old house fancy

Antiques and old house lovers like me always have their eye out for interesting architecture.  Going for a drive somewhere is elevated to a journey of discovery.  Whether it is the excitement of finding something unique in old house design or the satisfaction of coming across one that is well preserved and loved, there’s bound to be something interesting or new.

On a recent visit to Newport, driving around some of its tight streets where houses are knitted together within an inch of each other, I noted how clever the early colonists had to be in expanding their homes for growing families.  The juxtaposition of styles could be quite peculiar.  Considering the bit of land they had to work with, it’s no surprise that some expansions might look a bit odd – like this one:


Whether old or new, odd as it is, it works for me.  There’s still a charm and fancy to it.  That collision of gable roof into gambrel, old materials and primitive odd chimney, the mix of clapboard and shingle, proud and sturdy window frames, crooked old door – this quirky little corner house, for me, just feels right.  It’s not just the materials – which are certainly key – but the proportion, balance, the weight of it.

Unlike some thoughtless additions done to old houses today, this one was thought out, each detail considered.  Down the street from me there is a late 19th century home that for the past year or so has undergone renovation (I use the term ‘undergone’ as in a patient who’s undergone a terrible surgery).  In original form, it was a simple, graceful, symmetrical little thing, but the new owner needed double the size.  Thankfully most of it went off the back.   All things considered, it could have been worse.  But then, out of the blue, out of necessity to house many vehicles, a garage the size of Mount Vernon arose.  Smack in line with the front of the house and dwarfing it, the three large bays face the road.  Really?  Wouldn’t you want to hide that?  Attach it behind the house if you must, or site it in the back forty, but don’t compete with the house.

There’s so much we can do to wreck the ambiance of a lovely home, to wake you from that dream glimpse into the past – but a major one that is hard to change is to build a garage (a giant one) with many bays of overhead doors and plop it right up front and next to your house.

How quickly this “acceptable” renovation went awry.  The builder/homeowner made a decision for convenience rather than aesthetic.  When a lovely old home lies outside of historic districts, there’s not much we can do.  There are no architectural police.  The old house doesn’t come with directions.

In the old days, their hands were tied, designs were few and fairly typical.  Carpenters tools were limited, their knowledge came from a few books, and there were rules.  They did their best to observe them, and when they stretched them the results were still “quaint.”

Now we have new tools, books and ideas – but no rules.  For old houses, that can only work in the right hands – the hands of those who have studied those old rules and are passionate about them.  Thankfully there are many.  There are experts to consult – for free!  Historians, historic district commissions and preservation groups – local, statewide, nationwide – all want to help.  Even museums to visit.  For any area outside of our own bailiwick, we need to put egos aside, and just ask.  Go on a journey of discovery – and may you find many surprises, fashioned by the “right hands.”




While it’s the architecture that lures us to these houses in the first place, it’s discovering the unique  stories of the original builders that enliven the experience.  From heiress to sea captain, revolutionary soldier to merchant, post rider to pig farmer, all who had a hand in the birth and direction of this experiment, make every visit an adventure.  While the home of George Berkeley, 18th century theologian and philosopher, was not  open when we were there, it was still a treat to view the unique architecture outside, and impetus to discover the fascinating history of the man responsible for it.  A man after my own heart, in his love for art, philosophy and architecture.   One of the books in his vast library was by a British architect named Inigo Jones, who had studied the architecture of Palladio in Italy, a style that obviously struck a chord with everyone as it began to be reproduced in England and here in America in the 18th century.  George Berkeley thought it the perfect addition to his little cottage as well.   Only thing is, to achieve this double doorway on his center chimney house with tiny front hall, one door would have to be false.

I love knowing that someone of his substance was willing to sacrifice convenience for the sake of good design.  Good design is everything.  And he was willing to live with the minor annoyance that he would never be able to open the door on the left.   But it was worth it.  I imagine that every time he walked up that pathway his new doorway reminded him of his travels through Europe and the magnificent architecture he had witnessed there.  He must have been excited to bring it here to this new land.  Thank goodness he did.

