Newport, Christmas and Cuisine
December 25, 2009
Richard J. Garfunkel
Newport is a unique place which has many venues for the casual visitor to enjoy. It has the harbor, which offers boating, fishing and great shopping. It has Bellevue Avenue and the mansions, which during the Gilded Age were summer cottages for the rich, especially Mrs. Astor’s 400. Newport is also home to the Casino, which is an old name for its tennis club and courts. The Tennis Hall of Fame is a wonderful place to stroll through and its artifacts, old pictures, and displays are second to none. For a tennis player, Newport is nirvana. Besides all of the above, there is a lot of history that abounds in Newport. One could go to Touro Synagogue and its grounds which are in the heart of old Newport. Old Newport has a wonderful collection of 18th century homes and commercial buildings along Spring and Division Streets. Down by the water, where we stayed at the Newport Bay Club and Hotel, one can walk all along Thames Street and buy any type of shirt, sweater or collectible commemorating Newport.
We came up for the Christmas weekend, and Newport was still recovering from a massive snow storm that buffeted the coastline from Virginia to Boston. Our drive up from Tarrytown along 1-95 was quite uneventful; the traffic was pleasantly light after we passed through Fairfield, Norwalk and New Haven. The City was inundated with about two feet of the white stuff, and when we arrived on Thursday evening of the 24th much of it was still on the ground. We checked into the Newport Bay Club and went for a walk in the damp and misty evening air towards the Brick Market. We learned that one of the few restaurants open on Christmas Eve was the Sea Shai Hibachi Garden at the Black Market Mall, http://www.seashai.com/.
After making our way around the piles of snow and the numerous puddles we found our destination. The place is huge, but since we wanted Japanese-style cuisine, we had to wait until our table was filled. It didn’t take long, because a family of eight, which included three generations, including people from Seattle, NYC, and New England, sauntered in and before long we were all served. They offered a special hibachi chicken dinner for $10 and we ordered a few of the appetizers. Along with the miso soup, the traditional salad, and the usual Japanese grilled vegetables and shrimp the bill came to less than $38. It was a very fulfilling and reasonably priced meal, especially since our choices were quite limited. We walked back to the Bay Club and slipped into the arms of Morpheus.
Christmas Day, was a bit brighter, and we had breakfast in our rooms. The hotel offered all sorts of muffins, fruits and juice. We brought our own eggs, cereal and milk. Since everything in Newport was basically closed, it was a perfect day for a driving tour which took us along Bellevue Avenue. The streets were virtually empty and we cruised to the end, where the late Doris Duke’s mansion, Rough Point is located. The famous blond and lanky socialite departed Newport and the world in 1993 at the age of 81, and her mansion is now open to the public through early November. She also had a few other places to “crash” when she was on the road.
Over the years Doris acquired a number of homes. One, which was her official principal residence, was Duke Farms, her father's 2,700 acre estate in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey. Here she created Duke Gardens, 60,000-square-foot public Display Gardens that were among the largest in America. Duke's other residences were private during her lifetime: she spent summer weekends working on her Newport Restoration Foundation projects while staying at Rough Point, the 115-room English manor-style mansion that she inherited from her father. Winters were spent at an estate she built in the 1930s and named “Shangri La” in Honolulu, Hawaii; and at “Falcon's Lair” in Beverly Hills, California, once the home of Rudolph Valentino. She also maintained two apartments in Manhattan: a 9-room penthouse with a 1,000-square veranda at 475 Park Avenue that is currently owned by journalist Cindy Adams ]; and another apartment near Times Square that she used exclusively as an office for the management of her financial affairs. She purchased her own Boeing 737 jet and redecorated the interior to travel between homes and on her trips to collect art and plants. Rough Point was deeded to the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1999 and opened to the public in 2000. Tours are limited to 12 people each.
As Bellevue curves to the right from Rough Point the vistas of the Newport coastline opened up as we drove onto Ocean Drive. There are some wonderful views of the craggy coastline, and over the years the hills that look down upon the ocean have become dotted with some magnificent homes. They are not like the “cottages of Bellevue Avenue, but all in all they are quite nice. In our earlier trips we would drive out to Ocean Drive and swim at one of the public beaches that are at the beginning of the “Drive.” In the past we visited Hammersmith Farm, where Jackie Bouvier Kennedy lived with her mother, and her sister Lee.
