A Gilded Age History of Newport's Harrison Avenue and Halidon Hill neighborhood
I never thought much about the area of Harrison Avenue around Halidon Hill as being a hotspot during Newport’s Gilded Age. Aside from a few stellar holdovers like Bonniecrest and Harbor Court, I knew Edith Wharton’s parents had their cottage Pencraig there (and frankly always wondered why). Over time the area began popping up more and more often during research in association with various gilded age luminaries, including Whitneys and Vanderbilts who summered there. Delving a little deeper I quickly found while it may not have achieved the same degree of popularity as Bellevue Avenue or Ochre Point, this enclave overlooking the harbor had its own cachet, populated by a mixture of Old New York names with enough “Nobs” and “Swells” thrown in to keep it chic.
The neighborhood also contained one of Newport’s earliest summer cottages; the Peter Harrison house, built in the 18th century. It was moved there and enlarged in the mid-19th century by Edward King. Known as Harrison House, it was the summer home of Baltimore resident (and Napoleon’s nephew) Colonel Jerome Bonaparte for many years.
It was later purchased and enlarged again by Gibson Fahnestock who kept his yacht Shenandoah berthed at his private dock nearby.
Isaac Hartshorn (a doctor who made a large fortune in rubber manufacturing) had a large, multi-gabled stone gothic revival villa built on the top of Halidon Hill in the 1850s.
Aptly named Halidon Hall, his daughter Edith later took up residence there along with husband Arthur Livingston Mason and their eight children. The main house changed hands several times in the twentieth century, most notably to the Cowsill family, a rock group in the '60s and '70s that inspired the television series The Partridge Family.
In 1858 David King hired prolific Newport architect George Champlin Mason to design an Italianate residence on Harrison Avenue named Ocean Manor.
It became the summer home of the JH McCurdys of New York who added a wing to the house in 1872. Edward Livingston Ludlow and his wife eventually purchased the cottage, renaming it Mount Aerie. In the summer of 1903 they hosted their young cousin Eleanor Roosevelt there during her first season as a debutante.
Despite remembering the social scene as an ordeal, Eleanor nonetheless forced her own daughter Anna to go through the same ritual a generation later when she came out (Mount Aerie was then owned by Henry and Susan Parish, the Ludlow’s daughter and son in law). Like or not, a season in Newport was considered a necessity for any young woman being introduced to society at the time.
Several members of New York’s Jones clan whose family coffers, enriched by Chemical Bank were further deepened by shrewd real estate investments, and some say responsible for the expression “Keeping up with the Joneses”, discovered the area in the 1850s. Mrs. Mary Mason Jones (who served as great-niece Edith Wharton’s inspiration for the character of Mrs. Manson Mingott in The Age of Innocence) had George Champlin Mason design a handsome Italianate villa named Bay View for her.
Her sister Rebecca, known as Mrs. Colford Jones (the two sisters married first cousins, each named Isaac Jones) had Richard Morris Hunt design a chalet-style cottage for her next door. It was unclear if she ever lived there, for she soon had a Champlin-designed cottage on Bellevue Avenue as well (it was indeed hard to keep up with them). The chalet became the residence of the Hosack family, purchased from them in 1885 by Hugh Willoughby of New York (for $26,000).
In the 1860s Mary’s son Willian Renshaw Jones built a large wood frame cottage named Lawnfield on Harrison Avenue at the same time nephew George Frederick Jones was building Pencraig next door.
A birdseye view of the area from 1878 shows a well-established cluster of estates. In addition to the aforementioned cottages, several other important ones can also be seen.
Immediately adjacent to Pencraig at the far end of the neighborhood was Egerton, built for astronomer Lewis Morris Rutherfurd (supposedly based on an ancestral home in Scotland). His daughter Margaret (nicknamed “Daisy”), married to diplomat Henry White, inherited it after his death.
The Whites were an immensely attractive and popular couple, but tragically Daisy was struck by a degenerative nerve disease in 1899 and never fully recovered. They seldom used Egerton after that, renting it out (most notably to Almeric and Dorothy Whitney Paget, then to her brother Payne Whitney and his wife Helen for several consecutive years).
Next door to Bay View Mason designed a large villa for AG Thorpe. Named Harborview, it was subsequently sold to Whitney Phoenix and later again to Mr and Mrs. F O French of New York, whose daughter Elsie would later marry Alfred Gywnne Vanderbilt.
Across the street from Bay View was the probably the neighborhood’s most elaborate cottage. Originally called Bay Terrace when built for its first owner W. W. Fox, it was renamed Riviera after being purchased by Hugh Dickey of Chicago, whose wife established it as one of the epicenters of Newport’s social scene.
The 1880s saw more additions to the neighborhood, including the Moorings built by architect Schuyler Hamilton Jr. around 1884.
The widowed Mrs. Isaac Hartshorn had a Queen Anne villa named Sonnenschein (later Bluebird Cottage) built for herself on the Halidon Hall property. In 1889 Lorillard Spencer had Peabody and Stearns design a large stone and shingle-style cottage named Chastellux on ten acres adjacent to Ocean Manor.
Lastly, after Edith Jones marriage to Teddy Wharton in 1885 the young couple summered at Pencraig Cottage directly across the street from Pencraig, where her now-widowed mother continued to reside.
Over time, a number of the cottages changed hands. Mrs. Mason Jones granddaughter Alice (Mrs. William Iselin) inherited Bayview. Hamilton Schuyler sold the Moorings to James Clinch Smith (who would go down with the Titanic in 1912)
The Whartons moved over to Lands End before abandoning Newport altogether while Pencraig itself was sold to to the Hamilton Fish Websters, who gave it a Tudor-style makeover. Henry O Havemeyer Jr purchased Lawnfield, renaming it Freidham (after his parents former home on Bellevue Avenue, demolished by the Pembroke Jones to build Sherwood Lodge).
After her divorce from W.K. Vanderbilt Jr, Virginia, Mrs. Graham Fair Vanderbilt (Birdie) rented Chastellux from the Spencers for several seasons, putting her right next door to Elsie, Mrs. French Vanderbilt, (the ex-wife of her former husband’s first cousin), who moved there after her divorce from Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt.
By the 1890s there was also a radical shift in size and style of the cottages built in Newport. In 1895, the architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns was called upon to build a cottage at the sharp curve in Harrison Avenue (which for this post’s purpose serves as the boundary of the neighborhood) for iron magnate William Fletcher Burden and his wife, Daisy.
Named Beech Bound, the enormous, vaguely Scottish baronial-style cottage was sold after Daisy’s death in the 1920s to Henry Baldwin Hyde Ripley.
In 1903 the widowed Mrs. John Nicholas Brown purchased Riviera from the Dickey’s estate. The cottage was razed and a new, grander chateauesque mansion rose in its place.
Named Harbor Court, Mrs. Brown began summering there in 1905 with her young son John Nicholas Brown Jr. whom the press dubbed “The richest boy in the world”.
Riveria was not the only house in the neighborhood to be razed and replaced with something grander. In 1911 Midwestern banker. Stuart Duncan purchased Egerton from the Whites along with the neighboring property. He had the existing home torn down and replaced it with a John Russell Pope-designed Tudor-style mansion.
While the neighborhood saw its share of ups and downs during the first decades of the 20th century (as did all of Newport), it remained fairly intact well into the 1930s, as these aerial photographs taken around 1931 of the various well-kept estates can attest.
On a visit last summer I decided to take a look for what remained today (To Be seen in part 2)