Bellevue Avenue Facade of the Newport Casino
Next week the eyes of the tennis world will be on Newport as many of the players from Wimbledon will be competing in the Infosys Hall of Fame Open. This is the only ATP men’s tournament played on grass in North America and extends the tradition of tennis, which was first played on grass at the Wimbledon Cricket Club in 1877. Just four years later in 1880 the first American championship was played in Newport, RI. This marked the beginning of tennis in the Americas.
This year the tournament will be played from Monday July 17 to Sunday July 23, 2023. The competition is an ATP 250 Men’s tournament and has both singles and doubles championships and many of the top players from around the globe will be competing for $642,735 in prize money. Included in the draw are three former Hall of Fame Open Champions: Maxime Cressy (2022), South African Kevin Anderson (2021) and four-time champion John Isner (2019, 2017, 2012 & 2011). World Ranked #15 American Tommy Paul is also slated to play so the competition is expected to be fierce and at a very high level. (More information on the draw and tickets are available at www.InfosysHallOfFameOpen.com.
When the Newport Casino was first built in 1880, the game of lawn tennis was a new but quickly growing sport. The game had been derived from the more complicated and architecturally involved game now known as Real Tennis, which had been invented in 13th-century France. To make the sport of “tennis” more accessible and affordable to all, Major Walter Wingdale took the essentials of the game of hitting a ball over a net with wooden racquets and was granted a patent for his new variation of the sport by Queen Victoria in 1874. The first lawn tennis tournament championships were held at the Wimbledon Croquet Club in London in 1877. Just three years later the first American Championships were held at the newly constructed Newport Casino.
The Newport Casino was commissioned in 1879 by James Gordon Bennett, who owned an estate across the street for the Newport Casino. He reportedly created the club after the members of the Reading Room Club objected to his polo instructor riding up the staircase to the second floor of the building on a bet. Bennett was an eccentric millionaire publisher of the New York Herald newspaper and was famous for doing exactly as he liked. He reputedly said he created the club so that people could “have a bit of fun,” thus implying such a thing had not actually possible in Newport previously. After a lightning-fast six-month design process, construction on the Newport Casino broke ground on January 8, 1880. Through the efforts of 200-300 construction laborers, the facility was opened to patron in July of 1880, barely six months later.
Bennett selected the newly remade firm of McKim Mead & White to undertake the design work. With the addition of Stanford White, the new firm successfully completed the design work for the Newport Casino and began its rapid ascent. The Newport Casino project was widely published as Newport was a place closely followed in both the social and architectural press during that time.
Located at 194 Bellevue Avenue, the Casino building is a masterpiece of the “Shingle Style,” which was popular during the 1880’s. The Shingle Style was given its name by Yale Architectural Scholar Vincent Scully in his 1955 seminal work The Stick Style and the Shingle Style. As Scully defined it, the style was a refined and simplified version of the earlier Queen Anne Revival formula, which was characterized by more polychromy and half timbering. The Shingle Style used cedar shingles cut in various patterns to create an almost painterly cloak to it asymmetric and free-formed volumes, thus giving it its name naturally and succinctly. Although derived from a style which was the revival of a still older style, the beauty of the Shingle Style is its informal inventiveness and easy flexibility to a wide variety of structures, from small scale residential buildings to larger scale New England resort hotels.
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 complex is more or less intact thanks to the vision (and generosity) of summer Newporters James and Candace Van Alen, who saved the site 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 institution was widened to include international players and in 1976 it was renamed the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF). This grand building complex is now home to one of the central collections of tennis history and memorabilia in the world, including the original patent, signed by Queen Victoria, for the invention of lawn tennis.
For its importance in the career of McKim, Mead and White, in the development of the American Shingle Style and in the invention of the “country club,” the Casino complex was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. It is a place which from its earliest day to the present has been associated with tennis in America and now, through the Hall of Fame located there, with the greatest players from around the world enshrined in this Pantheon of Tennis!
Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA is an, historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. He is the Founding Principal of A4 Architecture and the former President of the National Tennis Club located at the Newport Casino. He holds architecture degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia Universities.
All Photos by Ross Cann, AIA