America’s First Resort

History and style meet in Newport, which comes alive in summer.

WORDS Sam Bolton
May / June 2019
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Photography by Nicholas Mele

Occupying a tiny peninsula at the tip of Aquidneck Island, Newport has reigned as one of America’s premier summer colonies since the 19th century. Renowned for its historic architecture and colonial charm, the Rhode Island town becomes a whirlwind of activity during July and August, hosting myriad sailing races—including the signature Newport Regatta—as well as grass-court championships at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a Shingle-style structure opened in 1880 as the elite Newport Casino. There’s also the Newport Music Festival—bringing together the cream of the classical world—as well as weekend-long celebrations of folk and jazz, attracting artists from Sheryl Crow to Herbie Hancock.

“Newport is endlessly inspiring,” says gallerist Jessica Hagen. “There is a deep sense of history here that gives the city an authenticity that is unique.”

Founded in 1639, Newport has over the centuries mellowed into its current status as a distinctly charming resort town. One of New England’s most important colonial ports, it was occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War, and was the site of the historic Battle of Rhode Island in 1778, the first cooperative campaign uniting the Americans and French. The city’s status as a prominent crossroads is illustrated by the continued presence of the country’s oldest tavern—the White Horse, constructed before 1673—and the Touro Synagogue from 1763 (the only surviving synagogue dating to the colonial era), as well as the nation’s oldest community library still in its original building, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, built in 1750.

“One can walk six blocks up Touro Street and time-travel through three centuries, from the colonial era to the present,” says Norah Diedrich, executive director of the Newport Art Museum.

It was only toward the latter half of the 19th century, after the trading industry had left town, that Newport evolved into a seasonal retreat for Gilded Age millionaires, who commissioned prominent architects to construct elaborate mansions inspired by the noble houses of Europe. As the 20th century approached, these so-called “summer cottages”—many in use for only six weeks out of the year—grew ever larger: The Vanderbilts’ Breakers, for example, completed in 1895, has 70 rooms spread out over more than 125,000 square feet. Hot saltwater baths were pumped from the nearby sea, elaborate 10-course dinners were de rigueur, and the domestic staff could easily include more than 30 (not counting the small army of gardeners required to maintain the landscaping).

By the mid 20th century, however, it was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain many of the houses. Some faced demolition. In 1945, the Preservation Society of Newport County was formed by art collector Katherine Warren to save a number of the city’s colonial structures, as well as the largest of its mansions. Nearly a dozen properties are now open for tours, and the Gilded Age residences offer a view into the way the wealthy once lived. “Newport represents an open-air museum of American domestic architecture, spanning the 18th through the early-20th centuries,” says Paul F. Miller, curator emeritus of the Preservation Society of Newport County.

Heiress Doris Duke once said, “I’ve discovered, I guess, that it’s fun to work.” Before she created the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1968, blocks of the city’s colonial homes were being razed. Duke and her team of architects rebuilt more than 80 houses, using as much of the original structure as possible. In doing so, she saved Newport’s colonial heritage. Many of the houses are now available for rent through NRF. Duke’s Newport residence, Rough Point, remains as she left it when she died in 1993, and now operates as a museum housing her collection of old masters and 18th-century furniture.

One distinguished commercial structure from the period is also enjoying a renaissance. The 1903 Audrain Building has been converted into the Audrain Automobile Museum, housing a rotating display of rare autos, ranging from Brass Era vehicles of the early 1900s to contemporary supercars. The museum also hosts the revolving series Cars & Coffee at different mansions.

Throughout the summer, art and music venues also entice crowds. “During the Gilded Age, Newport attracted intellectuals, writers and artists of note such as Henry James and Edith Wharton,” says Diedrich. “While you can still see evidence of their artistic presence, 21st-century Newport now lures contemporary artists and performers from Brooklyn to Berlin. I often wish I could be in three places at once.”

The town’s natural beauty is an additional draw. The picturesque three-and-a-half-mile Cliff Walk affords a view of Newport’s most beautiful properties on one side and a thrilling drop to the Atlantic Ocean on the other. A leisurely bike ride from the town center, down Bellevue Avenue to Ocean Avenue, can end up at the Castle Hill Inn for sunset cocktails. Here, the cliffside vista encompasses Narragansett Bay, the two-mile span of the Pell Bridge and the entrance to Newport’s harbor. Established in 1875, the inn—frequented by the likes of Grace Kelly and Thornton Wilder—offers guests an authentic Newport experience with world-class service and exceptional cuisine.

“When I arrived here from East Hampton, Newport was something completely other,” says designer Kate Brierley. “This is a matriarchal community. People here value their family, and lifelong friendships are celebrated. And it is a remarkably jovial place—Newporters are not afraid of a cocktail.”

The Designer

Kate Brierley, creative director of Isoude

A graduate of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Kate Brierley founded the fashion and accessories label Isoude in 2009. Vogue has called her Newport boutique “incredibly chic.”

“In a sea of the same we offer something unique and personal,” says Brierley, who works closely with shoppers to fashion pieces with an individual sense of style. “The Isoude client loves to be a part of the creative process and appreciates the heart and soul that go into the craft of fine clothiers. The experience here is about collaboration.”

Her look mixes East Coast tradition with meticulous detailing and bold colors, from a pistachio collar-and-bib A-line dress to a taupe wool crepe swing coat. “Our younger clients come to us when they want to start to build a real wardrobe. This usually begins with a silk blouse.” One client, a beauty influencer and writer, wanted to present herself in a “feminine and professional” way. “We selected the French-tie blouse and a simple pair of silk pants. She looked incredible and began to document her Isoude looks on her Instagram account.”

