Touring the Isaac Bell Historic House

Bob takes a tour of the Isaac Bell historic house in Newport, RI, exploring one of the finest examples of the Shingle Style to be found anywhere.

Clip Summary

Bob takes a tour of the Isaac Bell historic house in Newport, RI, exploring one of the finest examples of the Shingle Style to be found anywhere. The house is a unique combination of antiquarian interest in colonial American architecture, with the most avant-garde English approaches to house design.
We're in Newport, Rhode Island on Bellevue Avenue, a busy street. We're really in a town that represents the Gilded Age. This was the playground of the idle rich at the turn of the century, in the 1890' s.

We're going to be looking at the Isaac Bell House.
Our host John Mesick, preservation architect.

Good morning, Bob.

Good morning. How are you John?


Now before we get into talking about this house, you have quite an impressive list of projects that you've been involved with. Tell us about some of them.

Well, you filmed a few years ago Monticello.


Where we restored Jefferson's roof in time for his 250th birthday.


And then we moved on to Poplar Forest, his retreat at Lynchburg, Virginia, where we've been working a number of years.

And what are you doing right now besides the Isaac Bell House?

Well, we're also working out in Wisconsin at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, his great home in the hills of Wisconsin.

Some very heady addresses. Now tell us about Isaac Bell. Who was he? The man that built this house.

He was cotton merchant who Retired at the early age of 32, he made his fortune and decided to take up residency in Newport.

And this is 1880...?

Yes, he starts the house in 1881, he moves in in 1883.

Okay, and how did he get hooked up with the McKim, Mead, and White the-- the kind of rebellious young architects ' they were.

Well they all were in their thirties except White was 28 at the time. But in 1879, McKim had designed the Newport Casino just down Bellview Avenue here.

The casino of course is one of the most famous structures in--in-- in Newport.

Tell us a little bit about that.

How was it used? It wasn't a gambling hall.

No, it was more of a social club and there was tennis there, and still is the tennis hall of fame to this day.

And what was revolutionary was the use of shingles and different styles of architecture blending.

That's right, it for the first time pulled together a lot of things that had been in the air at the time.

Queen Anne Revival in England it was very influential here in the 1870's. The stick style was dying, Victorian verandas and millwork. But McKim had been looking at Colonial architecture for nearly a decade and photographing it.

Now, you cannot really tell much because of the house's condition right now but you have a photograph that does give us an idea of what this house looked like just a year ago, in terms of the masses and the shapes. Can you describe it for us?

Surely, unfortunately you're seeing it at a very ugly stage, but this is as it was two years ago. You'll notice it sits on the corner of Bellevue and Perry Street. The design is very much made to fit this nice flat lawn.

And it ends with, or rather, it's bracketed by these turrets.

That's right. The energy facade is absorbed by this projecting sleeping porch here on the second floor or this bedroom turret down here on the now Perry street side.

Lets talk about the architectural restoration because I was surprised to see all this felt paper attached to the sheathing in the side of the house. What's the story?

We've taken all the shingles of the house except on the north side, where original shingles from 1883 have survived and may for another century, because it being
north , it doesn't take the beating from the sun.


But on the side we're looking at now there were three generations of shingles and so in order to protect the work while we have the shingles off we put the felt up.

The felt will come off.

Okay that's temporary.

That's temporary.

Right now this is the garden facade is the entry to the house along the...

Its along the side and a roof sticks out to support your way.

Lets take a closer look.

You've got to admit, this is pretty odd and unusual detailing over here.

Well, it is a notable town here so perhaps it's appropriate that we have sea monsters supporting the front.

But It's actually a Chinese thing, right?

I presume they were.

We speculate the tongues were painted red.

Paint analysis is being done just now and they found gold leaf around the heads, rather awesome you see the teeth there.

So they are really splendid things greeting you at the front door, here.

And now it's a shingle style house but it's all brick, It's red brick.

What is your story?

I believe they want to create an earthy base to the house, as well as a more shadowed enclosure to the porch. And this is something Stanford White's done in a number of his houses around here.

The house across the street by him has a stone base.

Now, is this one of the columns that you're -

Yes, it's going to be stripped of its paint.

I've never seen something like this. Look at it - it's turned to resemble bamboo, I guess.

Exactly, that's what we presume, another oriental feature that's been added to the house.


So the rings and then just the slight bit of a swelling on - it's beautiful, beautiful work.

Well, the house is all beautiful work.


As you'll see.

Paneling is what we're here to look at.

Come inside.

Here's a pretty vast front hall, John.

It's a very welcoming space, the largest one in the house.

