Newport: seaside playground with a rich past

Today, a town once thought to have passed into extinction, along with its brontosaurussize mansions, has come back to life. The town is Newport, R. I., once the lavish playground for America's most well-to-do citizens.

Newport has much to offer its visitors not only as a resort town but also as an area of historical and cultural interest.

As early as 1720 Newport became known as an exclusive resort. Each summer plantation owners from the Southern states and even the West Indies came here to bathe in the cool ocean and enjoy the New England countryside. Newport also emerged as a major intellectual center in colonial America, attracting people such as philosopher George Berkeley, painter John Smibert, and architect Peter Harrison.

Because of Peter Harrison and 19th-century designers such as Stanford White and Richard Morris Hunt, some of the most extraordinary examples of American architecture are found in Newport. During the colonial period Peter Harrison set an elegant tone by designing Redwood Library, Touro Synagogue, and the old BRick Market.

Although Harrison was a self-taught archictect, his designs played a fundamental role in the development of architecture in America. Redwood Library , for example, was the first American building to be designed in the classic manner.

As befits a prosperous seaport town, many stately homes belonging to wealthy merchants were built, many of which have been beautifully restored. And no New England town would be complete without a whitespired church gracing the skyline. In Newport, Trinity Church, set on a hill over looking Narragansett Bay, stands before all who enter the harbor as a gracious symbol of strength and beauty.

Like so many buildings in Newport, Trinity Church has its own distinctive history. The organ, for instance, was given by George Berkeley and tested by Handel before it was sent from England. During his three-year stay in Newport Berkeley also gave a number of sermons from the pulpit.

Buildings such as Trinity Church and Brick Market indicate the promise that this town had during the colonial period. Unfortunately, the economic and cultural growth experienced was curtailed by the Revolutionary War. During the war, British troops occupied Newport and, like so many weeds, strangled all the promising elements of this town. Beautiful orchards were cut down to be used for firewood. Many of the homes were burned, and the harbor was cut off from all commerce.

By the end of the war, Newport resembled a shipwreck that had been heaped on a rocky coast to waste away. Many wondered if it would ever regain its original grandeur.

Not until well after the war did Newport begin to come back to life. Once again, prosperous families returned during the summer months. In the latter half of the 19th-century, Newport experienced a renaissance that only people with fairy-tale imaginations could have conceived.

Industrialists such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Edward Berwind built mansions which, by day, seem to rise out of the sea like massive stone fortresses and, at night, glisten like exotic jewels. Newport became them cultural and social mecca of America. For it was here that Henry James and Edith Wharton summered, William Morris Hunt and John Singer Sargent painted, and the wealthiest men in the world played polo, sailed, and lounged on spacious verandas overlooking paradisiacal gardens.

Existence was subline for everyone; that is, for everyone but the servants. After all, someone had to maintain the grounds, prepare the lavish meals, and attend to the many miscellaneous chores. Occasionally a servant was even asked to play bridge when a fourth player was needed. However, rather than sitting in on the game he would stand.

Such was life during the golden era of Newport. The depression of the 1930s brought an end to this fairy-tale existence.Many families could no longer afford to summer in the extravagant manner they were accustomed to. Gala balls that had cost half a million dollars to stage were now nothing mroe than memories, and the mansions that had been regarded as gilded treasures were treated as burdensome monstrosities.

Many of the homes were threatened with destruction, but eight of the mansions were purchased by the Newport Preservation Society and are now open to the public so that everyone can get a glimpse into a magnificent part of history that will probably never be duplicated.

Each home has its own personality. The Breakers, because of its sheer size and ornate decor, is considered the most impressive of these homes. It was owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, wealthy shipping and railroad maganate who built the mansion on a jutting bluff with a spectacular view of the Atlantic. On stormy days the surf thunders against the rocks that line the shore -- hence, The Breakers.

The architect commissioned for this project was Richard Morris Hunt. As its size and symmetry suggests, he attempted to convey a sense of strength and order in his design of The Breakers. Inside, one cannot help but marvel at the size and beauty of this structure. Everything, from the Doric columns on the facade to the crystal chandeliers in the ballroom, is huge.

Kingscote, another of the eight mansions, is a doll's house by comparison. The house seems to welcome rather than intimidate all who approach its front door. While the wealth and good taste of the former owner is apparent, one doesn't feel overwhelmed by opulence. In fact the personality and interests of the owner are very much reflected in the decor of the home.

King, who had made his fortune in the China trade, filled his home with artifacts collected from all over the world. Some of the most outstanding pieces include a Chippendale desk made by Townsend and Goddard (a famous cabinetmaking team from Newport), a Rose Canton punch bowl, Chinese temple urns, and a huge bronze dinner gong anchored to the wall.

Touring the mansions is only one of many activities of Newport. Other places to visit include beautiful Hammersmith Farm, the former Auchincloss estate where Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis spent her summers as a girl and young woman. The Museum of Transportation on Bellvue Avenue has a large collection of cars that were used by prominent Newporters.

As one of America's most elegant towns it is no surprise that tennis had its American birth rite in Newport. The sport was first played on a grass court at the Newport Casino which is still used for major tennis tournaments.

Sailing is another sport that has it American roots in Newport. Narragansett Bay offers some of the most favorable boating conditions on the East Coast. For sailing enthusiasts this is a particularly exciting year because of the America's Cup races which will have their grand finale in mid-September.

If you like to shop, try the stores along Bellvue Avenue, Brick Market Place, and Bowens Wharf.

For additional information contact the Newport Chamber of Commerce, 10 America's Cup Avenue. Newport, R. I. 02840.

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