2015-09-10 / Front Page

'A Chance to Highlight Rosecliff'

By Betsy Sherman Walker


Dresses from the wardrobe collection, including vintage Lilly Pulitzer, Mary McFadden, and Arnold Scaasi, that were worn in Palm Beach, the new “American Riviera … the Newport of the South.” (Photo by Nick Mele/The Preservation Society of Newport County) Dresses from the wardrobe collection, including vintage Lilly Pulitzer, Mary McFadden, and Arnold Scaasi, that were worn in Palm Beach, the new “American Riviera … the Newport of the South.” (Photo by Nick Mele/The Preservation Society of Newport County) There are numerous items that contribute, both visually and historically, to the impressive tableau of “Newport and her Southern Sisters,” the current exhibit of the Newport Preservation Society now on view at Rosecliff through Jan. 3. If one were asked to name one in particular, the answer would have to come in two parts. In the first room of the chronologically organized exhibit, there is a beautiful mahogany highboy, c. 1760, attributed to Newport’s Goddard-Townsend workshop. According to Director of Museum Affairs Dr. Laurie Ossman, the top and the base have been separated on purpose for the display— to illustrate how the piece would have been shipped, back in its day, from Newport to a Southern market as “venture cargo.”


The Antebellum Room: “The Middletons of Charleston and the Noble Joneses of Savannah were amongst the earliest builders of . . . the town’s largest and best-furnished homes.” (Photo by Nick Mele/The Preservation Society of Newport County) The Antebellum Room: “The Middletons of Charleston and the Noble Joneses of Savannah were amongst the earliest builders of . . . the town’s largest and best-furnished homes.” (Photo by Nick Mele/The Preservation Society of Newport County) Parenthetically, at the other end of the exhibit’s 300-year timeline is a massive 17th century Italian dining table that once belonged to Harold Vanderbilt II, son of the Memphis-born Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. The table was originally in the dining hall of El Salano, the Palm Beach estate Vanderbilt built in the 1930s. Positioned in front of a 17th century Flemish tapestry, among the items placed on top are a pair of 17th century Italian candlesticks and a 12th century Romanesque Madonna and child. In marked contrast to its stern origins, this exquisite table is covered with circular watermarks from glasses being set down, again and again, on its broad surface. As the table was being cleaned up and primed for the exhibit Ossman said there was talk, in the conservation shop, of refinishing the surface. But cooler heads prevailed, and the vote was in favor of authenticity. “We decided that there must have been,” she added, “a lot of fun times around this table.”

Another fun fact regarding the table: It took eight men using a custom-designed wooden frame with handles to get it up the grand staircase and into its spot in the hallway.

Thanks to such insights and the collaboration of Ossman and Associate Curator for Exhibitions Ashley Householder, everything in this compact exhibit, brimming with detail, brings to life a littleknown aspect of Newport’s social history. It tells the story, through the lives and belongings of its inhabitants, of the enduring connections between Newport and numerous cities in the South, that began in the Colonial era and continued well into the 20th century.

“The close bond—through trade, tourism and marriage,” said Ossman, “didn’t stop with the Civil War.” Almost in spite of it, she added that there was a host of characters, from the Alabamaborn Alva Vanderbilt (née Smith) to the Savannah-born Ward McAllister (to whom the “Four Hundred” is attributed) and the Virginia native Richard Washington Corbin—all of whom, especially after the Civil War, remained fiercely proud of their Southern heritage. Nor did it end with the Gilded Age. The connections continued on through the 1930s with Harold Vanderbilt heading further south to Lake Worth in Florida, having been invited by fellow railroad magnate Henry Morrison Flagler to become one of the first summer colonizers of Palm Beach. And beyond that: Rosecliff, which was designed by Stanford White and built in 1898-1902 for Nevada silver heiress Tessie Oelrichs, was brought into the Southern orbit in 1947, when it was purchased by Mr & Mrs J. Edgar Monroe of New Orleans.

