Newport Casino: Architectural and Tennis Monument

One of the most widely recognizable buildings in Newport is the Newport Casino. This complex of buildings located on Bellevue Avenue was commissioned in 1879 by James Gordon Bennett, who owned an estate across the street on the site where the Bellevue Garden complex now stands. He reportedly founded the club after being ejected from the Newport Reading Room (an exclusive Newport Club) by fellow members of after encouraging his polo instructor to ride into the clubhouse on a bet. When the fellow members took exception he set out to create a different sort of club where he could “have a bit of fun.” The entire complex was built in an extraordinary short six-month period and in 1880, just three days after the opening, the Newport Daily News trumpeted, “It is doubtful if a more lively place can be found!”

Bennett chose the firm of McKim Mead and White to do the design. This firm would become the most prolific and famous of their era but in 1880 they had just hired a new junior Design partner, Stanford White, and the Casino project would be their very first as a company. Although Charles Follen McKim and his partner, William Rutherford Mead, had enjoyed some success with another partner, William Bigelow, it was after Bigelow was replaced with the flamboyant but talented Stanford White that the partnership truly took flight.

The Casino building is a masterpiece of the “Shingle Style” popular during the 1880’s and shares many stylistic details with the Isaac Bell House (also designed by the partnership in 1882), and many other projects that the firm designed during the era. These shared features include intricately cut cedar shingles, rounded towers, encircling covered porches and a loose asymmetric arrangement of masses made to suit each site. The Newport Casino complex was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987, the highest designation that a building can receive in terms of importance.

The Casino (meaning “little house” and not “place of gambling” in those days) represented a new sort of leisure facility with dining, sporting and other facilities under one roof—what would later become known as the “country club.” This magnificent facility is more or less intact thanks to the vision (and generosity) of summer Newporters James and Candace Van Alen, who saved the complex from becoming a strip shopping center in 1954 by inventing a new use for the facility—the Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame.  In 1973, induction into the facility was widened to include international players and in 1976 it was renamed the ”International Tennis Hall of Fame.” Currently it honors 240 persons representing 21 countries in its hallowed halls, until the class of 2014, including American tennis great Lindsey Davenport, joins the ranks of those that have come before. This grand building is also home to one of the central collections of tennis history, art and memorabilia in the world and is reportedly home to the world’s oldest continually used lawn tennis courts!

The Newport Casino hosted the first men’s United States National Lawn Tennis Association tournament in 1881, where it remained for 44 years. In 1915 that tournament was moved to Forest Hills, NY, and then to Flushing Meadows, NY in 1978, where it became known as the “US Open” (once professional players were allowed to participate). In addition to being the original site for the US Championship, the legendary courts at Newport have hosted two Davis Cup tournaments and numerous professional tennis events, including the annual Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships for the Van Alen Cup, the only ATP tennis tournament in the United States to still be played on grass. This tournament has seen participation by many of the top players in recent years and has become the place to see players like Andy Murray, James Blake and the Bryan Brothers as they rose to stardom!

The 6-acre complex is home to 13 grass courts, 1 clay court, and a court tennis court (which was the medieval game that game rise to the modern sport). There is also an original theatre, the last Stanford White theatre remaining in the world, and construction has broken ground on a new building that will replace several buildings and a gas station along Memorial Boulevard with a new state of the art facility that will hopefully open for business next year. Each year for one week in July, the casino is at the center of the tennis world’s attention during the Hall of Fame Championships, the only North American professional grass court tournament, which draws top players from around the world (including all six of the top ranked American men). This year the tournament will be held from July 5-13 with the Hall of Fame induction scheduled for Saturday July 12. Whether you are coming for the architecture or for the high quality tennis, you will not find a better destination than the Newport Casino this coming week!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. He holds architectural degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia Universities.