Historic Structures

Newport Casino, Newport Rhode Island

Date added: July 17, 2010 Categories: Rhode Island Commercial

The Newport Casino was built in 1880 for James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald. Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, it was the first of the suburban and resort country clubs which were a new feature in the 1880's. This Shingle Style commercial structure is particularly significant as one of the four buildings that comprise a distinguished commercial street, the east side of Bellevue Avenue beginning at Memorial Boulevard and running south. The development of the street began at the north with the building of the Travers Block at the corner in 1870-1871. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, it is an important example of his early style. The Newport Casino is the next building, and the next one in date. The largest of the four, and historically the best known, it was not only a commercial building but also a social center for the summer colony. The third building in the group is the King Block, designed by the Boston architects Perkins and Betton and built in 1892-1893. The Audrain Building is the southern anchor of the group. The four buildings maintain a long street line and are basically related in scale and massing. They are also related in their use of richly textured surfaces which; at the same time allows great variety and liveliness. Without matching, the buildings compliment each other in a particularly urbane way and form an ensemble which should be preserved.

This description of the building appeared in Artistic Country Seats volume I by George Sheldon:
"For several years the Casino at Newport has been widely known as an extremely beautiful adaptation of Early and Modern English; and thousands of persons in all parts of the country are familiar with the leading features of its architecture, and with its smooth, grassy court and tennis-grounds. The front is a long and low arrangement, the first story being of brick and bands of stone, with three gables on the street, and between each two of them a balustrade of turned balusters. The principal effect depends upon the entrance-arch of molded brick, nineteen feet wide and eleven feet high, above which runs the center gable, forty-one feet wide, and forty-six feet from the ridge to the ground. A projecting balcony on the second story, extending a little wider than the gable, is supported on brick corbels on the wall below, and has a shingle balustrade. The entire length of the front of the main building is one hundred and eighty-five and a half feet.

The central gable is supported on ornamental turned columns, its extreme right and left ends being filled in with a circular framework of spindles, above which rises the main cornice, with rosettes carved in a frieze, and above this again, in the gable itself, a piazza with the upper part of an arch framed in with spindle-work, and at the side a close framework of spindles. The gable lines are very heavily moulded, and the upper part of the gable is filled in with wavy lines which pleasantly vary the effect. At the extreme right and left corners are ornamental panels of carved wood. The other two gables are somewhat smaller, indeed about half the size, with ornamental bay, and panel work on either side of the bay, and with the same description of carving to fill up the angles. The two chimneys, brought out conspicuously in front are very simple in their lines, their size being what chiefly counts.

You enter through the main arch into a hall twelve feet wide and thirty-eight feet deep, which opens directly into the grassy court. To the right is a covered two-story piazza, about nineteen feet wide and one hundred and fifteen feet long, at right angles to the street, which continues in a semicircular piazza of one story, of the same general design, directly opposite the main exit. On the left of the court are the restaurant, about twenty-six feet by forty-eight, and the cafe, about twenty-five feet by forty, which open out by a semicircular piazza into the court. Above the restaurant and cafe is an open piazza of the same height as the one on the opposite side, being about forty feet to the ridge and twenty-five feet to the eaves. These piazzas have a stone foundation and shingled balustrades on the first story; and the upper part of the first story, between the piazza posts, has been filled in with spindle work, the second story having open balustrades with turned spindles.

Taking a position in the semicircular piazza, opposite the main entrance to the court, we look toward that entrance at the reverse side of the front, and are at once struck by the beauty and importance of the central clock tower, the base of which forms a circular room, used by the Executive Committee of the Casino. The height is about sixty feet and the diameter about twenty-two feet, and the circular plan of its first story becomes twelve-sided in the second story, the lines dying into the roof, which is circular above the eaves. The first story of this side of the Casino is entirely of brick, and the main door is much elaborated in an ornamental design which takes in the three windows of the second story. Over these windows, a shingled arch carries the eaves of the main roof. To the left, three gables break up the main roof, generously ornamented with cut shingles and carved work.

At the extreme left angle of the court, still maintaining our position opposite the main exit, we get a view of a double gable arrangement, and, in front, of the second story of the side balcony before described, while at the extreme right angle appear the windows of the cafe and its small semicircular piazza, which forms an entrance to both the restaurant and the cafe.

The green court-yard is a delightful place of promenade under the open sky, often illuminated with the electric light, its dimensions being fully one hundred and seventy feet in length and one hundred and fifteen feet in width. Of special charm is the English ivy, which, with in the last year or so, has become luxurious about the foundations, and even far above them.

Turning face about in the same semicircular piazza opposite the main entrance, we look directly upon the tennis-grounds, very extensive comprising several acres, and approached by an easy flight of steps. Walking into the tennis-grounds, and looking back toward our former position, we see the rear of the semicircular piazza, and a small octagonal open tower at the right with a helmet-shaped roof. The ends of the side piazzas, at either angle of the court, also appear, and in the half arc in front of us a small fountain. The cost of this famous Casino was about one hundred and twenty five thousand dollars, without the grounds. The architects are Messrs. McKim, Mead, and White."

Alterations and additions: During the winter, 1880-1881, the bachelor's apartments of the second floor were converted into club rooms. Next to the office, in the center of the building was located the conversational room, twenty-five feet by thirty feet. At this time, the bay window configuration of the facade was changed to a large open veranda. At the southwest corner an addition twenty five feet square was erected. This addition increased the floor space of the store on the first floor and permitted a billiard room, twenty five by fifty feet, on the second floor. The south arm of the Casino was enclosed and converted to two reading rooms, sixteen by forty-five feet. An open deck was added to the second story above the converted reading rooms. This work was designed by McKim, Mead, and White, and built by Nathan Barker. A steam heating system was also added. Later in the 1880's, a bowling alley was built in the rear of the Casino complex. Also before 1890, the second floor of the north wing was extended and supported by a vine covered colonnade. Shortly after 1890, the base of the tower was enlarged to increase the space of the committee room. In 1968, this area was again enlarged. In 1906-1907 the stands, later used for tennis, were built for the Annual Horse Show. These have been destroyed and replaced on numerous occasions due to hurricanes. In 1913, a locker room was added to the Court Tennis Building. This building was extensively damaged by fire in 1945 and was not totally rebuilt. Originally the theatre, with removable seats, was also used as a ballroom. In 1927, permanent seats were Installed. A cinder block extension of the backstage area was erected in 1930. Two small units for heating apparatuses flanking this extension were installed in 1967. A film projection booth was built on the second-story gallery of the porch on the west side in the 1930's. An enclosed hallway was also placed within the west gallery in 1967 to shelter a stair to the theatre's interior audience balcony or loge. This hallway was carefully matched to the building's original exterior treatment. In 1948 the restaurant area of the north wing was destroyed by fire. The restaurant was rebuilt as a one story structure without the cupola.

Over-all dimensions: Store block: 180 feet by 45 feet; rectangular plan; 9 bays; 2-1/2 stories. Piazzas: 2 arms about 80 feet by 25 feet linked by a 20 foot wide, semicircular piazza; 1 and 2 stories. Theatre: 64 feet by 100 feet; rectangular plan; 2 stories. Court tennis building; 80 feet by 100 feet; rectangular plan; 2 stories.