The Reefs Mansion – The Bells // 1885-1963

‘The Reef’ a fabulous Gilded Age estate in Newport was built in 1885 for Theodore M. Davis by the Boston architectural firm of Sturgis and Brigham. The elegant shingle and stone Queen Anne villa was erected as both a summer house and to house some of Davis’s vast collection of paintings and Egyptian artifacts, collected during his excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings between 1902 and 1913. Besides the architecture of the home, the Reef Estate was also famous for its walled gardens, greenhouses, and outbuildings, sitting upon eighteen acres. overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Following Mr. Davis’ death in 1915, Milton J. Budlong of Providence purchased the estate. Milton divorced from his wife Jessie in 1928, and it was MESSY. Their Newport summer estate was placed in contention. The house, never again lived in by the family. During World War II, anti-aircraft gun emplacements were set up around the grounds, with the mansion housing gunnery personnel. After the War, the estate was given back to the Budlong heirs, who did not reside there. Vandalized throughout the 1950’s, the villa was set on fire in 1961 and demolished two years later in 1963. In 1969, the waterfront property came under the control of the State of Rhode Island and in 1976, became a state park. The old carriage house/stable and a later observation tower (possibly converted from a former water tower) stand today.

Newport Tower // c.1670

No structure in Newport is as hotly debated than the “Newport Tower” located in Touro Park. The old stone, cylindrical tower stands like an ancient relic of ancient Europe, just dropped in downtown Newport. For centuries, people have debated the structure’s history and use. Some say this structure was built by Viking masons who visited North America 1,000 years ago, while other theories (more rooted in fact) share another story. The tower was located at the upper end of the plot behind the now-demolished mansion built by Benedict Arnold, the first colonial governor of Rhode Island (his grandson was the infamous Benedict Arnold, the traitor who switched sides to fight with the British. In 1677, Arnold mentions “my stone built Wind Mill” in his will is evidence that the tower was once used as a windmill. However, some state that there is no reference to Arnold ever having the structure built, with some stating that he simply repurposed the building to be used as the base of a windmill. In 1837, Danish archaeologist Carl Christian Rafn proposed a Viking origin for the tower in his book Antiquitates Americanæ. This hypothesis is predicated on the uncertainty of the southward extent of the early Norse explorations of North America, particularly in regard to the actual location of Vinland, where Leif Erikson is believed to have first landed around 1000 CE, nearly five centuries before the voyages of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot.. Rafn’s popularization of the theory led to a flurry of interest and “proofs” of Norse settlement in the area. Mortar tests completed in the 20th century basically prove this theory to be false, and date the structure to the middle of the 1600s, but it is fun to imagine it is much older!

Bird’s Nest Cottage // 1872

One of the more unique and relatively modest summer cottages in Newport, Rhode Island is Bird’s Nest Cottage on Bellevue Avenue. The cottage was built in 1871-2 for Samuel Freeman Pratt, who lived his early life in Boston. The son of a carpenter, Pratt was was working as a carver in Boston, where he saw success as an inventor with several patents to his credit. From the success of one of his inventions, a device for sewing machines, the invention gave him the financial freedom to explore other interests, namely architecture. In Boston, he likely learned his craft from partner John Stevens, before setting out on his own. He designed buildings in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, but decided to reside in Newport. While many state that this cottage for Pratt was designed by the Newport resident and star-chitect Richard Morris Hunt, the design and the fact that it was his own cottage lead me to believe it was designed by Pratt himself. The eclectic cottage features complex gable shapes, fancy stickwork under the eaves, projecting corner bays, and a wall covering of multicolored slate roof shingles. It is now a professional office.

John Bush House // c.1845

Here is another of my favorite non-Gilded Age houses in Newport, the John Bush House on Mann Street! John T. Bush (1817-1881) was listed in directories as a “wool-puller” which clearly was a lucrative job, as he could afford to build this high-style Gothic Revival home. This house is heavily influenced by the publications of Andrew Jackson Downing first published in 1842, so the house is probably built within a couple years of that date. Hallmark features of the Gothic Revival style include: lancet windows, bargeboards, windows with drip molds, and steeply pitched roofs; this house has all of the above!

Levi Gale Mansion // 1835

One of my favorite houses in Newport, Rhode Island is this amazing high-style Greek Revival mansion across from the Touro Synagogue. The house was built in 1835 for Levi Gale, and designed by esteemed Rhode Island architect Russell Warren. Gale was born in New Orleans and moved to Newport and is listed as a merchant. It is possible that Levi Gale was involved in the Triangular Trade, the trading of enslaved people, sugar (often in its liquid form, molasses), and rum between West Africa, the West Indies and Rhode Island. Many do not realize, but Rhode Island was heavily involved in the slave trade. The house follows the more traditional Federal form, but with two-story composite pilasters and flush siding, scored and painted white to resemble ashlar marble. The home is elegantly sited, but it is actually not on its original lot. It was actually built adjacent to Washington Square, in the place of the present Newport County Courthouse, and was moved to its present site in 1925. The mansion was cut in half, moved a block away, and re-assembled on a new foundation. It is now used as a Jewish community center, owned by the congregation that owns Touro Synagogue.

