Revisiting Hunter House
On the 75th Anniversary of the Preservation Society of Newport County
Feature article by Anita Rafael in the 2020 Newport Harbor Guide.
Coauthors of the now-collectible book Newport Preserv’d [1982, Viking Press, NY, NY] frankly state, “The history of Hunter House is confusing ….” Citing lack of documentary evidence, questions do linger about the precise date of construction in the mid-1700s, the identity of its builder, the sequence of improvements, and “the vicissitudes through which the house has gone,” so, at best, the timeline of the house may be somewhat interpretive.
One part of the story of Newport’s most visited 18th century house museum, a National Historic Landmark also known as the Nichols-Wanton House to some, is well documented and now the stuff of legend, as they say: it was the near loss of some particularly noteworthy woodwork in the sitting room of Hunter House that prompted the formation of the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1945, now celebrating its 75th anniversary year.
The paperwork for the 1968 nomination of the property as a landmark site details what makes the paneling at Hunter House so interesting: “The woodwork is beautifully executed. Corinthian pilasters subdivide the paneling and carved cherub heads fill the spandrels of the cupboard arches. The large windows have interior shutters and deep window seats of mahogany.” The cherubs, in particular, are lovingly described as “rosy cheeked, brown eyed and rainbow winged.”
In the mid-1940s, the curatorial and collections departments of more than one important American museum were interested in removing the paneling from Hunter House to create room installations as part of their galleries. A group of prominent Newport residents acted at once, not only to prevent that from happening, but to also restore and open Hunter House for tours, showcasing a fine example of Georgian architecture from Newport’s Golden Age.
It’s true: the house was saved by its painted pine paneling! The Society’s CEO and executive director, Trudy Coxe, who has been at the helm of the nonprofit organization since 1998, says, “This is where it all began.”
The family who owned the house as a private residence for the longest period of time, from 1805 to 1855, was the family of Senator and Ambassador William Hunter and his wife Mary, née Robinson, which is why the Preservation Society opted to refer to it as Hunter House. Mr. Hunter bought the house, then much in disrepair, in 1805 for $5,000. His heirs sold it many years later to the Storers, a Boston family who summered there. They eventually gave the house to St. Joseph’s Church for use as a convent. And, in 1945, with $15,000 donated by Newporters George Warren and his wife Katherine Urquhart Warren, the newly formed Preservation Society bought the house. Mrs. Warren, one of the Society’s co-founders, served as its first president and chair of the board for many years. Her efforts as an early and passionate advocate of architectural preservation in Newport came to the attention of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who appointed Warren to a committee to restore the White House in 1961.
“The effort to save Hunter House was also funded, in part, by the generosity of the youngest daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, Countess Lazlo Széchenyi, formerly Miss Gladys Vanderbilt,” says Coxe. “It was she who agreed to allow the general public to tour her family’s ‘summer cottage,’ the magnificent 70-room Breakers mansion, as a fundraiser to pay for the research and restoration work for Hunter House.” The Countess Széchenyi charged the Preservation Society $1 per year for the use of the mansion, meanwhile, thousands of visitors from across the nation and beyond bought tickets to see firsthand its gilded splendor. (Although the Breakers was the first great mansion open for tours in Newport, and is still a star attraction, the Preservation Society did not purchase it until 1972.)
“When you look back, that whole period from 1945 to 1960,” Coxe says, “Hunter House was the centerpiece of the Society. It was such an exciting time for preservation in Newport. Everyone was working so hard to instill in the psyche of Newporters and others that our heritage was the most important asset that we had. I believe it took a lot of guts for Mrs. Warren and the other founders to come out of the ravages of World War II, and to say to people that the greatest thing about Newport was its architectural legacy. This is the house that did it.”
Some houses are destined to play an unwittingly important role in history, recorded or not, and fortunately, one of the most significant moments in the early history of Hunter House was witnessed by many: That was the short few months when the house served as the residence and command post of a French naval officer during America’s fight for independence. After the devastation of Newport’s economy and ruination if its infrastructure by the occupying British forces from 1776 to ’79, the arrival the following year of the French fleet in Newport to reinforce the American patriots offered brilliant rays of hope.
