2014-04-03 / Around Town

Townsend House Acquisition by NRF Excites New Owners

By Tom Walsh

Five days after the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) formally acquired the circa 1725 Townsend House at 74 Bridge St. in Newport’s historic Point section, the organization's executive director, Pieter Roos, was still walking on air.

“It just so exciting,” he said. "It’s such an important house in so many ways. It’s one of the only cabinetmaker’s houses up and down the Eastern Seaboard. And it has a shop that was likely a cabinetmakers shop in the 18th century.”

Talking about the colonial-era home, Roos almost sounded like a man who had just won the lottery or landed the girl of his dreams.

“We’ve had our eyes on this house for 15 years,” Roos said. “It was just one of the most important privately owned homes in Newport from the 18th century. There were a number of houses we’ve been looking at. But the Christopher Townsend House was right at the top of the list. It’s got the only original cabinetmaking shop still standing in Newport.”

The Townsend House, so-called because it was built by Christopher Townsend, one of Newport’s foremost colonial cabinetmakers, is a magnificent addition to NRF’s current collection. Listed for sale at $725,000 by Gustave White Sotheby’s International Realty, the house cost NRF $645,000 Roos said. He quickly added, though, that the Robert Ives Goddard III family of Providence, which sold the property, will donate “a significant portion” of that amount back to NRF.

Here is how Gustave White described the house in its online listing: “1725 house and ‘shipjoiners’ shop built by Christopher Townsend on the Point. Original details throughout including handcrafted mantel panel above one of the five center-located brick fireplaces. Grounds include a 19th century-designed English garden.”

Christopher Townsend was born in 1701 in Oyster Bay, a community on Long Island, N.Y. He came to Newport in 1707 with his parents, Solomon Townsend and Catherine (Almy) Townsend. Christopher and his brother, Job, would become well-known cabinetmakers in Newport and beyond. Christopher’s son, John, would also follow famously in his father’s chosen craft. Not long ago, a single mahogany secretary bookcase crafted by Christopher Townsend in 1740 sold at auction in New York City for $8.25 million—a record for a piece of American furniture at auction.

Roos said the Townsend House and name go together as emblems of an important era in the evolution of American furniture making. He said styles emanating from Boston and Philadelphia in the 18th century were still strongly influenced by British styles. Roos said that Newport furniture, as produced by Townsend and a few others, while still taking a few cues from England, were much more distinctly American.

As a practicing Quaker, Roos said, Townsend was most likely a neutral bystander during the Revolutionary War.

The Townsend House joins an NRF roster of 78 historic buildings in the city. Seventy-three of those homes are rented as private residences and maintained by a full-time crew of carpenters and painters. The foundation describes its collection as one of the largest properties of 18th century buildings. The last acquisition occurred several years ago, Roos said.

Roos said emphatically that the Townsend House will not be rented. At the same time, he also said it will not be used as a fulltime museum. “But there will be greater public access than before,” Roos said. He said the decision not to use it as a museum was driven, at least in part, by the fact that the house is located in a residential neighborhood.

“We have to respect that fact,” he said.

The house will likely have a more academic use than most of the NRF properties, Roos said, noting that the organization will examine other ways to enable the public to view it.

The NRF wasted no time going to work on the acquisition. The previous owners had taken “reasonably good care of it,” Roos observed. “They treated the house as an artifact.” That is not always the case.

Still, Roos said, they found that the house had some tripletrack windows. “They didn’t have those in the 18th century,” he noted. They are being replaced. And the house had gutters to catch rain falling on the roof. Those gutters are already gone because colonial homes did not have them, either.

But the most obvious thing that Newporters will soon notice is a fresh coat of paint—red with white trim—on the outside. At some point, Roos said, the yard will become an archeological dig. “We hope to unearth some clues as to how an 18th century cabinetmakers shop operated,” Roos said.

Just as the formal sale was about to take place, the house came up with one more surprise— a long-forgotten piece of fine mahogany that was found discarded on the shop floor. “We could tell by the tool markings on it that it was from the 18th century,” Roos said.

“It’s a time capsule that just takes you back to another era,” the NRF executive director said. “There will be other surprises that the house will reveal.”

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