Hammersmith Farm is a Victorian mansion that hosted the wedding reception of Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy. Linda’s cousin, the late Frederick W. Rosen, Lt. Cdr, USNR (Ret.) was a friend of JFK and joined the PT Boat with him on the same day. Fred commanded PT 207 in the Mediterranean and was one of the 2000 guests invited to his wedding reception at the Farm. During his presidency, Kennedy spent enough time at Hammersmith Farm that it was referred to as the “Summer White House.” Hammersmith Farm was built in 1887 for John W. Auchincloss, the great-grandfather of Jacqueline Kennedy's stepfather, Hugh D. Auchincloss. The house was located in an area in Newport known as “Hammersmith” after the hometown of the first settler of the region, William Brenton, a 17th century governor. The house was opened for public tours in 1978. Following the death of Hugh Auchincloss, Jr., Fruit of the Loom executive William F. Farley bought the main house for $6.675 million in 1997. In 1999, he sold it for over $8 million to Peter Kiernan, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, who converted the home back to private use. The furnishings of the Farm were sold off in a Christie's auction in 2000 that fetched $233,620. We were there the last day it was open to the public!
After enjoying the sights along Ocean Drive, we turned back into Bellevue, and headed toward Ruggles which leads to the Ocean and the Breakers. The Breakers, which is the crown jewel of Newport, was closed for the holiday, though it is opened for touring throughout the winter. The Breakers is a Vanderbilt mansion located on Ochre Point Avenue. It is a National Historic Landmark, a contributing property to the Bellevue Avenue Historic District, and is owned and operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County.
The Breakers was built as the Newport summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, a member of the wealthy United States Vanderbilt family. Designed by renowned architectRichard Morris Hunt and with interior decoration by Jules Allard and Sons and Ogden Codman, Jr., the 70-room mansion boasts approximately 65,000 sq ft of living space. The home was constructed between 1893 and 1895 at a cost of more than $7 million (approximately $150 million in today's dollars adjusted for inflation). The Ochre Point Avenue entrance is marked by sculpted iron gates and 30-foot high walkway gates are part of a 12-foot-high limestone and iron fence that borders the property on all but the ocean side. The 250' x 120' dimensions of the five-story mansion are aligned symmetrically around a central Great Hall.
I parked on Ruggles and stepped over the snow and onto the famous Cliff Walk, which was impassable. I was able to take a few photos before we headed back into town. We turned right from Bellevue to Memorial Drive and drove down the land bridge to Easton’s Beach and Middletown. Incredibly there were a handful of surfers who were braving the wind, chilly air and frigid waters. From Easton’s beach it was back again to Memorial Drive. This time we turned right at Bellevue, which became Touro Street and we drove passed Touro Synagogue and the old part of Newport. On Touro Street is the old and venerable Viking Hotel, which at one time was one of the nicest places in Newport. Jackie Bouvier’s father, who was a handsomely tanned alcoholic, a notorious womanizer and Wall Street manipulator named John Vernou Bouvier III. His nickname was “Black Jack” because of his deep tan and he stayed at the Viking Hotel for the wedding. It was said that his former wife reportedly did not want him to escort Jacqueline down the aisle for her wedding to John F. Kennedy. Jacqueline was instead escorted by her stepfather, Hugh D. Auchincloss. It was rumored that some of the Kennedys helped “Black Jack” Bouvier become to intoxicated to escort his daughter, and this was the reason Auchincloss stepped in to give the bride away.
Within walking distance from Newport Harbor the Viking is nestled in the Historic Hill district off famed Bellevue Avenue. Once the summering destination of America’s wealthiest, the Hotel was opened in 1926 to accommodate their haute monde guests. With the most recent multi-million dollar renovation finished in 2007 this hotel is a convenient choice for a historic stay in the heart of historic Newport. It was quiet in the Viking, but for whoever was there, the Christmas trees, warm sitting areas, and wood paneled bar were great places to congregate.
We went back to our rooms at the Newport Bay Club, and Linda found an advertisement for lobsters and fresh fish. We headed down to America’s Cup Way, turned left into Bannister’s Wharf and walked along to Bowen’s Wharf where we found the fresh fish purveyor, and we bought a 1.5 pound lobster, had it boiled, and brought it back to our rooms, where we had New England clam chowder, salad and the lobster. We were a bit worried how to crack the shell, so we went to CVS to look for a nutcracker. We wound up buying a small hammer, which we wound up not needing, and we brought back, but I was able to use a manual can opener to break the claws. We melted butter, enjoyed that delicious crustacean and rested until late afternoon when we headed out to see “Sherlock Holmes.”
The movie was quite enjoyable, and Robert Downey Jr and the whole cast was marvelous. Again it was a challenge to find a restaurant in Newport on Christmas Day. But there is a wonderful one called Sardella’s which was founded in 1980, and is located right on Memorial Drive, about halfway between our hotel on Thames and Bellevue Avenue. The restaurant was crowded, and we had a small table, which was quite adequate. We ordered lobster bisque soup which was quite reasonable at $6 for a bowl, and Linda chose a Caesar salad with chicken, and I chose a linguini with Bolognese sauce. The total bill was $46 and we had a pleasant time talking to the people sitting next to us. Here are the reviews for Sardella’s; http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g60978-d443215-Reviews-Sardella_s_Italian_Restaurant-Newport_Rhode_Island.html.
