Baylies Mansion // 1903

Commonwealth Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood is a dream, no matter what time of year, though I am a huge fan of it in the winter so the leaves don’t obscure the architectural details! This home just steps from the Public Garden was built in 1903 for Walter Baylies (1862-1936) and his wife, Charlotte. The couple had purchased a c.1860 Second Empire mansion (basically a sister house or twin to the adjacent at 3 Commonwealth Ave), and demolished it for a more “modern” residence. Baylies was extremely wealthy with investments in nearly everything, and he wanted his city residence to stand out amongst the earlier, brick and brownstone townhouses on the eastern edge of the neighborhood. Architect Arthur Rice designed the house in the Renaissance Revival style, and it is finished with Indiana Limestone. Of particular note is the one-story ballroom, which was built to the side of the home, set back behind a small garden. An empty house lot, formerly occupied by a stable, was used simply for the Baylies’ ballroom, constructed in 1909 for their daughter. Talk about a status symbol! The home was purchased by Walter’s heirs in 1941 by the Boston Center for Adult Education. The home was again purchased in 2020, and is back to a single-family home! I can’t even imagine how stunning the interior is!

Clarendon Court // 1904

Built at the tail-end of the Gilded Age in Newport, this turn-of-the-century mansion evokes feelings of country estates in England. “Clarendon Court” was built in 1904 for Edward Collings Knight, Jr. (1863-1936) and his first wife, Clara W. Dwight (1862-1910). Edward C. Knight was a railroad executive and amateur artist who “exhibited more talent at spending money than making it”, which was evident from his architectural taste and timing for building such an expensive home in Newport, which was beginning to wane in popularity at the time. Clarendon Court was actually designed in the 18th century by Colen Campbell, a renowned Scottish architect. The country estate was never built, but Gilded Age architect Horace Trumbauer, found the design in one of Campbell’s old books, and except for removing the cupolas over the wings either side of the central block, he reproduced a perfect copy. Trumbauer had just a year before designed a townhouse for the couple in Philadelphia. Edward Knight originally named the mansion “Claradon Court” after his wife Clara. In 1930, Claradon Court was purchased by Maisie Caldwell (1878-1956) and her third husband, Colonel William Hayward (1877-1944), legendary commander of the “Harlem Hellfighters” during World War One. Maisie had inherited a fortune of $50 million from her second husband, Morton Freeman Plant, a railroad and steamship magnate. The couple renamed the mansion Clarendon Court, a more traditional name.

Clarendon Court was later purchased by Claus von Bülow and Martha Sharp Crawford, who was known as “Sunny von Bülow”. Sunny was worth over $75 million and updated the mansion and grounds to exceptionally elegant conditions. It was known that Sunny and Claus had a rough marriage, but it came to a head when on December 26, 1979, after the family had come together for Christmas at their mansion, she was found unresponsive and was rushed to the hospital where she slipped into coma but was revived. After days of testing, doctors determined the coma was the result of low blood sugar and diagnosed her as hypoglycemic, warning her against overindulging on sweets or going too long without eating. No foul play was suspected at the time. One year later, on the evening of December 21, 1980, while celebrating Christmas with her family at their mansion, she again displayed confusion. She was put to bed by her family, but in the morning she was discovered unconscious on the bathroom floor. She was taken to the hospital where it became clear that this time she had suffered severe enough brain injury to produce a persistent vegetative state. A hypodermic needle was found in a black bag in Bulow’s study and coupled with their maid’s testimony he was subsequently charged with her murder, accused of injecting his wife with insulin so he could live at Clarendon on her money with his mistress. His mistress was the actress Alexandra (Moltke) Isles, better known as “Victoria Winters” in Dark Shadows. In 1982, in a sensational case that gripped the country, Bülow was convicted. But, he appealed in 1985 and was acquitted. His stepchildren then filed a $56 million law suit against him, which was dropped two years later: Bülow agreed to divorce his comatose wife, relinquish all rights to her fortune, leave the country and never to profit from the story. Bülow moved to London where he kept a low profile for the rest of his life while Sunny remained in a vegetative state in New York until she eventually passed away in 2008. 

