The 2012 Architectural Symposium: “Trumbauer is Subject of Symposium”

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).  He also transformed a relatively modest Victorian-era cottage, Seaweed, into a much grander and classically inspired house.  It is this architect who has been selected to be the topic for this year’s Architectural Symposium, scheduled for Saturday May 5th at the Newport Casino.

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. Over his career, 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 a Philadelphia firm, he was highly academic in his close attention to copying the detail from older buildings.

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 expending in that direction along the Avenue during the Gilded Age as demand grew for prominent tracts of land.

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 current owner has been carefully undertaking restoration of the house after many years of deferred maintenance.

Another project that Trumbauer would work on 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 designed in 1881 by the firm of Peabody & Sterns, which was the subject for the 2011 architectural symposium. It was commissioned by Frederick Vanderbilt, who was the youngest brother of the men who built the Breakers and Marble House.  In 1922, the house was purchased by James Buchanan Duke, who commissioned Trumbauer to undertake a major expansion.  When Mr. Buchanan died only one year after the renovation was completed in 1925, the house and his enormous 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.

The last house that will be visited by the symposium participants will be Seaweed, which has also been recently and extensively restored by the current owners. This house shows yet another fascinating side of Trumbauer’s ability—the skill to convert one style of building into a greatly changed and much enlarged model.  This white, classically inspired building is surrounded by encompassing porches and overlooks Bailey’s Beach.  The plan of the house reveals the various phases of construction the house has gone through, starting with a modest cottage, the addition of porches, the enclosure of those porches and then the addition of another ring of porches as the house grew in size and mass over time.

Cost to attend the symposium is $95. There will be three visiting scholars who will deliver lectures on various facets of Horace Trumbauer’s architecture and career in the morning, a lunch on the horseshoe piazza and then visits to three Newport houses that Trumbauer lavished his time and skill upon.  Information of the 2012 Architectural Symposium can be found at www.tennisfame.com/news-events/2012-architectural-symposium, or you can call 401.849.3990 to make inquiries. Space is limited so contact the Hall of Fame soon if this is of interest. The Symposium is becoming an event that professors and scholars travel far and wide to attend, but it is only right that Newporters should also be able to enjoy these rare opportunities to see these magnificent properties on the rare occasions that they are available for study and closer inspection!

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, April 26, 2012.

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