A4 Architecture Spotlight: The Hope Funds Galas in the Newport Mansions

All photos by Julie Skarratt

The grand mansions built during the Gilded Age in Newport Rhode Island were designed with one primary purpose in mind: to allow their owners to entertain lavishly. These buildings are more akin to theaters or palaces than what most of us would recognize as houses. The “Summer cottage” called the Breakers, for just one example, is 125,000 sf in size. But it was used only 6 to 8 weeks per year. (Houses that were used only part-time in Newport are called “cottages” regardless of their size.) It is not surprising that these houses still serve as the settings of great events.  Everything from grand weddings to corporate gatherings to fundraising balls.

A4 Architecture has had the honor and pleasure of designing all of the Hope Funds Award of Excellence Galas since 2007. Their events have been held all over from private ballrooms to the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And yet, the Hope Funds seems to keep returning to host its events in beautiful Newport.  Here the places are renowned for their elegant beauty and history of grand entertaining. For the past 16 years, A4 Architecture has worked in many of the famous mansions to help Hope Funds bring people together to promote cancer research in settings designed to take the guests’ breath away.

Marble House Front

This year’s Award of Excellence Gala was held on July 15 at Marble House. The building designed by Richard Morris Hunt was completed in 1892 for Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt. Alva stated that if she was going to put in the effort to work with the architect to create this mansion it should be given to her outright. (An unusual request in 1892.)  And the home was indeed given by Mr. Vanderbilt to his wife for her 39th birthday.  Alva Vanderbilt and Mrs. Astor competed to lead the Newport social scene.  Usually through extravagant parties and events in their homes’ grand ballrooms.  “Alva” would not be outdone!

These grand Bellevue mansions, like the one in Marble House, became social and architectural landmarks.  Embodying what it meant to live in Newport in the Gilded Aged.  I have been a member of the Marble House committee for more than twenty years. I am so pleased to see the mansion being used for what it was intended for, gracious entertaining on a grand level.  The Hope Fund Gala raised more than $300,000 in support for cancer research.  While also celebrating the night in similar fashion as it would have been during the time of the Vanderbilt’s occupancy.

Marble House Foyer

When the Hope Funds brings people together it does so to entertain, inform and connect the guest through a series of interconnected events.  A4 Architecture had the privilege planning the Hope Funds Fellows Dinner at the Pell Center.  Also the full day of scientific meetings that followed it the next morning in the ballroom of this mansion.  Which later Salve Regina University purchased and renovated.

Marble House: Path to Tea House

Past events have been held at the Elms, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Rancho Valencia in San Diego, the Athenaeum Boston and other extraordinary venues.  A4 Architecture has had the privilege to not only plan the events for nearly two decades, but Ross Cann has attended the events as a contributor and supporter to the Hope Funds.  Many of these galas have been held at properties owned and maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County (PSNC). This has saved them from destruction by turning them into house museums and renting for grand event spaces.

Since its founding in 2007, Hope Funds has raised nearly $7 million to fund more than eighty post-doctoral researchers. As a result, these young geniuses were able to stay in scientific research.  In a time when government funding for science has been drastically cut.  They also have published papers in the most prestigious journals.  And became faculty members at some of the top universities around the world including Yale and Cambridge.  Since it founding only 16 years ago, the Hope Funds fellowships have become among the most prestigious and selective in the field of oncology.  We at A4 Architecture would like to believe that the excellence of the events we have helped plan are one of many reasons for the extraordinary rise in the organization’s reputation and influence.

At this year’s Gala, the gentlemen wore “white tie” and tailcoats and the ladies wore long and lovely ballgowns. They attired similarly 140 years ago when Marble House was first opened to entertain the guests of the Vanderbilts. Sometimes, to engage people and help raise money, you need to throw a really great party in a really extraordinary setting!


Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA is an historian, teacher and founder of A4 Architecture in Newport RI. Among many other boards, committees and commissions, he has been a member of the Marble House Committee since 2002.