The Breakers – Library // 1895

Tied as my favorite room with the Morning Room at the iconic Breakers Mansion in Newport, the jaw-dropping library is almost too good to be true. The library was designed to be the centerpiece of life for Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was always well-read. The walls are paneled with Circassian walnut cut in Europe and stamped with gold. The ceiling is coffered with more gold leaf. The fireplace in the library is probably my favorite in the mansion, which was acquired from a 16th-century French chateau, Chateau d’Arnay Ie Duc. The walls in the library and its smaller alcove are covered with wainscoting of Circassian walnut decorated with low relief carving and gold leaf; the walls above the woodwork are covered with panels of gold-embossed Spanish leather. Yes, leather walls! What is your favorite part of the Breakers Library??

The Breakers – Music Room // 1895

You know you’ve “made it” if you have a music room, especially if you have one in your summer mansion in Newport! The Music Room in The Breakers evokes the opulent Parisian interiors of the Second Period and when inside the room, you just feel sensory overload (in the best way possible. The room is located off the Great Room and Morning Room, at the southern end of the house. The Music Room was used for recitals and dances for the Vanderbilt Family and guests. The room displays ornate woodwork and furnishings designed by Richard Van der Boyen and built by J. Allard of Paris. The room looks like it was plucked out of a French building and dropped into the mansion, and that is because it was! The room’s interior was constructed completely in France and then sent to America where it was installed at The Breakers by French craftsmen. My favorite parts of the interior are the bay window at the end and the gilt gold coffered ceiling.

The Breakers – Morning Room // 1895

Possibly my favorite room in The Breakers mansion is the Morning Room, found on the first floor, just off the Great Hall and lower loggia. The Morning Room is executed in a late Renaissance style and faces east to catch the morning sun and provides sweeping views of the Atlantic. It served as a family sitting room at all times of the day. The interior design, including the fixtures, woodworking, and furniture, were designed by French architect Richard Bouwens van der Boijen and designer Jules Allard. The predominant grey, and gold colors of the Morning Room are echoed in its fireplace which is made of Campan marble. On the walls, you will find the most stunning shimmering silver wall panels, depicting ancient Greek goddesses. It was originally believed that these features were silver leaf, but the Newport County Preservation Society investigated further, determining it is actually platinum! The Vanderbilts clearly wanted this room to shimmer with the sunrise, so the use of platinum, which never tarnishes, was a great solution!

The Breakers – Great Hall // 1895

Merry Christmas from The Breakers! This 1895 Gilded Age mansion is the best to explore during December, when the halls are decked and stunning Christmas trees adorn the lavish rooms (learn more about the mansion in my last post) When you walk into The Breakers, you enter the Great Hall. Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the Great Hall after the open-air courtyards in Italian villas, but enclosed due to the tough New England winters. The palatial space (measuring 50 foot square), even if crowded by tourists trying to get the perfect shot on their smartphones, feels spacious yet somehow welcoming given the art museum-like detailing. The walls are made of carved limestone from Caen on the coast of France and adorned with plaques of rare marbles. Elaborately carved pilasters decorated with acorns and oak leaves support a massive carved and gilt-cornice which surrounds a ceiling painted to depict a windswept sky, further expressing the open-air courtyard feeling envisioned by Hunt, the architect. Four bronze chandeliers dangle from the gilded ceiling, and flood the room with warm light, evoking warm summers in Italy.

The Breakers // 1895

The most opulent of all summer ‘cottages’ in Newport is the iconic Gilded Age mansion, The Breakers. This mansion was completed in 1895 as a summer residence for Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Cornelius’ grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad. Cornelius Vanderbilt II became President of the New York Central Railroad system in 1885, and bought a wooden summer house called The Breakers in Newport during that same year. The original Breakers Mansion burned in a fire in 1892 and was rebuilt, but more substantially. Vanderbilt commissioned famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to rebuild it. Vanderbilt insisted that the building be made as fireproof as possible, so the structure of the building used steel trusses and no wooden parts. He even required that the boiler housed in an underground space below the front lawn. The Italian Renaissance-Beaux Arts style mansion was likely the most expensive home constructed in New England at the time at a cost of over $7 Million USD (equivalent to over $150 million today).

Cornelius Vanderbilt died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1899 at age 55, leaving The Breakers to his wife Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt. She outlived him by 35 years and died at the age of 89 in 1934. She left The Breakers to her youngest daughter Countess Gladys Széchenyi (1886–1965). In 1948, Gladys leased the near-impossible to maintain property to The Preservation Society of Newport County for $1 per year. The Preservation Society bought The Breakers and approximately 90% of its furnishings in 1972 for $365,000 ($2.3 million today) from Countess Sylvia Szapary, Gladys’ daughter, although the agreement granted her life tenancy. Upon her death in 1998, The Society agreed to allow the family to continue to live on the third floor, which is not open to the public. The last-remaining family members residing there were evicted from the third floor due to safety concerns, but others state it is retaliation for the Szápárys’ opposition of the controversial Breakers Welcome Center, the plan for which other members of their family, including Gloria Vanderbilt, also opposed.

