Last week, East Coast native Caitlin Emery traveled—she admitted—as far west as she’s ever been, to deliver a lecture entitled Innovation and Opulence: Stanford White and the Kingscote Dining Room at the Driehaus Museum.
Emery is presently Museum Programs Coordinator for the Preservation Society of Newport County, the organization that operates a handful of historic mansions in that former summer enclave for the Gilded Age elite. She spoke with us from her Chicago hotel room on Thursday before heading out for a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House.
So Kingscote, the house you dealt with in your lecture—this was one of the first homes that would eventually supplant that hotel culture in Newport and make it into the mansion-heavy area it is today. Why was Newport such a popular gathering place for people, especially wealthy people, during the summer?
Caitlin Emery: It started as early as the 1730s. You had these Southern families coming up in the summer to escape the heat and malaria because Newport is this temperate area, not too hot in summer, and it’s just this absolutely beautiful place. You had families from South Carolina, Georgia, traveling up and staying strictly in hotels, and eventually, in the 1830s, George N. Jones is one of the first to build a private house at the end of Bellevue Avenue [which was later christened Kingscote by David and Ella King in 1880].
It was an early place for Southern families to go, and then tensions came out during the Civil War between the North and South. Tell me a little about how and when the place turned over and became a place for the Northeastern elite.
Emery: It really started to shift in the 1850s and 1860s; you had more Bostonians and New Yorkers coming to town. It was mostly the wealthy elite, but I can’t really speak to what inspired them to come—but you had more and more of them coming in the summers. And leading up into the 1850s, there’s just a lot going on between North and South, and eventually it sort of flip-flopped and the Southerners stopped coming. That’s what happened with the Jones family. They actually spent their last summer season in Newport sometime in the late 1850s, and continued to own the house until 1863, and I think it’s at that point they realized they were never coming back. Things were just too different. It wasn’t the place it had been for them.
Why do you think that Newport has so many surviving mansions? Because Cape Cod was a big place that people went in the summer, there are a number of other places, and of course they all have historic homes, but Newport is really known for having saved its houses.
Emery: We are very fortunate, but actually, as much as Newport has saved, a lot has been lost. The Preservation Society was formed in 1945 because parts of the city’s 18th-century heritage were threatened. A group of Newporters looked at what was happening and said, ‘We have to stop this, this is our history,’ and all banded together and actually opened The Breakers in an effort to save the 18th-century city. We have actually saved at least two houses from demolition. One of our properties, The Elms [former home to Edward J. Berwind], was saved after most of the contents were auctioned off. We intervened at the last minute before the house was going to be demolished. Unfortunately, the house next door, Villa Rosa—which is a great example of Ogden Codman’s work, was demolished right before The Elms and is now some very unattractive condos. [Laughs.] It’s very much a story of preservation and loss. We’ve been really lucky that there has been a lot that has been saved, but at the same time there are some really great houses that were not so fortunate. So it’s a little bit of both.
So back to Kingscote. You said that when the Preservation Society acquired the place, it was so full of objects there was hardly room to walk through it.
Emery: [Laughs.] Yeah, it was full. The woman who was involved with caring for Kingscote, Mrs. Smith, was a very good friend of the last owner. So she was actually able to help us peel back some of the layers and get the house ready for display in a way that was faithful to the family, despite the fact that we had to take a lot of it out. We still have most of those things in our collection—we have 1960s armchairs, we have the family’s television set—but obviously this doesn’t fit into the interpretation that we do in the house now.
You focused on the dining room in your talk, and specifically McKim, Mead & White, who were commissioned for Kingscote’s 1881 addition that included the dining room. What are some early trademarks of the firm’s work that we see in that space, since this was one their earlier commissions?
Emery: So they were at a stage in their career where they were really trying to work out their style and artistic vocabulary. Specifically in their dining rooms, this built-in sideboard component is really popular. You see it in the Isaac Bell House, it’s at the Samuel Tilton House, and it’s at another house called Alden Villa in Pennsylvania. You also see White’s use of interesting, unusual, uncommon materials. At Kingscote there’s cork on the ceiling and on the frieze in the dining room. At the Isaac Bell House there’s rattan on the ceilings. At the Samuel Tilton House he uses fishing nets, and then in the Veteran’s Room that he does with Associated Artists and Louis Comfort Tiffany, he uses raw chains around the columns. The mashrabiya element—this intricate latticework that looks a little bit Middle Eastern, a little bit Japanese—shows up in different places. In Kingscote you see it in the roundels set into the cork frieze. You also see it in the screen. But at the Bell house, it’s really subtle and way more Japanese; it appears in a fireplace surround. And I think one of the big themes that really defines their early work is an interest in reflective light. It’s really done well at Kingscote through the use of the opalescent glass windows, as well as the opalescent glass used in the silver safe, and in some of their bigger commissions they use this really subtle, very cool gilding. It’s not blatant, over-the-top gilding—it’s just sort of a highlight here and there. One of the upper bedrooms of Kingscote, in the McKim, Mead & White addition, we have a fireplace with its original gilding. So not in the dining room, but still in that same period in the addition.
You’re from Massachusetts originally, so I’m curious—did you ever visit the Newport mansions before, when you were younger?
Emery: I did. I think the first time I went I was in high school, and I can remember touring Marble House and thinking it was absolutely over the top, but other than that I don’t remember going to Newport. I didn’t even really know it was there, and I sort of stumbled upon the college in Newport by accident. It was all a very happy accident.
Tell me a little bit about what led you to this field, to this line of work.
Emery: This is funny—I actually owe it all to my mother. I was undeclared my first semester at college, and then my first year ended and I had every intention of majoring in business and minoring in Spanish. And I looked at my schedule in the middle of that summer and I said, ‘Oh God, this looks absolutely, horribly boring.’ And my mother—you know, wants to see her daughter happy—had dug around on the Salve [Regina University] website and she asked, ‘What do you love?’ And I said, ‘I love history.’ And she found this Cultural and Historic Preservation program at Salve, and I enrolled in my first preservation class after that.
Emery: I really do owe it all to Mom.
What a great Mother’s Day story, too.
Emery: I know, I know. And don’t tell her—she lets it go to her head.
Caitlin Emery is the Museum Programs Coordinator at the Preservation Society of Newport County in Newport, Rhode Island. She received her B.A. (2007) in Cultural and Historic Preservation from Salve Regina University and her M.A. (2009) from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware. In addition to her work at the Preservation Society, Ms. Emery has been involved with projects at Winterthur Museum Garden and Library, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, and the Biggs Museum of American Art.