The lost houses of Newport are a reminder of the fragility of our architectural heritage and the need to be vigilant to safeguard the reminders of the past.
Newport has had many preservation success stories, but it is important to remember what has been lost.
Due to the surge in property values of coastal real estate throughout the United States, Newport presents a façade of relative prosperity. Few modern Newporters, due to changing demographics, and virtually no visitors are aware, however, that since the late 1930s, a number of Newport's historic estates have been demolished for residential and commercial subdivision, including several sites of national architectural significance. By the 1930s, due to the strain of federal inheritance, income, and local property taxes, combined with a servant shortage and changing fashion, Newport estates faced uncertain futures. A primary hope for these "cottages" seemed to lie in conversion to apartments, nursing homes, and religious or educational institutions. Much of Bellevue Avenue was so converted between 1955 and 1965 - Vernon Court Junior College, Salve Regina University, De La Salle Academy, St. Catherine?s Academy, Burnham-by-the-Sea, and Hatch Preparatory School.
Simultaneously, concern over the dangers facing Newport's eighteenth-century city center, and menacing the Hunter House in particular, led a group of civic activists and summer colonists to charter The Preservation Society of Newport County in 1945. The unique concentration and sheer density of Newport's important residential architecture made it impossible to save everything. Difficult decisions had to be made and energies concentrated on rescuing, through private initiative, those properties considered most representative of a given period or style.
By the summer of 1962, the construction of two new shopping centers on
lower Bellevue Avenue had permanently altered the formerly residential nature of the cottage district. Villa Rosa, then derelict,
at the corner of Bellevue and Narragansett Avenues, was about to be demolished and, next door, what the New York Times called "The Battle of The Elms" was set to begin. Mr. Charles Dunlap, primary heir of the Berwind estate, sold his late aunt's summer residence to a real-estate syndicate. The syndicate promptly made plans for subdividing the property. If this had happened, The Elms would have been razed and the future of other key Bellevue Avenue "cottages" would have been bleak, fulfilling the "white elephant" prophecy declared by Henry James in his book The American Scene
(1907). Whichever way a crucial block such as The Elms went, so Newport would follow.
At this crucial stage of the battle, Mrs. Katherine U. Warren and the Preservation Society she had founded, leaped into the breach and made a cash offer. Meanwhile the house?s contents were sold at public auction on June 27?28, 1962. Although the Preservation Society bid bravely at the auction, its representatives were generally foiled by higher bidders, the most determined of whom were Hollywood set designers.
Incredibly, within three weeks of extending a cash offer slightly in excess of $100,000, with funds raised by Mrs. Warren amongst the summer colony, The Elms was opened to the public. Assisted by Mrs. John Nicholas Brown, Katherine Warren refurbished The Elms with gifts from friends and loans from museums in Boston and New York. On August 20, 1962, The Elms had its grand opening. With this event, the Society, which saw itself initially as the guardian of Colonial Newport, began a commitment to nineteenth-century architecture and decorative arts.
With the subsequent acquisition of eight more properties by the Society, and the opening of Belcourt by the Tinney family, Newport became the only place in America where the public experiences a continuous and comprehensive historical survey of American domestic architecture from Colonial times to the twentieth century.
Largely due to the public attention generated by the opening of the former Gilded Age cottages and the 1973 arrival of the condominium market in Newport, the city?s once storied estates faced new opportunities of rebirth and new challenges. The delicate balance between real-estate market surges and contextual integrity of Newport's unique architecture will continue to furnish new chapters in the city's history.
Use the links on the navigation bar on the left to learn more about the Lost Houses.