Historic Structures

Vernon (Gibbs-Gardner-Bowler) House, Newport Rhode Island

Date added: September 20, 2010 Categories: Rhode Island House

The Vernon House stands on land originally owned by Jeremy Clarke, one of the early settlers of Newport. Charles Bowler, who acquired the house in 1748, was a wealthy merchant who had arrived in Boston in 1740. He became Collector of Revenues in Newport in 1753. His son Metcalf, who bought the house in 1759, was also wealthy and influential. He was a church warden of Trinity Church. John Singleton Copley painted portraits of him and his wife. Bowler was also active in Colonial affairs. He was appointed Justice of the Supreme Court in 1776. However, it has been discovered through research that Metcalf Bowler never severed his British connections. He served as a British spy throughout the Revolutionary War.

William Vernon was a merchant and shipowner. The Vernons were old settlers in Newport, Daniel Vernon arrived in Newport in 1666. When the French came to Newport in 1780, William Vernon allowed his house to be used to quarter members of the French army. The Commander-in-Chief, His Excellency Monsieur le Comte de Rochambeau (Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur) lived in the house. He used the northwest parlor for his office. Here General George Washington conferred with Rochambeau when he came to Newport in 1781. An illumination and ball were given in Washington's honor in the French Hall. Rochambeau entertained the General at supper. Washington is said to have slept in the northwest chamber. The Marquis de Lafayette met with Rochambeau in the house in 1780, The French Minister Plenipotentiary, Le Chevalier de la Luzerne also made a visit. Iroquois Indian chiefs from Canada and New York came to Newport to see Rochambeau, a visit which lasted four days.

William Vernon's two sons, Samuel and William, inherited the house after their father's death in 1806. Samuel remained in Newport, continuing his father's business. William who graduated from Princeton in 1776, went to France with John Adams, then Commissioner of France, as a companion for John Quincy Adams, then eleven years old. William Vernon became a prominent figure in the Court of Louis XVI and a favorite of Marie Antoinette. He returned to Newport in 1796, having acquired a remarkable collection of paintings. One painting was possibly one of the three versions Leonardo da Vinci is supposed to have painted of the "Mona Lisa." The collection, part of which was exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum in 1830, was sold in 1835, after Vernon's death in 1833.

During the ownership of Harwood E. Read, the Vernon House was used as office space. Between late 1879 and 1881, the United States Geological Bureau under the direction of Raphael Pumpelly had offices on the first floor. Pumpelly continued to have his office in the house until 1883. However, during these years, he is listed as being the director of the Northern Trans-continental Survey. In 1882-1883, Clarence S. Luce, architect of houses in Boston, Newport, and New York, rented office space and chambers.

A bronze marker designating the house as Rochambeau's Headquarters was placed on the house in 1908. The Vernon House was made a National Historic Landmark in 1969.

As far as can be determined, the original plan consisted of two rooms and a center hall facing Clarke Street, with an ell at the rear, a garret, and a cellar. The inventory of the estate of William Gibbs taken in 1729, lists, "Great Room, great room clossett, lesser room, bedd room. Great Room upstaires, lesser room upstaires, in ye clossett, in ye Garrett, in ye Kitchen, in ye stable, in ye cellar..."

Alterations and additions: An inventory of the estate of William Gardner taken in 1731, lists a porch chamber in addition to those mentioned above. James Martin, inhabitant of the house from 1732 to 1739, added a bedroom, c. 1732. The exact location of this room is not known. Metcalf Bowler enlarged the house, probably when he acquired it in 1760. The southeast section along Mary Street was added to make a square, formal, two-story, hipped-roof house with a one-story ell. All the exterior was finished with rusticated siding. Because of the sophisticated handling of the exterior detailing and the use of rusticated blocks, as at Redwood Library, 1784, Peter Harrison's name has been associated with this work. However, no documentation for this attribution has been found. After the house was occupied by General Rochambeau from 1780 to 1782, the Vernons made repairs to the house, including exterior painting with sanded finish, repairs to floors, wainscot, hangings, windows, walls, and marble hearths. It is thought that the original twelve-over-twelve sashes may have been replaced with the six-over-six, double-hung windows at this period of repair, 1782-83. Maude Lyman Stevens reported in The Vernon House, Newport, Rhode Island 1758-1915, that the southeast room on the first floor was altered, perhaps by Vernon after the Revolution. The character of the detail is somewhat different from that in the rest of the house. It may also date from 1806, when Samuel Vernon inherited the house. It could also be a good restoration of an even later date. Harwood Read made repairs in 1879. (New sills were installed on the Mary Street side. The house was raised about four inches. Interior changes were also made, but are not clearly documented. ) Upon the purchase in 1913 by the Charity Organization Society, the house was again renovated. The original front door, the old knocker, the lantern above the door, and the sash for the landing window were replaced. The front door lock came from the Bull-Mawdsley House, now the property of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Since their purchase of the Vernon House in 1964, the Maganinis have completed some interior alterations. A partition was erected in the old kitchen to accommodate a bathroom. A shower was installed in a closet between the southwest and northwest second-floor rooms. The painted, two-paneled door found in the attic has been moved from the north wall of the southwest attic room to a doorway at the rear of the hall leading to a new bathroom. In the northwest parlor, some of the later 18th century over-paneling has been removed to better display the restored wall paintings.

Overall dimensions: This two-and-a-half story house is approximately square in plan, and measures 42 feet by 40 feet. It has a five-bay west front and is four bays deep.

Floor plan: The west entrance provides access to a large, formal central hall into which all major rooms open. This east-west hall terminates at the stairway on the east. A short door opening to the rear garden is located under the landing. The four-room plan with center hall is repeated on the second and third floors. The two interior chimneys are placed on a north-south axis, centered in the common walls of the four corner rooms.