The 2012 Architectural Symposium: Horace Trumbauer – “Triumps of Trumbauer”

There are many great architects who worked in Newport over its long and illustrious history. Richard Morris Hunt, Stanford White and Peter Harrison are all names that have become familiar to those that read the “Archi-Text” column regularly. A somewhat less familiar name, but an architect of national prominence who worked in Newport at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the early twentieth century is Horace Trumbauer.  His work included three of the great houses along Bellevue Avenue (The Elms, Clarendon Court and Miramar) and a major addition and renovations to a fourth mansion (Rough Point).

Horace Trumbauer was a man whose life neatly spans the period we now call the Gilded Age. He was born in 1868, immediately following the Civil War, and died in 1938, at the end of the Depression when very little was being built– even for the wealthy individuals that Trumbauer catered to. But in between, Horace Trumbauer had the opportunity to work on some remarkable projects, most notably for many wealthy families including the Wideners and the Dukes.

The first of his major projects in Newport was “The Elms,” which was completed in 1901 for Mr. & Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind, a coal magnate.  This grand cottage was modeled after Château d’Asnières in France and is emblematic of Trumbauer’s highly derivative style. Although he had no formal architectural education other than apprenticing in another firm in Philadelphia, he has highly academic in his close attention to copying the detail from other older buildings. When the Berwinds died without heirs, Mr. Berwind’s younger sister continued to maintain the house in the Gilded Age style. In 1961, when “Miss Julia” died, no washer or dryer had ever been installed in the house as laundry was still done by hand by a large contingent of household servants. The property went up for auction and it was mere weeks away from being torn down to make way for a shopping center when the Preservation Society of Newport County acquired the property. It has been open seasonally since then for public tour. In 1996 the property was designated a National Historic Landmark, the highest honor available for an individual structure.

The next house he designed in Newport for another Philadelphian, Edward Knight, is now commonly known at Clarendon Court. This building was designed in 1904 in a much more sedate Regency Style and is believed to have been based upon Hedworth House in England. It is somewhat ironic that after the effusive detail of the Elms, Trumbauer would choose a model defined by a highly geometric massing that is reminiscent of Inigo Jones–the architect who so greatly inspired much of the work of Peter Harrison and other colonial architects working in Newport one hundred and fifty years before Trumbauer. This elegant house is much further South along Bellevue than the Elms, which is not surprising in that the city was expanding in that direction along the Avenue during the Gilded Age as demand grew for prominent tracts of land. Among other things, Clarendon Court is famous for being the home of heiress Sunny Von Bulow where she went into a coma under suspicious circumstances as portrayed in the movie, Reversal of Fortune.

Immediately to the south of Clarendon Court is Miramar, one of the largest and most elegant properties along Bellevue Avenue.  Trumbauer designed this house for the George Widener family in 1914. As plans for the house were underway, tragedy struck the Widener family and Mrs. Widener’s husband and son were lost when the Titanic sank on route to America from Europe.  Mrs. Widener, after some soul searching, decided to proceed with the project. The building is like the Elms, designed nearly 20 years before, in its extensive use of elegant French details and rich materials. It was particularly famous for its Parterre gardens, which were depicted on many post cards of that period. This house’s enormous and ornate wrought iron gates are currently under restoration and the owner of the property was praised in the same breath as some of the honorees at this past week at Dorris Duke Historic Preservation Awards held this past week.

The last project that Trumbauer would work upon in Newport was the renovation and enlargement of Rough Point, the house at the southernmost corner of Bellevue Avenue before it takes a sharp jog to the west. The house was originally design by the firm of Peabody & Sterns in 1881, for Frederick Vanderbilt (the youngest brother of the men who built the Breakers and Marble House respectively).  The house was purchased by James Buchanan Duke, the tobacco tycoon and it was for Mr. Duke that Trumbauer undertook the work.  When Mr. Buchanan died in 1925, the house and fortune fell to his daughter, Doris Duke, who was only 13 years old at the time. “Miss Duke” (as she was frequently known in Newport), in addition to owning and loving the estate the rest of her life, would play an active role in preserving colonial era architecture through the creation of the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF), which continues to own and maintain the house in basically the same state as it was when Miss Duke died in 1968, right down to the 1968 magazines still laid neatly on the tables. It was in this grand house that the NRF Doris Duke Awards were presented to worthy winners who exemplified a love and dedication to architectural preservation and there is a marvelous exhibition currently on display showing the 82 colonial houses that Miss Duke helped renovate here in Newport. The awards should be given to a building largely designed by Horace Trumbauer, who did so much to recreate architectural styles of previous eras, is perhaps appropriate.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, September 16, 2010.

Horace Trumbauer