Historic Structures

Thomas Robinson House, Newport Rhode Island

Date added: August 3, 2010 Categories: Rhode Island House

This broad, gambrel-roofed house is one of the best examples of Newport's merchant residences of the 18th century. Due to continuous family ownership since 1761, the interior and exterior retain their authentic character. An alteration by Charles F, McKiir. in 1874-1875, converted the large kitchen into a sitting room, a complete expression of the American Free Classic style.

During the French occupation of the city of Newport in the Revolutionary War, July, 1780, to June, 1781, the Vicomte de Noailles, a lieutenant-colonel of the Soissonais Regiment, was quartered in the house. In the summer of 1780, Madame de Noailles sent Mrs. Robinson a Sevres tea set in appreciation for the kindness extended to the Vicomte during his stay. The tea set is on display in the dining room corner cabinet. Thomas Robinson was a Commission Merchant and importer of British goods. He also had a part interest in a distillery, c. 1753. In 1761, Robinson was a member of the United Company of Spermaceti Chandlers.

The original three-bay, three room-plan house could have been built as early as 1725. Soon after the purchase of the land and house in 1760, Thomas Robinson enlarged the house to the north, adding a sitting or living room to the east and a kitchen to the west. The small entrance was enlarged to accommodate the symmetrical arrangement of windows and entrance on the street or east facade. This addition was deeper than the original house. Therefore there is an eight-foot projection on the west facade. The second and third floors have this same room arrangement--one room in the northwest corner and one in the northeast corner. In 1874-1875, Charles F. McKim converted the 1760 kitchen into a sitting room, adding a five-sided bay to the north. He placed a single story porch on the west facade, extending from the center hall axis to the old kitchen door on the north wall. A single-story kitchen ell with a decorative, shingled gable at the chimney was added to the south at this time. A roof-top gallery with squared and turned balusters and flame corner finials appears in photographs of the house taken after the addition of the kitchen. This was later removed. A gallery which was in the basement of the Robinson House was placed on the Nichols-Wanton-Hunter house in the 1950's. Between 1835 and 1874, exterior louvered shutters were placed on the first-floor windows. By 1919, all windows had louvered shutters. These have since been removed. The decorative gable on the kitchen ell has been removed.

Over-all dimensions: The rectangular 2-1/2 story main block has five bays and measures 49 feet by 38 feet. There is a 10-foot-wide single-story porch to the west and north. A single-story ell to the south measures 19 feet by 51 feet.

Floor plans: The first-floor rooms are arranged around the large center entrance hall. The dining room opens to the left. From this room, access can be gained to the southwest sitting room and powder room, and the kitchen ell. The living room opens to the right with access to the northwest sitting room. A narrow hall extends to the west from the entrance hall into the rear sitting room or first kitchen. This room can also be reached from the northwest sitting room. On the second floor, the five chambers and two baths are arranged around the stair hall. The third floor contains three bedrooms; a large, rectangular hall; and a bath.

Special decorative features: The major rooms have very distinctive fireplace compositions. In the oldest section, c. 1735, the dining room arrangement is the most elaborately finished. The fireplace, located in the west wall, is set in a floor-to-ceiling composition. The narrow mantel shelf is set above the four-foot-wide opening. The opening is framed by a heavy, molded surround and faced with 5-inch by 5-inch imported glazed tiles depicting courting activities. The tiles are painted in puce on a gray-white ground. The opening is finished with a brass frame and stone hearth. A corner cupboard, located in the southeast corner of the room is composed of bolection moldings, heavy in scale, with a bracket like tab centered in the arched top cupboard. Two doors, each with four panes of glass, open to display an intricately carved shell hood and three curved shelves. The lower portion of the cupboard contains a small door with a double-curved top and a gouged flower. The entire composition is framed by fluted pilasters set on high paneled pedestals. A shorter pair of fluted pilasters frame the smaller, lower door. The rear sitting room at the southwest corner of the original house contains a small fireplace set in a floor-to-ceiling composition similar to that in the dining room. The 5-inch by 5-inch facing tiles contain octagonal puce frames which enclose blue and white Dutch landscape scenes. Each tile has blue floral corner decorations. The opening is framed in brass. The rear sitting room, originally the kitchen, has a small fireplace with two, two-paneled doors fronting a cupboard which is set into the wall above the opening. This opening was enclosed and made smaller at the time of the 1760 addition. The multi-colored, glazed facing tiles depict activities of the seasons. The opening is framed in brass. The bedroom in the southeast corner contains a fireplace arrangement similar to that in the dining room. The 5-inch by 5-inch tiles are painted blue on a white ground and depict fanciful Dutch landscapes. The individual panels of the fireplace composition have paintings of trees in various arrangements. The overmantel contains a scene with trees and piles of burning leaves. The stiles and rails are painted a variegated green. These panels are in the process of being restored. Other paintings have been found in the c. 1735 house but have not been restored. A ship scene was accidentally destroyed. The small rear bedroom located over the first kitchen contains a small fireplace bordered by 5 inch square blue and white tiles, each having a circular composition of a floral arrangement set in an urn. A large, heavy, molded mantel shelf caps the wood paneling. The fireplaces in the 1760 addition are set in less heavily molded compositions. The fireplace in the west wall of the living room is framed by 5-inch-square tiles painted black on white depicting activities, ruins, and country scenes. The opening is framed by a brass strip. The bedroom above has a similarly treated fireplace. The bedroom in the northwest corner has a simple fireplace composition set in the east wall. This fireplace is faced with light blue, undecorated glazed tiles. The single third floor fireplace, located in the east wall of the northwest corner room, has a simple stone surround with no tiles. The large fireplace composition in the McKim sitting room, 1874-1875, is very complicated in its decorative treatment. The four-foot high original 1760 opening is bordered by 5- inch square tiles painted in puce on white. Circular composition tiles depicting Biblical scenes are placed alternately with square composition tiles depicting various views of Dutch scenery. The Biblical tiles are similar to those in the Mrs. William Watts Sherman House of 1874. The hearth, which extends three feet into the room, is tiled in brown and terra cotta colored tiles with a linear star pattern. The woodwork around the fireplace is painted a dull, black green. The wall surface above the mantel is composed of horizontally and vertically grooved panels separated by horizontally banded pilasters topped by flame finials. Two colonnettes pierce the mantel shelf. They are turned, tapered, fluted and reeded, and capped by flame finials. The mantel is finely grooved with beads and dentils.

This house is completely furnished with period pieces of furniture, Chinese export ware, Oriental rugs, and marine paintings. After completion of the 1760 addition, Robinson purchased furniture from Thomas Goddard, Newport cabinetmaker and shipwright, who lived in the house to the north on Washington Street. Mrs. Robinson, heir of Edward Wanton, inherited some pieces of furniture which he had brought from England before 1658. Owing to continued family ownership, much of this old furniture remains in the house. The porch furniture--a gate-leg, slat-top table in particular--is said to have been designed by McKim. It is definitely of the period, c. 1875.