2014-12-18 / Around Town

Restoration Uncovers Architectural Gems

By Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA


Hidden fireplaces were discovered in many rooms during the renovations. (Photo by Ross Cann) Hidden fireplaces were discovered in many rooms during the renovations. (Photo by Ross Cann) When buildings are being renovated, walls are opened up and things appear that haven’t seen the light of day in 50 or 100 years. Just such an occurrence is happening at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The exhibition walls that were built in the 1970s and earlier are being torn down to make way for a new exhibit design that is going to be much more respectful of the masterpiece that the Hall of Fame is housed in – the Newport Casino designed by McKim Mead & White in 1880.

In the 1880s, the primary way to provide heat was with fireplaces, so just about every room on the second level had a fireplace. As new methods of heating by hot water and forced hot air developed, these fireplaces became mere decorative features. Over time, walls were built in front of them and they disappeared from view entirely. Whether the mantels were left in place out of laziness or because of an understanding that these historic architectural features would someday want to be uncovered intact, the Hall of Fame is fortunate. When the walls were pulled down the beautiful mantels, panels and, in some cases, wallpaper, were exposed – looking little different than when they were first installed more than a century ago.

Stanford White, when he designed the Newport Casino, had just joined the architecture firm that Charles Follett McKim and William Rutherford Mead founded in 1872. The Casino was commissioned by James Gordon Bennett to create a new type of facility that had not previously existed in the United States, a place where leisure and pleasure would be the central purpose. This was the model of what would eventually be called a “country club.”

It was the first project that Mc- Kim, Mead & White would work on together and represents the beginning of a partnership that would evolve into the predominate architecture firm in the nation. When White began the design of the project, he was only 26 years old.

White is particularly remembered for his imaginative and innovative approach to interior decoration. The Newport Casino's recently uncovered fireplaces and walls reveal this design talent. Marble surrounds are shaped unusually high and become almost like marble and wood canvases affixed to the walls. Shallow paneling is used to create geometry to the wall, but then a heavy mantel, which spans the full length of the room, breaks the pattern and a completely different panel geometry emerges on the other side.

Doug Stark, director of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, explained that the museum areas will be closed while an entirely new and up-to-date set of displays is built and the space is renovated by Behan Brothers Construction. The firm is also building the new structures for the Hall of Fame along Memorial Boulevard. The new design scheme, while much more technologic and interactive, also intends to be more compatible with the architecture of the building itself, allowing the beauty of the original design to serve as a fitting and contrasting backdrop to the new exhibits that will open in May.

Construction often means that old architecture is lost forever, but in the case of the renovation of the Newport Casino, the construction has actually been an opportunity to restore and celebrate wonderful architectural details that even the staff of the Hall of Fame didn’t know existed. When the galleries open again to the public there will be more to see than just the new displays themselves.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, holds degrees from Yale,& Cambridges t e a l s ! and Columbia$ 5and is an educator,75% historian, and practicing architect living in Newport and working for A4 Architecture Inc.

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