This Rhode Island town has more than just the mansions that made I famous
By Lauren Walser | From Preservation | Summer 2012
In the mid-19th century, America’s elite escaped the summer heat in the small harbor town of Newport, R.I. By the early 1900s, wealthy bankers, politicians, and industrial barons were building spectacular mansions along the cliffs and up and down Bellevue Avenue—the postcard image of the city today.
But before the mansions and the yachts, Newport was a small settlement founded in 1639 on principles of religious tolerance. A major port town throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, Newport is home to Colonial buildings, many designed by Peter Harrison, the first professionally trained architect in America. The British occupied the town during the American Revolution, and the U.S. Naval Academy relocated there from Annapolis during the Civil War. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Newport hosted U.S. Open Tennis Championships, America’s Cup sailing races, and the first U.S. Open golf championships.
People still flock here each summer to attend the annual Newport Jazz Festival, set sail in the harbor, or stay in lavish historic hotels such as The Chanler at Cliff Walk, The Hotel Viking, and Newport Beach Hotel & Suites. To find out about the best of Newport, Preservation spoke with three local experts in the know:
Chuck Flippo, local tour guide and manager of Loeb Visitors Center at the Touro Synagogue, a National Trust Historic Site.
Kim Salerno, artist, University of Rhode Island design instructor, and Newport Historical Society volunteer.
Turner Scott, longtime Newport resident, local attorney, and history buff.
“Whenever my parents or in-laws come to town, we go to Clarke Cooke House,” Salerno says. Built in 1780, this three-story Colonial house is now a popular restaurant, offering five dining areas, a robust wine list, and harbor views. “You can sit in the open-air bistro room in the summer, look out over the water, feel the breeze, and watch the chefs, all in a great 18th-century building,” she says.
For classic American fare and fresh seafood, Flippo recommends White Horse Tavern. Built as a private residence in 1652 and converted into a restaurant and lodge two decades later, it’s the oldest tavern in the country and, says Flippo, “a great place where you can enjoy a nice meal and a good drink in a Colonial setting. One of the things I like most about it is that it was once owned by a pirate.” That would be the notorious William Mayes Jr., who took over his father’s inn in 1702.
Scott enjoys the Canfield House on Memorial Boulevard. Sit next to the fireplace in the Victorian dining room, or savor a cigar and live music near the bar. Scott also suggests heading to Broadway, where restaurants such as The Fifth Element, a casual bar and grill, Norey’s Star Restaurant, an eclectic bistro, and Salvation Restaurant + Bar are recent additions to one of the oldest sections of Newport.
One thing Flippo, Salerno, and Scott all agree on: There is no shortage of bed-and-breakfasts in Newport. Scott’s wife operates one, The Barn, in a former polo barn converted into a private suite for visitors. But Scott also recommends the Francis Malbone House. The Peter Harrison-designed mansion was built in 1760 for a shipping merchant and seized by the British during the Revolutionary War; today the harbor-front inn offers rooms with Jacuzzis and fireplaces, and common areas filled with Queen Anne furniture. The owners of this 20-room bed-and-breakfast (who, Scott discloses, are his clients) also operate the 1912 Hilltop Inn, just a couple of blocks from the wharfs.
“Before we moved here, my wife and I very much enjoyed staying at La Farge Perry House,” says Flippo. Named for its early residents, stained-glass artist John La Farge and his wife, Margaret Perry La Farge, the Victorian inn is within walking distance of the city’s main historic attractions. Flippo also points visitors to the 1864 OceanCliff Resort, a 10-acre waterfront estate just outside town, and the 1874 CastleHill, originally the summer residence of scientist and explorer Alexander Agassiz.
Topping Salerno’s list are Architect’s Inn, a Victorian mansion built in 1873 and outfitted in period furnishings, and the Federal era Samuel Durfee House. “The Architect’s Inn is up the hill a little bit in a quieter, tree-lined neighborhood, whereas the Durfee House is right there in the thick of the 19th-century city,” she says. “Both are beautiful.”
“You cannot come to a town like Newport and not take a walking tour,” Flippo says. The Newport Historical Society conducts a number of tours year-round, such as the Road to Independence tour, highlighting Newport’s role in the American Revolution. For a look at “the seamier side of Newport’s history,” Flippo recommends the Rogues and Scoundrels tour on crime, punishment, and pirates in early Newport. And if you decide to visit the mansions, Flippo says, “Go to Kingscote. It’s not a grandiose mansion like The Breakers or Marble House, but you get your own small-group tour with a real tour guide.” He also recommends the town’s many religious sites, such as the 1699 Great Friends Meeting House, 1726 Trinity Episcopal Church, and 1763 Touro Synagogue.
For a break from the bustle of downtown, stroll the Point, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, filled with quaint Colonial houses and quiet parks. “There are no T-shirt shops there,” Salerno says. She also recommends the Peter Harrison-designed Redwood Library & Athenaeum, founded in 1747 and the oldest lending library in the country. For 18th- and 19th-century American art, visit William Vareika Fine Arts on Bellevue Avenue; “I walk by all the time just to look in the window,” she says.
“Definitely hike along Cliff Walk,” Scott says. This 3.5-mile walk lines the eastern shore of Newport and, Scott says, is the best way to see Newport’s natural beauty and Gilded Age mansions. He recommends a water taxi ride to Fort Adams State Park to see where soldiers lived from 1824 to 1950. The island also offers panoramic views of the Newport Harbor. If you opt to drive, Scott gives this insider tip: “Take an immediate left at the gate, go past Eisenhower’s summer house, and then head down by the water to the park and watch the boats. Very few people go there, and it’s incredibly serene.”
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