Architectural Fabric: Saving Historic Houses in Rhode Island
As part of an innovative preservation program, a weaver helps maintain a Colonial house in Newport, Rhode Island.
Most people know Newport, Rhode Island, for its opulent mansions built in the late 1880s and early 1900s by families such as the Astors and Vanderbilts, whose fortunes subsidized their “cottages.” Millionaires’ Row attracts plenty of tourists—but if that’s all they see, visitors are missing another, equally important preservation story a few minutes away.
The Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) owns 73 restored 18th-century houses in the historic waterfront neighborhoods of The Point and The Hill. The foundation’s unusual tenant-steward program allows people to live in these residences, in exchange for market-rate rent and a measure of responsibility to the houses. “If you make this commitment by signing a lease … it means that you are responsible for being both a watchdog and a caring sponsor for the house,” says the official statement that residents are required to sign before moving in. Guaranteed in the rent is the help of NRF-employed preservation professionals who provide first-rate maintenance and repairs.
The woman behind this innovative arrangement was the philanthropist Doris Duke (1912–1993), who founded the NRF in 1968 expressly for the purpose of preserving the city’s everyday historic buildings. It was never her goal to simply restore and beautify, but rather to turn these places into living museums with connections to contemporary life as well as architectural history. “Her focus from the start was buying up at-risk properties to restore and make them available to stewards, keeping them as part of the architectural fabric of Newport,” says NRF Deputy Director Margot Nishimura. “The tenant-steward program is the heart of the organization.”
“It was [Doris Duke’s] idea that the foundation look for houses where the restoration of a single piece of architecture could elevate the whole block.”Robert Foley
The charismatic Duke, who left Rough Point, her oceanfront Newport mansion, to the NRF in her will and was known for her pair of pet camels named Baby and Princess, determined that she wanted to start incrementally, rather than large-scale.
“With her resources she could have just jumped right in, but she was hands-on,” says Robert Foley, the NRF’s preservation director. “It was her idea that the foundation look for houses where the restoration of a single but significant piece of architecture could elevate the whole block, if not the neighborhood.”
By 1975, the foundation had purchased most of the houses that make up its collection today. It assembled a team of craftspeople to provide constant maintenance for the wood-framed buildings, many of them built before the American Revolution. (Nearly half the city’s population left after the Revolution began in an effort to escape the British occupation of Newport, which lasted from 1776 through 1779.)
The NRF still keeps its eye out for endangered properties, and in 2011 the board made a unanimous decision to buy the Dayton-James House at 88 Bridge Street in The Point, a former Quaker neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of Colonial residences in the nation. The house is believed to have been built in 1758, and as far as the NRF knows, it’s the only surviving example of this style in Newport: one room wide, gambrel roof, short end facing the street. The original owners, the Dayton family, may have used it for both commercial and residential purposes, possibly running a dry-goods shop on the ground floor. “We know they were selling mercantile goods in one of their four buildings in that area,” says NRF Executive Director Pieter Roos, who thinks the Daytons might also have butchered hogs in the building, rendering their fat for soap and tallow candles to sell.
In 1848, the Daytons sold the house to the James family, who made remarkably few transformations over the next 163 years. They did add on to the house on two separate occasions, but the Colonial-era interiors were relatively untouched. “That was what attracted us,” says Roos. “The house had had only two owners. Almost nothing had been done to it.”
The NRF spent a total of $885,000 to buy and return 88 Bridge Street to its original condition. Foley and his crew had to lift the house slightly off its decaying foundation walls so they could remove the existing sills and insert new timbers. Many of the posts, beams, and joists were rotted out and had to be replaced, and the two additions were documented and removed. About 50 to 60 percent of the original materials were saved, including doors, floorboards, and moldings. The team decided to build a new kitchen and bath on the footprint of the rear addition, so the plumbing could be stacked. This way, the original clapboard structure remains intact, but a new tenant will have modern-day conveniences.
Enter Kathy Ward. A New Yorker who had worked in children’s book publishing, she came to Newport to join her sister, also a tenant steward. Ward had to wait a few years for a house to open up—the program has a waiting list of more than 100 people—but in 2009 she settled in a 1765 NRF-owned house in The Hill, another historic district in the city. In 2010 her brother, too, moved to Newport to become a tenant steward, and Ward hoped to find another NRF dwelling in The Point, closer to her siblings.
“We were all drawn to the compact neighborhood of The Point,” she says. Those already in the tenant-steward program get priority as new restorations open up, so when the Dayton-James House was ready, Ward won the spot.
She moved into the house this past July, bringing a four-harness loom with her. Ward has always had an interest in weaving, but has turned it into a business since moving to Newport. In a small, windowed room adjoining her bedroom, she hand-weaves one-of-a-kind personal accessories and home accent pieces in mostly Tencel, wool, cotton, and bamboo. Several Newport shops carry her work, and she shows at high-end crafts fairs throughout the Northeast. “I love the notion that I’m doing the craft of the period in a period house,” she says. Many of her designs are inspired by Colonial patterns that were revived in the early 19th century.
Ward’s own traditional furnishings, many purchased at tag sales and estate sales, make the first floor’s built-in shelving (handmade by NRF carpenters in their dedicated woodworking shop) look right at home. “It just lucked out how everything that I had from the other house fit in,” she says.
Like this story? Then you'll love our emails. Sign up today.
In its new life, 88 Bridge Street has 1,500 square feet of living space and three fireplaces. Foley and his team found the remnants of hearthstones under the floorboards, and they were able to locate the base of the original chimney within the dining room walls. They deduced that the now-restored Federal-style mantelpiece on the first floor was not original to the house, but had been salvaged from another Newport property and added at some point. “It’s real, but you would never have found it in a [Colonial] building like 88 Bridge,” Foley says.
Mid-20th-century graffiti on the interior attic walls adds another layer of historical interest. Roos believes the random words, dates, and letters—“Paris,” “1956,” and “A,” for example—were painted by a tenant, possibly a fisherman or lobsterman who was renting the attic from the James family.
“I think he was repainting his buoys,” Roos says, noting that the same paints dripped onto the floor. “I think the graffiti was from cleaning his brush.”
During the restoration process, the NRF made some compromises on modern comforts in the interest of architectural integrity. For example, the house is not insulated because there simply isn’t enough room inside the original walls. “The only way would have been to stud the interior walls, stuff them with insulation, and then plaster over them,” Foley says. “This would disturb the architectural nature of the interior rooms.” His crew did insulate the kitchen and bath addition.
“I love the notion that I’m doing the craft of the period in a period house.”Kathy Ward
Kathy Ward considers the lack of insulation a trade-off for the Colonial experience. “My first NRF house was not insulated, and I could feel the cold in the walls in the dead of winter,” she says. “So I’m prepared to hang insulated drapes and wear an extra layer.” The fireplaces help, too.
Ward plans to stay at 88 Bridge Street for as long as she can, carrying out Doris Duke’s vision of a thriving community of caretakers.
“The house is just beautiful,” she says. “It’s a little bit smaller than my previous house, but that’s fine for me. [The Colonial era] is just a fascinating period. The house needs to be cared for, and I do all I can to keep it up, but then you have NRF behind you supporting it as well. It is a great partnership.”