On Saturday we again had breakfast in our rooms, and we headed out to visit the newly opened stores on Thames Street. We headed toward the Armory Market, an antiques mall, where we found a sailing ship, a Breakers Hotel cup, a wrought-iron plate holder, a chopping bowl and a few other items. I brought them back to the car we continued our tour of the stores of Newport. We then headed for the Tennis Hall of Fame, where we spent an entertaining two hours.The Newport Casino, which opened up on August 2, 1880, still sits on Bellevue Avenue across from where Bennett’s home used to be. Now there is a shopping center. It was immediately a great success. One can still sit today in the La Forge Restaurant and look out on the original lawn tennis court. Newport and tennis became synonymous and the first United States National lawn tennis championships were held there in 1881. Richard Sears, a 19-year old Harvard student won the inaugural event and went on to win six more championships without losing a set. Eventually there was doubles competition and Sears entered into it in 1882, and with both James Dwight and Joseph Clark, won five titles in a row. The championships stayed there until the onset of World War I and after 1914 never returned. Time and democracy moved on, and the Nationals moved to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, NY for the next 63 years. Even the Forest Hills facility became antiquated as the Nationals eventually became an “Open” and the professionals started to dominate the game. The National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows became the next and present venue.
The reason The Casino was built in the first place was a strange incident, involving the quirky newspaper man James Gordon Bennett, Jr., who had earlier caused a stir by sending reporter Henry Stanley to Africa to find the lost and reclusive Dr. David Livingston, of “Dr. Livingston, I presume!” One dull day in 1879, in a fit of spirited good times and fun, Bennett dared Captain Candy, a visiting polo player, to bring his horse into Bennett’s club, The Reading Room. His fellow members weren’t amused by having a horse cantering around their sanctum and threw the horse out along with Bennett. Therefore since they couldn’t take a joke, Bennett established his own place, The Casino. Years later, another Candy- Candace Van Alen, asked her tennis-playing enthusiast husband, Jimmy Van Alen, “Why doesn’t tennis have a Hall of Fame like baseball.” A year later, in 1954, Van Alen posed the question to the US Tennis Association. Therefore, with that question posed, the Tennis Hall of Fame started to come into existence. A few of the early inductees were Oliver Campbell, James Dwight, Richard Sears, the first champion, Henry Slocum, Jr., Malcolm Whitman and Robert Wrenn. Even Jimmy Van Alen was inducted in 1965. It only took another 21 years, for the Hall of Fame to be renamed the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1975 with the induction of the great Englishman Fred Perry.
After our self-guided tour, we headed back to our hotel for lunch. This time it was sandwiches and salad. After lunch we drove over to Beechwood, the Astor’s mansion and made the 2pm tour. One of Newport's oldest, oceanfront summer “cottages”, Astors' Beechwood Mansion was originally built in 1851 for a New York merchant, Daniel Parish. The Italianate-style mansion was destroyed by fire in 1855 and two years later, a replica was constructed on the property closer to the Atlantic Ocean frontage. Real estate mogul William Backhouse Astor, Jr., the grandson of John Jacob Astor, purchased the mansion in 1890 as an anniversary gift for his wife, Caroline. More commonly referred to as “The Mrs. Astor”, the undisputed Queen of American Society, Caroline hired architect Richard Morris Hunt and spent two million dollars renovating Beechwood into a place worthy of America's highest society.
Although Mrs. Astor only spent two months of the summer at Beechwood, she packed them full of social activities, including her renowned “Summer Ball.” For 25 years during the Gilded Age, Astors' Beechwood Mansion was the center of American Society, with Caroline reigning as its Queen. She was the creator of the first American social register, “The 400.” a list of 213 families and individuals whose lineage could be traced back at least three generations, she was the mother of John Jacob Astor, IV, the richest man to perish on the RMS Titanic. The Mrs. Astor’s 400 (all who could fit in her ballroom) has all but disappeared, except for a small mention in the paper regarding the conviction of one Anthony Marshall, who couldn’t wait until his mama, the legendary Brooke Astor departed from her earthly journey. Mrs. Astor, whose third husband was Vincent Astor, who was the great-great grandson of John Jacob Astor, America’s first multi-millionaire, died 50 years ago. Brooke, who lived to 105 years young, left an estimated $168 million. She had intended to give it all to charities, and that obviously frightened her only son. In his 80’s he decided to loot as much as he could before the needy got their “greedy” hands on his 2nd step-father’s loot.