Newport City Hall // 1900

Newport, Rhode Island was settled in 1639 from colonists, who took land from the Narragansett people, who had lived on the land for generations. Newport eventually grew to be the largest of the original settlements that later became the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Newport served as the seat of Rhode Island’s government until the current Rhode Island State House in Providence was completed in 1904. Newport was a major center of the slave trade in colonial and early America, active in the “triangle trade” in which slave-produced sugar and molasses from the Caribbean were carried to Rhode Island and distilled into rum that was then carried to West Africa and exchanged for captives. In all, about 60% of slave-trading voyages launched from North America – in some years more than 90% departed from the tiny state, many of which left from Newport. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, wealthy southern planters seeking to escape the heat began to build summer cottages. By the end of the 19th century, a large number of America’s elite would build summer “cottages” in the town, transforming much of it to the Gilded Age splendor we see today. Stay tuned for a sampling of Newport buildings.

Newport City Hall was completed in 1900 from Newport-based architect and builder John Dixon Johnston. The massive Beaux-Arts style building was constructed of granite block and capped with a mansard roof with iron cresting. Tragically, a fire destroyed much of the interior and the roof in 1925, leading to a re-imagining of City Hall. In the 1920s, Colonial design prevailed in New England, and architect William Cornell Appleton envisioned the building with more Colonial features. Palladian windows and a boxed-off fourth floor were added, along with a towering cupola.

Bernard Jenney House // 1908

This stunning home in Brookline’s Cottage Farm neighborhood was built in 1908 for Bernard Jenney, the assistant treasurer of the Jenney Oil Company. Stephen Jenney, had founded Jenney Oil Company in Boston in 1812, as a kerosene, coal and whale oil producer. By the 1860s, Bernard Sr. and his brother Francis took over the company which became known as the Jenney Manufacturing Company. The newly established company focused primarily on production and distribution of petroleum products for factories and businesses. The Jenney Manufacturing Company took off in the early 1900s due to the proliferation of personal automobiles in Boston and they expanded a new manufacturing center in City Point, South Boston, which had a capacity of 500 barrels of oil a day. Jenney auto oil and gasoline became a major supplier and after Bernard Sr.’s death in 1918, under Bernard Jr.’s leadership, the company began to develop gas stations in New England. The company continued into the 1960s when it was acquired by Cities Service, later rebranding as Citgo. Jenney resided here until his death in 1939. According to the 1935 Brookline street list, the occupants included his daughter’s family Mary & Francis Brewer, three maids and a laundress. The house was acquired by Boston University in 1963 and has long served as the home of former president John Silber.

The architectural firm of Kilham & Hopkins was hired to design the home, which is French Renaissance Revival in style. The home itself is an architectural landmark. When it was published in ‘The American Architect’ in 1910, the house was described as, “A Study in French design of the Louis XVI period”. Additionally, the home (of course) featured a vehicle garage as the family must have had some cars based on the line of work. The home is now listed for sale for a cool $4,888,000 price tag!

Fletcher Free Library // 1904

On July 14, 1873, Mrs. Mary L. Fletcher and her daughter, Miss Mary M. Fletcher, gave the city of Burlington, VT, $20,000 for the founding of the Fletcher Free Library. Half of this sum was to be spent on books; the other half was used to start an endowment for the library. By 1901, the library had outgrown its location in the old City Hall building. In the same year, Andrew Carnegie made a gift of $50,000 for the construction of a new library. In 1902, an architectural competition was created with entries from Boston, New York, Buffalo, Montpelier, Vermont, and Lowell, Massachusetts, but a young Burlington architect, Walter R. B. Willcox won the commission. Willcox designed the new ornate library that year and in August, 1904, the new library was dedicated and opened for business. In the early to mid-1970’s there was some pressure from the citizenry to demolish the Carnegie building and rebuild on the site, which coincided with Burlington’s large urban renewal policies in the downtown area. In response, a group of Burlington residents formed The Committee to Save the Fletcher Free Library Building. A petition was circulated, and as a result, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. In 1977, a grant of $234,000 made possible the stabilization and external repair of the building, and later an addition was constructed, to allow the historic library to meet the needs of the much larger city.