And now the paneling that we're looking at over here and the carving, this doesn't look like it's 1890's. What is all this?

No, we speculate that the Bell's got this perhaps on their honeymoon in France. It's a Breton bed panel.


Framed alcove bed in a peasant's cottage, probably.

It 's a wonderful carved birds and flowers throughout this and so they got enough of this antique paneling to create this whole section of the fire place warrior, we have it all over, the whole alcove is lined with this.

Now what's behind these dwells?

Once it's cleaned in the the restoration, you will see that it's a bright polish tin behind there, which reflected the light of course, especially at night and made it all come alive. Indeed, and the fireplace must be six or seven feet across, and all of it is lined with these beautiful dutch tiles.
Bell had been our minister to the Netherlands, after he built the house.
Perhaps he got the tiles at that time.

Indeed, so he continues the antique paneling, but it's interrupted by these wonderful windows, is that beveled glass?

Yes, that's prismatic glass, which you must realize caught the afternoon sunlight as you see, it came in, it would make the rainbow.

Expect this space will be great again, because, I mean the rest of room is all contemporary paneling, even the ceiling right? The ceiling is quarter song, Quite o its very difficult to come by today. Fortunately. in good condition here.

Would this have been a ceiling rosette of some sort?

Well, I think this ornamentation is half of a bed-warmer pan. A brass pan. And it should be polished to a high polish and it will reflect, again, the nighttime light.

Are the windows on the staircase here, are they Tiffany?

No, we have no evidence it's Tiffany. It's, we would like to think it's La Farge but there's no evidence for that, either. The colors really work very well with the colors that will be restored in the house.

The colors are very good. But then the golden oak is what's really unifying throughout this whole space.


I mean, look at the size of these doors, right?

Yes, they're four foot wide covering a sixteen foot opening.

This is the type of paneling that we're trying to recreate, where it's basically a recess panel, right?


And you can see that the panels have been staggered to make it geometrically more interesting when you look at the door.

Sure. And again, quarter-sawn oak.


Now what about the, look at the system for sliding those, exposed. Was it meant to be exposed like this?

Yes, it's a unique thing. You can imagine again the architects were having a bit of fun. they seem to be brass door wheels like you saw on New England barns.


All finished with, in an ornamental Oriental fashion.

Yeah indeed. Even down here those brass rosettes are crysanthamums.


Which would be a Japanese thing, right?

We see it throughout the house.

Right. Right. And then the paneling continues and what's this, is the dining room through here?

Yes, this is the dining room and another set of sliding doors.

This one is working perfectly. Of course there will be some restoration to the finish, but you're very lucky that nobody painted this in a hundred years

It all stayed intact.

Wow, so is this all mahogany in here.

This is mahogany, Honduran mahogany. It. needs to be cleaned, but it will be red-brown, a marvelous shade of red-brown. And notice the brass that has been ornamented, the hinges and so forth.

Oh, here, we have one of the bed warmer pans.
They were mounted all over the room here.
And you can see the ghost up here above the door.

Oh I see.

Where one was positioned and they're around the room.
What they did is they took half the bedwarmer and mounted it in a glass plate It's a beautiful thing.

Again, high polish picking up the night time light when you're at dinner.

Now, what have you got here?

This is a rendering that we have produced to show how this room, the dining room would look when all the elements are put back into it.

So these are the bed-warmers throughout the room.

That's right. And they're on wrapped hand walls, as well as the ceilings. And notice the dining room chairs. They still survive.

They were in the attic of the house.

So you are lucky to have so of the original furnishings from the room.

Yes, and they will be restored. They need a great deal of care.

Yeah, they need a fair amount of restoration.

But -

But it's an interesting design.

It's apparently designed by the architects because the same chairs were found at King's Coat, a joining house where Stanford White did the dining room and the same chairs.

Indeed, now you said a minute ago that everything was covered in straw and rattan.

Well, rattan. A woven cane if you will, a sort of raffia color. It would have been, sort of pale gold.

There you go.

Again, shiny at night would have picked up the light.

So it's funny that a little bit survives right in between the casings of the windows which are so heavy Mahogany and when this was new the red of the mahogany with the tan of the---just stunning!

Wonderful counterpoint.

Absolutely, and then what we've got over here is more of the same sort of recessed panels.

And he varies the sizes of the recessed panels as he goes.

The eye is always entertained and and we we need a white interior at this period.

Well you got a great job ahead of you, it'll take what, at least 2 years?

I think at least that, a year to finish the outside and in a year or more do the interiors. Thanks for the tour, John.

My pleasure, Bob. We'll be back after these messages.