Beechwood is unique because all the hosts are in period piece costumes, and their characters are frozen in the year of 1891. This is the only “cottage” among the Newport mansions that provides a living history tour. The cast of The Beechwood Theatre Company takes on the roles of servants, guests and members of the Astor family in the year 1891 (or 1920s on Tuesdays). We were on a self-guided tour through the home by the cast as if you were a guest coming to call on the Astor family. Through interaction with the actors, a wealth of information on the dress, customs, activities, class structure and opulence of the era is shared in an intimate and interesting format. Once you enter the mansion, you have stepped back in time, and it is virtually impossible to get the actors out of character. Meanwhile at the end of the tour, we were entertained by wonderful singing and a cotillion in the Great Hall. The cast of characters were talented, good-looking, charming, young and recent college graduates.
After Beechwood, it was off to Washington Square where we parked. We visited the Brick Market Museum and Shop. Being fans of British Royal history, our next choice was to see the afternoon, 4:30 pm showing of Young Victoria, with Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend at the Jane Pickens Threater which is right on Washington Square. It was a sumptuous film chronicling the ascension of the young Victoria, the niece of William the IV of England to the throne after his death in 1837. The film depicted her early struggles with her family, her ascension to the throne and her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Victoria was born in Kensington Palace in 1819. At the time of her birth, her grandfather, George III, was on the throne, but his three eldest sons, the Prince Regent (later George IV), the Duke of York, and the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), had no surviving legitimate children. Her godparents were Emperor Alexander I of Russia, the future King George IV of the United Kingdom (her uncle), Queen Charlotte of Württemberg and Duchess Augusta of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield. The film was enjoyable, well-constructed, and Victoria was beautifully portrayed by Ms. Blunt. At its conclusion, we walked directly across Washington Square to Yesterday’s Ale House & Restaurant where we had eaten twice before on earlier visits to Newport. Yesterday’s is a comfortable eatery, founded in 1974, with the look of a 19th Century ale house, constructed with wooden beams and comfortable booths. There are plenty of reviews for Yesterday’s at this site: http://www.yelp.com/biz/yesterdays-and-the-place-newport.
On Sunday, after breakfast, we packed up our car, and headed down to the Bannister’s Wharf, stopped in a few stores, and got on the road to meet our children, Dana and Jon in Providence. We had arranged to meet them for lunch at around 2:00 pm. In between, we decided to drive to Fall River, MA, which is about 20 miles north of Newport. I wanted to see the battleship Massachusetts, which is docked at the Battleship Cove. TheMassachusetts was built in Quincy, Massachusetts at the Fore River Shipyard of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. The ship was launched on September 23, 1941, and holds the record as the heaviest ship ever launched in Quincy. “Big Mamie”, as her crew knew her, was delivered to the Boston Navy Yard in April 1942 and commissioned the following month.
Following her shakedown period Battleship Massachusetts went into action on November 8, 1942, as part of Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. While cruising off the city of Casablanca, Morocco, the Battleship engaged in a gun duel with the unfinished French battleship Jean Bart, moored at a Casablanca pier. In this battle, Massachusetts fired the first American 16″ projectile in anger of World War II. Five hits from Big Mamie silenced the enemy battleship, and other 16″ shells from Battleship Massachusetts helped sink two destroyers, two merchant ships, a floating dry-dock, and heavily damaged buildings and docks in Casablanca. Along with Massachusetts one can board both thesubmarine USS Lionfish and the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., which are also anchored in the cove.
We had been to see the Massachusetts on previous trips, and we then headed north east to Providence, the capital of Rhode Island. Providence is a very interesting city that has gone through a major renaissance. Providence, the home to over 170,000 souls was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams and used to be a known as the “Bee Hive of Industry.” Today it has re-created itself into an arts and creative center. It is the home to Brown University, Providence College and the Rhode Island School of Design. Once we arrived in the city, we met our children at the Red Stripe, http://redstriperestaurants.com/?page_id=34 , an American Brasserie restaurant at 465 Angell Street. It was busy, noisy, but convenient. The menu was a bit limited, but the food was good. I had lox and bagels, and the nova scotia was plentiful and tasty. Linda, Dana, and Jon had omelets, vegetable wraps, and a tomato soup. The bill came to $59. All in all, we enjoyed the brunch and we walked to our cars which were parked right on Angell Street and made our way to the Rhode Island School of Design museum, http://www.risdmuseum.org/ , at 224 Benefit Street. RISD’s museum is a real gem. They have great collections of modern art, Egyptian artifacts, bronzes and interior design creations. It was a great place to spend an afternoon. We finally finished with RISD, Providence, and our weekend in Newport, and it was time to go home. Jon went back to Boston, and Dana joined us for a ride to New York. Happy New Year- 2010, a new year, a new decade!