Newport's "Age of Innocence" Neighborhood
When imagining the scenes set in Newport from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, it is all too easy to picture the characters swanning in and out of Marble House, Rosecliff, The Elms, or other mansions of their ilk. Yet the Newport from the 1870s and 1880s that she wrote of in her book looked quite different in reality. The “White Elephants… all cry and no wool, all house and no garden, that make now for three or four miles a barely interrupted chain” as Henry James so distastefully described them, were still a decade or two away from being built. While Newport indeed had more than its fair share of mansions at that time (Beaulieu, Beachwood and Chateau Sur Mer, to name a few) the town’s architecture felt closer in spirit to what one sees in Saratoga Springs or Cape May. Populated by genteel rooming houses,
a hotel of some size here and there,
but predominately with gracious Italianate, second empire or rambling Stick and Shingle style cottages, many of which would not have looked out of place in a typical upper middle-class neighborhood of most American Cities at the time. Fortunately, there is a neighborhood in Newport that still retains some of that "Age of Innocence" character from the early Gilded Age period James and Wharton so fondly remembered. Referred to as “Top of the Hill”, it encompasses Old Beach Road, Kay, Catherine and the surrounding streets, bordered by Bellevue Avenue and Memorial Boulevard.
The other week when I happened to find myself in Newport for one night, I fought my immediate impulse to head straight over to the Cliff Walk and Ochre Point and instead decided to explore Top of the Hill. It was an easy walk, just up the street and across Touro Park from the Mill Street Inn where I was staying.
Set above the center of town with views to Easton Pond, the area began to be developed in the 1830s, as Newport saw a revival of summer visitors after an economic depression.
By the 1840s, large hotels such as the Atlantic and the Ocean House had gone up on and around Bellevue Avenue for summer guests and Bath road was built to connect them with Easton Beach (salt water bathing had only recently come into vogue for health purposes).
Around the same time, some regular summer residents began to build cottages of their own. As the hotels and guesthouses became increasingly popular, especially with the middle and professional classes, more of the wealthy and well-heeled decided to follow suit.
In addition to views, Top of the Hill offered easy access to the Newport Reading room, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum and other centers of social activity for the summer colony. It became a popular choice to build over the next several decades along with Harrison and Bellevue Avenues.
The neighborhood holds an encyclopedic range of nineteenth-century resort architecture built over several decades. Walking through the streets one can see how the earlier gothic revival and late Greek Revival cottages were supplanted by the Italianate, Second Empire and more fanciful styles as time went on.
By the 1870s and 1880s, the neighborhood also proudly served as a showcase for the work of a number of the premier nineteenth-century architects and architectural firms.
One can find works by Newport architect George Chaplin Mason that really reflect his range and diversity. From understated,
to the flamboyant
he also chose the neighborhood to build his own home in, a delightful Victorian with Chalet-style influences.
Richard Morris Hunt’s first Newport commission can be found here, The John A Griswold House on Bellevue Avenue, completed in 1864.
Nearby on Old Beach Road is the charming Hypotenuse, which Hunt at one time owned, had moved and extensively remodeled for Colonel George Waring in the early 1870s.
While not palatial, these earlier works of Hunt’s exhibit a more freewheeling spirit of experimentation than some of his later, more academic work.
A number of exquisite early McKim McKim Mead and White designed shingle style homes can also be found here.
Tending to be on a smaller scale than those on Bellevue Avenue, they allow for an intimate appreciation of their talent for massing, imaginative use materials and innovative layouts that can sometimes be overlooked in their larger designs.
Beyond the shingle style, the firm also designed the Commodore William Edgar cottage on Old Beach Road around 1885, one of my favorite Colonial revival homes in Newport (or anywhere for that matter).
Called Sunnyside, it represents a pivotal point in the evolution of the Colonial revival style from the asymmetry of the earlier Queen Anne versions and the more rigorous balanced classicism, which would soon to take over.
By the 1890s, the neighborhood was pretty much built up and the center of fashionable Newport had shifted to Ochre Point, Ocean Drive and farther out Bellevue Avenue where the nouveaux riches were building their palaces, in some cases knocking down older homes similar to those found on the “Top of the Hill in the process. While "the Ton" might have preferred splashier Bellevue Avenue, the neighborhood still retained an air of quiet dignity and was known as an enclave for the intellectual and artsy set throughout the gilded age. Although Newport being Newport, larger mansions did go up occassionally
and older cottages were razed and replaced by newer ones here as well.
Like so many other areas, the twentieth century saw a number of the neighborhood's older homes torn down,
larger properties subdivided for new construction, and historic architecture modernized (for better and worse).
What is amazing though is how much of it remains intact. Also that more tourists do not take the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the neighborhood. While impossible to block out all the modern intrusions, strolling the streets can truly give one a sense of what Gilded Age Newport was like before the domination of the later “mega mansions”.
Surely the ghosts of Mr. James and Mrs. Wharton would approve.