Ralph Emerson Carpenter Jr. of Newport, Rhode Island, died on Monday, February 2, in the middle of his ninety-ninth year. Known affectionately as “Mr. Newport” for his lifelong work on the historic preservation of Newport’s architecture and for his research and writing on eighteenth-century Newport furniture made by the Townsends and the Goddards, Carpenter was a superbly elegant gentleman. His extraordinary accomplishments masked his sterling qualities as a human being: modest and sensitive, formidable of intellect, dry of wit, warm of heart, he was, as was said of Sir Thomas More, “a man for all seasons.”
Carpenter was born in Woonsocket of early Rhode Island stock. He graduated from Cornell University with a degree in mechanical engineering in the middle of the Great Depression, married, and began to furnish an apartment with “old furniture.” He soon made the acquaintance of Willy Richmond, an antiques dealer, who when he came to visit, said, “Carpenter, everything’s got to go.” Thereafter, Carpenter developed a daily shopping routine of a twenty-minute lunch of a sandwich and milkshake at Schrafft’s, followed by an hour and a half visiting the leading dealers uptown: Israel Sack, Izzy Winick, Henry Weil, Ginsburg and Levy, and the Ensko brothers. In the early 1950s he completed the creation of Mowbra Hall, a Georgian style house on Morris Lane in Scarsdale and furnished it with early New England furniture.
In January 1952 he caught the eye of Alice Winchester when he spoke at the Antiques Forum at Colonial Williamsburg about his “new old house,” and she asked him to write up his story for The Magazine ANTIQUES (May 1952). He published several more articles in the magazine over the years, and in 1953 his groundbreaking book The Arts and Crafts of Newport, Rhode Island, 1640-1820.
Carpenter knew all the major collectors during this mid-century “Golden Age” of Americana collecting: Henry and Helen Geier Flynt, Historic Deerfield’s founders; Katharine Prentis Murphy; Ima Hogg of Houston’s Bayou Bend; Edgar and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch; Lloyd Hyde; Maxim Karolik; Henry Francis du Pont; and Electra Havemeyer Webb of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.
His accomplishments over a long and productive life are the stuff of legend. Most recently, he personally raised the substantial funds needed to preserve the Peter Harrison-designed buildings of Newport, in particular the Redwood Library, which now has a room devoted to Carpenter’s library and papers.
Visitors to the crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London encounter a phrase on the tomb of its architect, Christopher Wren: si monumentum requiris, circumspice-“If you seek his monument, look around.” The same can be said of Ralph Emerson Carpenter Jr., to any visitors to Newport.