Loving the Gilded Age and learning how to look

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2013 |

John R. Tschirch is accustomed to being recognized. As Director of Museum Affairs for the Preservation Society of Newport County, he is in and out of the organization's eleven historic houses so frequently that the volunteers and staff who usher nearly eight hundred thousand visitors through the mansions each year straighten when they see him as if he were Commodore Vanderbilt himself. On a recent afternoon at Rosecliff, a tourist from Texas, remembering Tschirch's voice from the recorded audio tour, approached and offered his thoughts on the villa that Stanford White modeled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles.

An architectural historian by training and instinct, Tschirch led the team charged with organizing Newport: The Glamour of Ornament, this year's loan exhibition at the Winter Antiques Show. The staff selected a king's ransom to send to New York: furniture by John Goddard and John Townsend; paintings by Gilbert Stuart, Fitz Henry Lane, and Giovanni Boldini; and Tiffany silver and glass and sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, among other treasures. Left behind were the great monuments of the Preservation Society's collection, the mansions themselves.

The houses range from Hunter House, begun in 1748, to Rosecliff, completed in 1902. A progression of architectural styles, they illustrate the best part of what Thornton Wilder, in his novel Theophilus North, called "The Nine Cities of Newport. Four of the properties-the 1892 Marble House; The Breakers, completed in 1895; The Elms, finished in 1901, and Rosecliff-epitomize what Mark Twain, not charitably, described as "the Gilded Age," an era of ballooning private fortunes sandwiched between the end of the Civil War and the amendment of the United States tax code in 1913.

The houses in Newport's Ochre Point district provided an elaborate set for a drama of manners exquisitely described by Edith Wharton. In The Age of Innocence, she sketched the summertime spectacle of the leisure class parading the district's main thoroughfare, Bellevue Avenue, in their fine carriages, the late afternoon sun lingering, as she put it, on the bright lawns and shrubberies. "It was all dress parade. The whole designed environment was here," says Tschirch, whose professional admiration extends from mansion to borrowed landscape.

One afternoon last July Bellevue Avenue was clogged with sightseers eager for a glimpse of Newport's "Sixth City," home to "the very rich, the empire-builders," as Wilder described them, who brought with them "fashion, competitive display, and the warming satisfaction of exclusion." Many of them toured Marble House and The Breakers, designed for William K. and CorneliusVanderbilt, respectively, by Richard Morris Hunt, the first American architect to complete training at Paris's École des Beaux-Arts. Hunt collaborated on the interiors of the mansions with a leading decorating house, Jules Allard et ses Fils of Paris, coaxing bravura performances from an ensemble of European and American craftsmen working in wood, metal, stone, pigment, ceramics, and fiber.

Through its research, the Preservation Society, which has almost one hundred full-time employees and an annual budget of $17 million, knows that visitors want to see Newport's "wealth and splendor firsthand," Tschirsh says. "At the end of the tour, they often want to know more about the Vanderbilt family and the people who worked in the houses." Many guests leave with no clear thought on how to interpret the Gilded Age, or even what to think about a taste that was left for dead by modernism, only partially resurrected in the public mind by studies such as the landmark 1979 exhibition and catalogue The American Renaissance 1876-1917. Even Maxim Karolik (1893-1963), the Russian émigré collector who embraced Newport society after his marriage to Martha Codman (1858-1948), poked fun at the town's penchant for excess, telling Cleveland Amory in 1962, "It's good to preserve examples so that people can see what not to do even if they can afford it."

How, then, to assess Newport's most lavish interiors, an aesthetic experience that some contemporary audiences liken to gazing at the sun without protective eyewear? Tschirch, who has given the question much thought, believes that loving the Gilded Age means first learning to look. His own taste tends toward the "severe" (think old Yankee meets Biedermeier, a legacy of his father's Austro-German heritage) but has evolved through exposure to Newport's baroque grandeur.

"I grew up appreciating the relationship of architecture to the landscape, climbing around old farmhouses and barns. I knew from the time that I was six that I loved buildings. I couldn't have articulated it, but I was fascinated by the romance of a place, by its intangible atmosphere," Tschirch says. His parents, an engineer and a professor, restored a shingle-style summer house in Swansea, Massachusetts, overlooking Mount Hope Bay. His mother's family was from Tiverton, Rhode Island.

Tschirch spent the summer of 1982 leading tours at The Elms, a Bellevue Avenue mansion inspired by the French château d'Asnières. He was earning spending money for a college summer abroad in Florence, not imagining that he would return to the Preservation Society permanently in 1986. "Italy changed my life. Something about the way that classical and medieval buildings are set in the unchanged countryside really struck me. I knew then that I wanted to study architecture," he says. On his return from Italy he enrolled in the master's degree program in architectural history at the University of Virginia.