The commander of the land forces, Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, a lieutenant general, took quarters in the center of town at the empty home of merchant William Vernon on Clarke Street. Meanwhile the naval commander, Charles Henry Louis d’Arsac de Ternay, an admiral, occupied Hunter House, which had been vacated by its loyalist owner, merchant Joseph Wanton. When Wanton died in New York in 1780, the property was confiscated by the newly self-proclaimed government. (Those who had the means to flee Newport during the Revolutionary War years did so, but not all who returned years later found their residences still intact.)
One of the loveliest of the eight rooms and two halls that visitors see on the guide-led tour of Hunter House is the southeast corner room on the second floor. Now furnished as a bedroom, it is one the “sleeping chambers.” The windows in this room overlook the street at what was originally the quieter, backside of the property. The guide who leads visitors to this room tells them a great deal about the significance and high craftsmanship of the bedstead, armchairs, drop-leaf table, and a mirror, as well as the distinctions among Queen Anne, Hepplewhite, or Sheraton styles. (Although none of the pieces on display now at Hunter House, including several masterpieces of Townsend-Goddard furniture, is original to the house or the families that owned it, the ensemble is representative of the lifestyle of Newport’s most prosperous traders during the second half of the 1700s.)
Here, the guides also tell visitors that de Ternay’s connection to Hunter House is bittersweet, for having sailed thousands of miles across a dangerous ocean to fight in a grisly war, he would never see his mère patrie again. While the ships of the line under de Ternay’s command steadfastly blockaded Newport Harbor against the unlikely return of the British war fleet, he died in this room on December 15, 1780. He had been in Newport only six months, and he was respectfully laid to rest in the Anglican churchyard on Church Street. [See “A Knight’s Grave in Newport.”)
Coxe says she is drawn to many of the objects in Hunter House, as well as the spaces. “I love the Gilbert Stuart painting in the sitting room of the dogs lying under the table,” she says, “and as a consequence I am attracted to that room.” Coxe says she is also enchanted by the northwest chamber on the second floor because of the mural of Newport harbor as it looked in the 1730s. She says, “I am always captivated thinking about what Newport might have looked like during that time, which was its heyday as one of the five major ports of trade on the Atlantic seaboard.”
She believes that Hunter House, being a rich and reminiscent historical setting, offers more depth of understanding to the guest seeing it for the second or third time, than to those on their first tour of the house. Indeed, there are infinite details to the details, inside and outside.
One of the more intriguing narratives about the house concerns the segmented pediment that crowns the wide doorway facing Washington Street. It was once above the doorframe on the opposite side of Hunter House. Originally, the principal entrance, like many other merchant’s and sea captain’s homes in Newport, faced the harbor. Visitors delight in the twisting tale of how the elaborate doorframe was lost, then found, then moved, and finally, restored and reinstalled—but not in its original location.
The highest tribute given to Hunter House by the Preservation Society throughout these past 75 years is the continued use of a stylized pineapple as its trademark and logo. In Colonial times, merchant ships returning from the Caribbean trade to North American ports brought home this sweet tropical delicacy to share in the bounty of their voyages with family, friends, and neighbors. The pediment at Hunter House was, and still is, adorned with a polychrome, carved wooden pineapple as an ever-present symbol of hospitality.
In addition to its 75-year long commitment to preservation and education, hospitality is a true Newport tradition that the Preservation Society has upheld for all this time. It is a worthy and ever-expanding mission. With an annual operating budget of $25 million, 37,000 worldwide memberships, and more than one million visitors a year, the Preservation Society’s properties, including the venerable Hunter House, are the most visited cultural attractions in Rhode Island and among the four most visited museum sites in New England.
Photo evolution of Hunter House’s west side facing Newport Harbor.
Hunter House, a Georgian Colonial House Museum and National Historic Landmark, is located at 54 Washington Street, Newport, Rhode Island.
Contact the main office of the Preservation Society at (401) 847-1000 or visit NewportMansions.org for current guidelines for in -person tours during Rhode Island’s COVID-19 phased reopening.
A virtual tour of Hunter House is available 24/7 online. Click Here.