac Touro and other leading Jews in Newport, Lopez helped to establish this synagogue, and they hired architect Peter Harrison to design the building. Considered to be the first professionally-trained architect in the American colonies, Harrison designed several other buildings in Newport, including the Redwood Library on Bellevue Avenue and the Brick Market at Washington Square, and he also designed Christ Church in Cambridge and King’s Chapel in Boston. His synagogue, though, is considered by some to have been his finest work, since it demonstrated his ability to blend classical architecture with the specific requirements of Jewish tradition.

The synagogue was completed in 1763, right at the peak of Newport’s prosperity. However, the American Revolution began just over a decade later, causing a severe disruption of trade as well as a long British occupation of the town. Newport never fully recovered its prewar prosperity as a seaport, and many of the Jewish residents left during the war. Rabbi Touro fled to Jamaica at the start of the British occupation in 1776, and Aaron Lopez also left around the same time, moving first to Portsmouth and then to Providence and to Massachusetts. He lost much of his fortune in the war, and he ultimately died in 1782 while on his way back to Newport, when his horse and carriage fell into a pond in Smithfield.

With most of Newport’s Jewish population gone, the synagogue closed in 1791 and remained vacant for the next 60 years. However, it was not completely forgotten, and Isaac Touro’s sons, Abraham and Judah, both left large bequests to maintain the building. These funds enabled restoration projects in the 1820s and 1850s, as well as the granite and cast iron fence, which was built around the property in 1842. Beginning in the 1850s, the synagogue was used intermittently, as Newport started to become a popular summer resort community. In 1883, around the time that the first photo was taken, the synagogue was finally reopened on a permanent basis, nearly a century after the original congregation had left Newport.

Nearly 135 years later, this scene has not undergone any significant changes. The building is still an active synagogue, and it stands as a reminder of Newport’s former preeminence as a seaport and its tradition for religious tolerance. Architecturally, it is still well-preserved, and stands as one of the few surviving works of one of the country’s most important early architects. The building was designated as a National Historic Site in 1946, and in 1968 it became part of the Newport Historic District, a National Historic Landmark district.