Newport’s Unwanted New Neighbor: William Morgan, Architectural Critic
Tuesday, January 03, 2017
Anyone constructing a large house anywhere in Rhode Island's pre-Revolutionary capital is going to inflame passions. Andrew DiGiammo, the house's designer, notes that, "Newport architecture comes in every shape, size, form, and material." Perhaps so. But there are many true believers who assert that Newport has its own style: colonial, pretty, and immutable.
236 Coggeshall Avenue is just a few croquet lawns from The Breakers, the ultimate Newport mansion. Cornelius Vanderbilt's palace is celebrated for its over-the-top robber baron excess, but when it was built it represented the very best that money could buy. Its architect was the dean of the profession, a founder of the American Institute of Architects, and the designer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Administration Building at the World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago. The first American trained at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Richard Morris Hunt was one of our greatest architects.
While unlimited funds of the 19th-century financiers and railroad magnates indubitably contributed to the spectacular Newport mansions, cost is irrelevant to good design. Architects like Hunt knew how to do small houses–an often harder task that creating palatial chateaux for the very rich. (The estimated $1.6 million cost of the new house is hardly eyebrow raising.)
But an architectural giant of Hunt's stature was not chosen by James and Gina McCaffrey for their 55,000 square-foot double lot. Rather, Andrew DiGiammo's firm, Compass Group, has a reputation for producing workable if uninspiring houses, high schools, and corporate headquarters.
Alas, the 13,000 square-foot home is nothing more than a pretentious McMansion. Because of its flat roof, the house does not violate Newport's 30-foot height limit, so instead of a picturesque roofline, there is just a foundation-to-cornice block without much mitigation of the mass. (While it does not exceed zoning guidelines, staying within the legal code envelope does not of itself make good design.) DiGiammo claims that the "plan is radial and very interesting." He contends that a circular house allows greater flexibility, taking advantage of "outside light and views."
Drawing on his love of the past, DiGiammo argues that since it is wrapped in red cedar the house is an example of the Shingle Style. If only. That uniquely American and thoroughly satisfying stylistic expression was developed in the late 19th century. Based on indigenous domestic forms, and aiming for an informal vacation-based aesthetic, the innovative Shingle Style influenced Frank Lloyd Wright and other early modern masters.
Arguably one of the finest examples of the Shingle Style is close by, just off Bellevue Avenue. McKim, Mead & White, later designers of the Rhode Island State House and Pennsylvania Station in New York, built the Isaac Bell house in 1882. Instead of grand neoclassical columns and Roman domes, the Bell house makes a respectful nod to our colonial past. Its shingled surface appears malleable, while the porches are organic extensions of the interior living space. The Bell house is a triumph of domestic design, compared to which the wannabe Shingle Style house on Coggeshall Avenue is just awkward and embarrassing.
The George Eliot Leighton house in Dublin, New Hampshire, 1888. This superb example of the Shingle Style, was designed by the Boston firm of Peabody & Stearns, who contributed several major houses to Gilded Age Newport
Because it is so beloved and carries so much freighted meaning, Newport will always be a difficult place for architects wanting to build. The delicate balance of history and aspiration in a place this rarified requires a near impossible sensitivity. Intelligent zoning may help control a certain kind of growth, but it is difficult to legislate taste. Historic places, such as Nantucket, that have tried to regulate their aura of prettiness have pretty much crippled architectural creativity. Shingles and shutters do not an old house make, nor do they make notable contemporary additions to the built environment.
The lesson here is that we should eschew what DiGiammo calls "typical colonial reproductions," as well as half-baked efforts to "fit in." As in all design projects, architects should be inspired to create not just today's very best, but the landmarks of tomorrow. One great irony is that the exposed steel frame of the new house, naked of its history-pimping shingles, suggests that perhaps it could have been that kind of bold, interesting new design that Newport deserves.
SEE NEWPORT TINY HOUSES BELOW
Related Slideshow: Tiny Houses Newport
Take a tour of some of Newport, Rhode Island's most historic homes and amazingly small homes. Many of the homes featured are in the historic and waterfront area known as the "Point Section."
"This historic 'Point' section was home to boat builders, craftsmen, sea captains, merchants, and fishermen. They lived and worked closely with the sea and were in daily contact with the large bustling wharves lining this part of the Newport waterfront over 200 years ago," says the Friends of the Waterfront in Newport.
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