He still visits Florence regularly, renting a rooftop apartment with skyline views. The retreat helps him think about Newport's classical revival architecture in a fresh way. A camera aids his study. Having taken up architectural photography as a hobby, he discovered that it allows him to break design into its constituent components. "What I really home in on are the details. It trains your eye to understand these buildings," he says. The technique is one that he has shared with his students at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he teaches architectural history. The approach to looking at design also works for Newport's visitors, irrespective of background, he has found. "The eye can only take in so much grandeur, so you start with a detail-a bit of gilding, an inlay-and then build," he explains.

One recent afternoon, Tschirch conducted a private tour of several Gilded Age mansions, ending with The Breakers. The largest of Newport's "cottages," and the most frequently visited, it was commissioned in 1893 by Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-1899) and his wife, Alice. The couple asked Hunt to design an Italian Renaissance palazzo like those erected for the princes of Genoa and Turin.

Tschirch led the way to the rear of the seventy-room limestone-clad palace, which opens onto a vaulted loggia framing broad ocean views (Fig. 1). He continued to the billiard room, which he considers one of the great masterpieces of Gilded Age interior design (Fig. 4). "There is a singularity to this space that makes it one of the best stone rooms of the period," he says, noting the originality of Hunt's plan, suggesting an ancient Roman bath, and the master's facility with his material. Conceived in a palette of cream, gray, and butterscotch, the vaulted room-recalling another Vanderbilt commission, the Oyster Bar in New York's Grand Central Station-swims with dolphins, shells, and other marine motifs.

Tschirch directs a visitor's attention to the gray-blue Cippolino marble walls, whose cool surface and swirling patterns echo the churning Atlantic below. Carved alabaster accentuates the curve of the ceiling. The mosaic marble floor is sprinkled with a pattern of acorns, a Vanderbilt family symbol repeated throughout the residence. Above, on the ceiling, is a classical frieze, also a mosaic. The Byzantine style sconces are cast bronze with an applied metal-twist decoration that looks like rope. Overall, the effect, says Tschirch, is "controlled opulence." Beyond his unerring eye for proportion, Hunt knew how to make complicated, highly ornamented environments seem calm and orderly.

Through the great hall, on the other side of the loggia, the morning room (Fig. 6) is largely the work of Richard H. A. Bouwens van der Boyen, credited with designing the Renaissance style paneling, pilasters, and cornices that Allard crafted in Paris, then shipped and reassembled at The Breakers. Cool and neutral, the room's silver, rose, and blue palette changes with the ocean's reflective light.

"This is my favorite. The whole composition is so bold. The polished agate is really the star," Tschirch says excitedly, nudging a visitor closer for a better look at the fireplace. Below a towering baroque pediment, a blue-gray Campagna marble mantelpiece encloses a gilt-bronze encrusted medallion of plumcolored agate. Muses, painted on platinum leaf-covered panels, cluster in the four corners of the room (see Fig. 7), which is trimmed with gold-veined white onyx. Allegorical representations of the Four Seasons, creatures governing the Vanderbilts' annual migrations from city to shore, drift overhead.

Not a fan of Newport's mansions, Henry James wrote in 1907, "The white elephants, as one may best call them, all cry and no wool, all house and no garden, make now, for three or four miles, a barely interrupted chain." Taking a dismal view of their future, James wondered what might become of them. "The answer," he concluded, "can only be that there is absolutely nothing to be done; nothing but to let them stand there always, vast and blank."

Tschirch reflects, "James was right that the houses were probably not sustainable in the long run as private residences. But he was wrong about how they have adapted." Mrs. John Nicholas Brown concurred. With delicious irony, she told the New York Times in 1962, "None of us lives in an ‘Elmsy' way any more, but most of us have ancestors who did. I think it's going to be the fate of Newport that, even if people no longer live here at all, other people will be all the more interested to come see how they once did live."

What Wilder might have called the Tenth Newport, its preservation community, emerged in full in the 1940s. Conscious that the city's colonial architectural heritage was endangered, the newly formed Preservation Society of Newport County acquired Hunter House in 1945. It began its rescue of Gilded Age Newport in 1962 with its acquisition of The Elms.

With so much saved, it is easy to forget what has been lost. Villa Rosa, a Bellevue Avenue estate designed by Ogden Codman, was demolished in 1962. Other residences have been converted to classrooms or housing for the elderly. Knowing this makes us mindful of the work that Tschirch and his colleagues at the Preservation Society conduct on our behalf, work that is ongoing.

"Newport is a sleeping beauty. It's famous for its houses and the legendary quality of the town, the families that lived here and the events that occurred. Continuing scholarship is allowing us to understand the richness and complexity of what's inside so that we may awaken others to Newport's artistic legacy," Tschirch says.

Thank you for signing up.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All