Armington House // c.1863

This beautiful mansard-roofed home in Newport was long the residence of the Armington Family. The history is a little murky, but deed research shows the property was purchased in 1863 by Horace E. Armington, a Boston tailor. Horace likely purchased an earlier home and from it, built this larger, Second Empire style house to serve as a summer retreat. The family eventually settled in Newport full-time and their son, also Horace, took a job as Assistant Librarian at the Redwood Library in town. The family owned the property for generations until it was converted to professional office use, likely due to the commercialization in the 20th century of the main streets in Newport. The house retains much of its original detailing including the rooftop belvedere. The later-added shingle siding adds a rustic touch.

Touro Jewish Cemetery and Gate // 1677

Located just a short walk from the oldest extant Jewish synagogue in the United States, Touro Synagogue (last post), the Touro Jewish Cemetery and stately gate, showcase the significance and position Jewish residents held in Newport, going back to Colonial times. The earliest Jews in Newport arrived from Barbados, where a Jewish community had existed since the 1620s. They were of Spanish and Portuguese origin; their families had migrated from Amsterdam and London to Brazil and then to islands in the Caribbean. After the completion of the synagogue in 1763, the Jewish community in Newport realized the need to acquire land for a Jewish cemetery. Two of the original immigrants, Mordechai Campanal and Moses Pacheco purchased the lot at the corner of what is now Kay and Touro Streets for this purpose. In 1843, the cemetery funded the erection of a cemetery gate and fencing to surround the plot. They hired architect Isaiah Rogers to design the gate, which he took inspiration from his design at Boston’s Granary Burying Ground, completed just two years earlier. The Egyptian Revival gate is a very rare example of the style in the United States. On the granite gate, the torches turned to face downward are an acknowledgement of the ending of life’s flame.

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.

Robert Lippitt House // 1854

“Less is more” is a phrase adopted in 1947 by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to describe his minimalist, Miesian glass box buildings. While he was referring to Modern architecture, the same phrase can be used in 19th century design, where massing, form, and materials are showcased in all their glory with little frills or additions. The Robert Lippitt House in Providence was constructed by 1854 for Robert Lincoln Lippitt (1823-1858), who worked with his brother Henry Lippitt in owning and managing textile mills. Henry would later build his own mansion nextdoor to his late brother’s house (see past post). Sadly, Robert died four years after this home was built, at the young age of 34. His widow, Louisa Gorden Hallet remained in the home and remarried within a year of her late husband’s death, to Charles Lippitt, possibly a cousin to Robert. Messy. The home was designed by architect Thomas A. Tefft, a promising and respected young architect who also died young, at the age of 33.

Peter Wanton Snow House // c.1830

This Greek Revival home with a one-story full-length porch was built in 1839 for Peter Wanton Snow, one of the unluckiest men in Providence. Born the son of a leading China trader and the son of a granddaughter of a former governor of Rhode Island, Peter W. Snow (1788-1843) was born into privilege and like many of such stature, could enter the family business with ease and make a lot of money. Peter first sailed for Canton (Guangzhou, China) with his father in 1803. Doubtless because of his father’s position and trading connections, young Snow became the partner of Edward Carrington who, within fewer than a dozen years, was to become one of the richest and best merchants dealing in Chinese goods in Rhode Island, if not in the entire country. Carrington wanted to retire and have Peter Snow take over his agency in China, but Peter did not seem to like it there and always wanted to go back home to the United States. He got the chance for a few years beginning in 1814, but upon returning home, he learned that his only son, Charles, had died a year earlier at the age of five years, and to compound his personal tragedy, Snow lost two baby daughters in the next three years. By 1816, he returned to China but never seemed to be able to get out of debt, while trying to provide for his last two remaining children. Tragedy struck again when his last living daughter died, while he was in China. Peter’s business partner and friend R. B. Forbes before letting Peter know the bad news wrote this.

Mr. Snow is now in as good health as he has been since his arrival in China, still he is weak in body, and a very little trouble or disappointment breaks him down and reduces him completely unable to do anything. Poor man, his countrymen here feel much sympathy for him, and fear the result of this news on him. This daughter has appeared to be the only thing which could induce Mr. Snow to make any exertion, and he often spoke of her with all the feelings of a Father who centered all his happiness, in this world, in making her comfortable and happy, and in the expectation of returning to America and of ending his days in her arms”

While in debt, he somehow had this home built in Providence, likely from assistance from family and colleagues. The land here was purchased by Peter’s wife Jeanette, and the home was likely built soon after. Peter died in 1843, virtually penniless.