Before she launched Isoude, Brierley gained invaluable experience working for acclaimed couture designer Ralph Rucci. “He is a master of construction, a living example of how design can be a platform for ascension of mind and spirit. I learned a great deal working for him, but the most important lesson is to respect everyone who works in the atelier. It is only with talented hands that a designer can express what is in their heart.”

To that end, she creates the majority of her collections locally. “Rhode Island is home to some incredibly talented tailors. People have the time and space to truly create without the pressure of being in a major metropolis like New York. Our driving coat was worn by the First Lady of the United States and this look was published around the world. It was so exciting to see a garment crafted completely in Rhode Island, the land of hidden treasures.”

The Chef

Ted Gidley, executive chef at the Clarke Cooke House

Hailed as “by far the most sophisticated restaurant in Newport” by Food & Wine, the Clarke Cooke House, occupying a residence built in 1780, was founded by entrepreneur David Ray in 1972. The next year Ray moved the house a few blocks from its original site to Bannister’s Wharf, in the heart of Newport’s waterfront district. Over the years, the property evolved to contain a multitude of venues on various levels: On the main floor is the famous Candy Store bar and casual Bistro restaurant; above that is the Sky Bar, Porch and 12 Metre Yacht Club Room, featuring fine dining, a posh setting and spectacular views; and the basement houses the Boom Boom Room disco, a hotspot for cocktails and dancing.

A member of the Clarke Cooke team since 1984, Ted Gidley became head chef in 1995, after a period working under chef Roger Vergé at the acclaimed Le Moulins de Mougins restaurant in France. His menu of Mediterranean-influenced American cuisine features a number of standouts that attract dedicated patrons season after season.

“We have a core group of regular customers who have supported us for years,” he says. “A standard preparation for us has been the native striped bass with mango, apple, caramelized garlic, jasmine rice and ginger lime vinaigrette. Striped bass is as local as it gets, coming from Rhode Island and Massachusetts in season. The vinaigrette is made with vegetable oil, ginger, garlic and lime juice. It has been very popular and works with almost any fish.”

Another favorite is the native heirloom tomato salad, with cucumber, corn and chèvre. “This item appears as soon as local tomatoes are ready in July. Nothing represents Rhode Island produce better than a midsummer ripe tomato. The great French chef Paul Bocuse was once asked to define the word ‘gourmet,’ and his response was, ‘A tomato in August.’ I couldn’t agree more.”

The Clarke Cooke House remains open all year, catering to regular clients who crave the raviolo of lobster and wild mushroom with leeks, morels and beurre de champignon, or the roast rack of lamb persillade. “What it comes down to in the end is consistency,” Gidley says. “We have developed menus that are very marketable for the general public, and we have a core staff that has been at Clarke Cooke for many years. That is very rare in the industry.”

The Gallerist

Jessica Hagen, director of Jessica Hagen Fine Art + Design

After managing two galleries in Newport, Jessica Hagen opened her eponymous space in 2005, showing contemporary painting, sculpture, photography, ceramics and jewelry. “There are many more art galleries in Newport now than in 2005, and that’s good news for the city and its cultural institutions,” she says. “A vibrant art scene makes Newport an even more interesting place to live and visit.”

Her gallery represents living artists mostly working in the Northeast—including such acclaimed names as Hunt Slonem, Christopher Benson and Susan Freda—and runs the gamut from abstraction to realism. “When considering an artist’s work, my focus is always on quality, originality and beauty,” says Hagen, who also designs her own line of gemstone jewelry. “It is paramount that each artist have a distinct style and unique perspective.”

Her favorite part of Newport is the summer season, she says. “It’s a whirlwind of activity, both professionally and socially. It’s such a pleasure to host openings at the gallery in the summer, when guests can spill outside and the space seems to double in size. There’s a lovely free feeling to it all that is very special.”

And in a town where nautical and landscape paintings are common, Hagen has carved out a niche showcasing contemporary work. “I felt very strongly that there was room in Newport for contemporary art. Mixing contemporary with more traditional pieces is a great way to enliven a collection. It’s also exciting to combine contemporary artwork with historic settings. Many of my clients live in 18th- and 19th-century homes, and the juxtaposition of historic architecture with modern art can be nothing short of amazing.”

The Film Curator

Andrea van Beuren, artistic director of NewportFilm

After working for years in the fashion industry for brands including Calvin Klein, Andrea van Beuren switched her focus to cinema in 2010 when she co-founded NewportFilm, a year-round documentary series showcasing the work of established and emerging filmmakers. Films are screened throughout town, at venues both indoors and alfresco, including such landmarks as the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Salve Regina University.

“Our summer outdoor series allows the entire community to experience award-winning documentaries, live music, fabulous food and lots of spirit in many beautiful spaces,” she says. Media figures from such outlets as The Hollywood Reporter and IndieWire moderate postfilm discussions with directors and subjects; recent offerings have included Apollo 11, about the 1969 moon landing, and Maiden, which profiles Tracy Edwards, the skipper
of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World sailing race.

Splitting her time between Newport and New York City, van Beuren regularly attends the Toronto, Sundance, Doc NYC and South by Southwest festivals to curate the bulk of what is shown at NewportFilm. And through her company, Sustainable Films—she served as executive producer of the acclaimed documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—she hears about “films coming down the pipeline that might work well for our audiences. I’m really just searching for films that are going to resonate with our community.” In addition to its main schedule of screenings, NewportFilm brings a specially curated series of documentaries into classrooms across Aquidneck Island with its program NewportFilm Edu.

Van Beuren says she gravitates toward films that feature a strong sense of character. “Even if an environmentally focused film is issue-driven, the story can be told through the characters,” she says. “This has been done successfully in films like The Biggest Little Farm and Chasing Coral. Biographical films are also fun to program, and we’ve had great success with titles like RBG, Jane and Free Solo.”

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