The exhibit, Ossman says, gives the Preservation Society a prime opportunity “to tell stories, bring more of Rosecliff to light, and is a chance to show off the collection.” Set up on the second floor as visitors step off the grand staircase into the newly upgraded, museum quality suite of rooms (now climate- and U/V light-controlled, and fire-protected behind a floorto ceiling wall of glass), the tour takes visitors through what had been a sitting room, two guest bedrooms, and the length of a spacious upstairs hallway.

In lieu of tour guides, oversized explanatory text posted on the walls sets the visitor up for each room’s time frame. The room with the Goddard-Townsend piece, for example, includes a passage from a 1789 travel guide (“travelers, with propriety, call it the Eden of America”) and explains, among other things, that “Newport-based merchants and artists moved freely between the two cities [Charleston being the other] and an unusual cultural rapport was established.” The room also features 1769 portraits of the family of Dr. William Hunter, including his wife (“a Southern belle,” according to Ossman) and his daughter Elizabeth, done by itinerant artist Cosmo Alexander, who was well-known not only in Newport but also in Virginia and Charleston.

Mined from treasures found at other Preservation Society mansions (made possible because so many of these families were linked by marriage—and remarriages), “Southern Sisters” includes portraits, architectural renderings, paintings and etchings, and personal pieces of furniture, and decorative objects. The result is an intimate introduction into the relationships of a wealthy extended family. Kingscote is featured as the first private summer cottage, built in the 1830s, and later “signed over to a Yankee relative” during the Civil War, says Ossman, in order to keep it in the family. The impact of the war features prominently as a social phenomenon. In the years leading up the turn of the century, Ossman added, there were numerous “North-South pairings,” in which Southern belles and beaux whose family fortunes had been diminished were sought after, for the patina of gentility they would bring to the sons and daughters of the newly-rich. (Think: Downton Abbey.)

The exhibit has plenty of gems. Beginning with the exquisitely embroidered “day dresses” from the 1850s, there is a trove of gowns from the museum’s wardrobe collection, right up to vintage Lilly Pulitzer, Mary McFadden, and Arnold Scaasi. There are two Worth gowns, designed in Paris in the 1890s for Bessie Rhodes Corbin of Providence and Newport, who met and married her husband—the expatriate Richard. “The Corbins’ experience as Southern expatriates in Paris,” said Householder, “mirrors that of many of their peers, including the family of Alva Erskine Smith.”

Another gem is an enlarged group photograph of the Vanderbilts in Palm Beach in the mid- 1930s, having just arrived via personal railroad, gathered in front of the immense new Royal Poinciana Hotel. Standing in the bright Florida sunshine, with palm trees swaying overhead, everyone is dressed for the streets of New York City— or Newport.

When asked if they each have a show favorite, neither Ossman nor Householder skipped a beat. With a twinkle in her eye, Ossman positioned herself in front of a novel, written in 1888, entitled “The Quick or the Dead?” Written by Amélie Rives, a Kingscote cousin from Virginia who was married to John Armstrong Chanler (who was a cousin to the Astors), it told the story of a grieving Southern widow, misplaced love, and moving on. “The book at the time was a sensation,” Ossman explained, but she also sees it as “an allegory of the South after the Civil War and clinging to the past.” For Householder, from a curator’s perspective, it was all about the dress: Her choice was a silver and gold lamé Mardi Gras gown, with a seven-foot-long ornately sequined train, worn in 1950 by the Monroe’s niece. In 1971, the Monroes donated their Newport cottage, designed to resemble the Petit Trianon at Versailles, to the Preservation Society.

The abundance of resources— architectural, historical, and the unlimited spending power of a leisure class leads one to wonder, is there already a next thing planned for the exhibition rooms at Rosecliff? “Next year’s theme is ‘Newport and The Sea,” Ossman said. “We hope it will pull in everything from landscape and environment to the Colonial trade, the Navy in Newport to maritime art, architecture and music; resort culture,” she added, “and hopefully even food!”

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