Whitehall,  what once sat on a hundred acres, now sits on one.   That it exists at all is a miracle.  Divine intervention, perhaps, since its owner was a famous clergyman.  Dean George Berkeley was a minister, teacher, philosopher, one of the leading thinkers of his time, who counted among his friends Alexander Pope and  Jonathan Swift.  He was considered one of the big three 18th century philosophers with Locke and Hume.  His philosophical work Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge made him famous at home and abroad, he entered Newport in 1729 a celebrity.   He was attracted to Newport for its forward thinking and religious freedom.  Here he planned to establish a plantation, a home base, from which he could furnish crops and supplies for the college he planned to establish in Bermuda where the sons of the colonists would be trained to become clergymen.   The promised funds never materialized, and he would soon return to London, then to his native Ireland where he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne.

His influence in just three short years here, from 1729 to 1731, was grand.  Before he left he donated most of the thousand books he brought with him to Yale, the rest to Harvard.  The divinity school at Yale was named after him.  University of California Berkeley was also named after him, inspired by a line from one of his writings – “Westward the course of empire takes its way…”  He influenced King’s College (Columbia) and Brown University.  He helped found Newport’s Redwood Library and the Literary and Philosophical Society.  He donated his house and land to Yale, the proceeds were to fund scholarships for students studying Greek and Latin.  Now a scholar in residence spends a few weeks a year in the apartment upstairs – amidst the books and spirit of the great mind that once inhabited it – how glorious!

I could live like this

Rough Point

Have you visited Rough Point?  The home of Doris Duke, heiress to a fortune and colonial Newport’s most famous benefactor, sits at the end of that millionaire’s mile, Bellevue Avenue, overlooking the majesty of the Atlantic.  Rock cliffs, glistening waters, blue skies and gentle breezes are the backdrop for Frederick Law Olmstead’s landscape and the manorial home built for a Vanderbuilt.  Doris’ father purchased the home in 1922, renovated it, and died shortly after, leaving his estate and millions to his 12 year old daughter.  Since her mother, wealthy in her own right, would probably remarry, Doris’ father made sure his daughter was personally provided for, for life. Was she ever.  Despite having never attended college, she proved quite capable of managing her affairs, properties and fortune.

Her life story is the stuff of movies – from a failed first marriage to a failed but glamorous second –   she was a world traveler, collector, philanthropist.  Her summer home, Rough Point, was donated to the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1999, an organization she founded, and is open for tours in summer.  The tour is a walk through her story and history.  Her collections of art and antiques are placed artfully, and comfortably, throughout the home, the perfect background as the guide weaves you through the many rooms and stories of her life. From the drawing room to the solarium where Doris entertained locals like Jackie Kennedy, and enjoyed the company of her pets,  from a dozen rescued dogs to a few camels (yes camels!), every room in the house is both a surprise and a delight.

At first arrival, as you drive into the driveway to the parking area, you are greeted by two topiary camels.  They represent the real ones that once roamed the grounds, gifts from a Saudi billionaire.  As we parked, a couple was returning to their car next to us, both insisting adamantly that this was the best of all the mansions they’d visited.  We were excited to hear that.  While waiting for the tour to begin, we roamed the grounds.  Breathtaking.  The only negative for these mansion-owners is the Cliff Walk.  While great for the rest of us to be able to walk the entire point and share their grand views, it has always been an intrusion for the residents.  Somehow, they manage.

While other mansions can feel palatial and ostentatious, this one, despite its size, feels homey.  Perhaps because Ms. Duke actually used it regularly, up until her death in 1993.

Meanwhile, nearby Newport was crumbling.  The neighborhood around the working wharves had become a place that the well heeled would avoid.  Dickensian streets with crooked buildings and broken brick chimneys, stood in contrast to the  Gilded Age palaces.  Settled by Baptists, Portuguese Jews and Quakers – now there’s an exciting and unique history to explore – Newport was the first capitol of Rhode Island.  Its history is fascinating, from whaling port to pirates, marble mansions to Jack and Jackie, from decline to restoration, from colonial to palatial, this city’s diverse history can be read at every corner.   One could spend years discovering it – and it would be worth it.  And it is all thanks to Doris Duke’s vision to restore that city, house by crumbling house.  You can find all the info on Newport’s restoration at the Newport Restoration Foundation’s site, and in their book – Extraordinary Vision: Doris Duke and the Newport Restoration Foundation.

Put Rough Point on your list of places to visit next spring, and Hunter House, and have chowder at the Black Pearl on Bannister’s wharf, enjoy a harbor cruise in the afternoon, and dinner at the White Horse Tavern.   And if there’s room,  the Viking Hotel – it’ll be one terrific weekend!

Hunter House, Newport RI