Pre-Palatial Newport by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

The historic Ocean House of Newport is a ruin. Flames have laid low the unsightly structure that was at one time the best-known hotel in America. Its fifty-odd years of existence, as well as its day, are over. Having served a purpose, it has departed, together with the generation and habits of life that produced it, into the limbo where old houses, old customs, and superannuated ideas survive,-the memory of the few who like to recall other days and wander from time to time in a reconstructed past.

There was a certain appropriateness in the manner of its taking off. The proud old structure had doubtless heard projects of rebuilding discussed by its owners (who for some years had been threatening to tear it down); wounded doubtless by unflattering truths, the hotel decided that if its days were numbered, an exit worthy of a leading rôle was at least possible. “Pull me down, indeed! That is all very well for ordinary hostleries, but from an establishment of my pretensions, that has received the aristocracy of the country, and countless foreign swells, something more is expected!”

So it turned the matter over and debated within its shaky old brain (Mrs. Skewton fashion) what would be the most becoming and effective way of retiring from the social whirl. Balls have been overdone; people are no longer tempted by receptions; a banquet was out of the question. Suddenly the wily building hit on an idea. “I’ll give them a feu d’artifice. There hasn’t been a first-class fire here since I burned myself down fifty-three years ago! That kind of entertainment hasn’t been run into the ground like everything else in these degenerate days! I’ll do it in the best and most complete way, and give Newport something to talk about, whenever my name shall be mentioned in the future!”

Daudet, in his L’Immortel, shows us how some people are born lucky. His “Loisel of the Institute,” although an insignificant and commonplace man, succeeded all through life in keeping himself before the public, and getting talked about as a celebrity. He even arranged (to the disgust and envy of his rivals) to die during a week when no event of importance was occupying public attention. In consequence, reporters, being short of “copy,” owing to a dearth of murders and “first nights,” seized on this demise and made his funeral an event.

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The truth is, the Ocean House had lived so long in an atmosphere of ostentatious worldliness that, like many residents of the summer city, it had come to take itself and its “position” seriously, and imagine that the eyes of the country were fixed upon and expected something of it.

The air of Newport has always proved fatal to big hotels. One after another they have appeared and failed, the Ocean House alone dragging out a forlorn existence. As the flames worked their will and the careless crowd enjoyed the spectacle, one could not help feeling a vague regret for the old place, more for what it represented than for any intrinsic value of its own. Without greatly stretching a point it might be taken to represent a social condition, a phase, as it were, in our development. In a certain obscure way, it was an epoch-marking structure. Its building closed the era of primitive Newport, its decline corresponded with the end of the pre-palatial period-an era extending from 1845 to 1885.

During forty years Newport had a unique existence, unknown to the rest of America, and destined to have a lasting influence on her ways, an existence now as completely forgotten as the earlier boarding-house matinée dansante time. {1} The sixties, seventies, and eighties in Newport were pleasant years that many of us regret in spite of modern progress. Simple, inexpensive days, when people dined at three (looking on the newly introduced six o’clock dinners as an English innovation and modern “frill”), and “high-teaed” together dyspeptically off “sally lunns” and “preserves,” washed down by coffee and chocolate, which it was the toilsome duty of a hostess to dispense from a silver-laden tray; days when “rockaways” drawn by lean, long-tailed horses and driven by mustached darkies were, if not the rule, far from being an exception.

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{1} “Newport of the Past,” Worldly Ways and By-ways.

“Dutch treat” picnics, another archaic amusement, flourished then, directed by a famous organizer at his farm, each guest being told what share of the eatables it was his duty to provide, an edict from which there was no appeal.

Sport was little known then, young men passing their afternoons tooling solemnly up and down Bellevue Avenue in top-hats and black frock-coats under the burning August sun.

This was the epoch when the Town and Country Club was young and full of vigor. We met at each other’s houses or at historic sites to hear papers read on serious subjects. One particular afternoon is vivid in my memory. We had all driven out to a point on the shore beyond the Third Beach, where the Norsemen were supposed to have landed during their apocryphal visit to this continent. It had been a hot drive, but when we stopped, a keen wind was blowing in from the sea. During a pause in the prolix address that followed, a coachman’s voice was heard to mutter, “If he jaws much longer all the horses will be foundered,” which brought the learned address to an ignominious and hasty termination.

Newport during the pre-palatial era affected culture, and a whiff of Boston pervaded the air, much of which was tiresome, yet with an under-current of charm and refinement. Those who had the privilege of knowing Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, will remember the pleasant “teas” and sparkling conversation she offered her guests in the unpretending cottage where the beauty of the daughter was as brilliant as the mother’s wit.

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Two estates on Bellevue Avenue are now without the hostesses who, in those days, showed the world what great ladies America could produce. It was the foreign-born husband of one of these women who gave Newport its first lessons in luxurious living. Until then Americans had travelled abroad and seen elaborately served meals and properly appointed stables without the ambition of copying such things at home. Colonial and revolutionary state had died out, and modern extravagance had not yet appeared. In the interregnum much was neglected that might have added to the convenience and grace of life.

In France, under Louis Philippe, and in England, during Victoria’s youth, taste reached an ebb tide; in neither of those countries, however, did the general standard fall so low as here. It was owing to the savoir faire of one man that Newporters and New York first saw at home what they had admired abroad,-liveried servants in sufficient numbers, dinners served à la Russe, and breeched and booted grooms on English-built traps, innovations quickly followed by his neighbors, for the most marked characteristic of the American is his ability to “catch on.”

When, during the war of the secession, our Naval Academy was removed from Annapolis and installed in the empty Atlantic House (corner of Bellevue Avenue and Pelham Street), hotel life had already begun to decline; but the Ocean House, which was considered a vast enterprise at that time, inherited from the older hotels the custom of giving Saturday evening “hops,” the cottagers arriving at these informal entertainments toward nine o’clock and promenading up and down the corridors or dancing in the parlor, to the admiration of a public collected to enjoy the spectacle. At eleven the doors of the dining-room opened, and a line of well-drilled darkies passed ices and lemonade. By half-past eleven (the hour at which we now arrive at a dance) every one was at home and abed.

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One remembers with a shudder the military manœuvres that attended hotel meals in those days, the marching and countermarching, your dinner cooling while the head waiter reviewed his men. That idiotic custom has been abandoned, like many better and worse. Next to the American ability to catch on comes the facility with which he can drop a fad.

In this peculiarity the history of Newport has been an epitome of the country, every form of amusement being in turn taken up, run into the ground, and then abandoned. At one time it was the fashion to drive to Fort Adams of an afternoon and circle round and round the little green to the sounds of a military band; then, for no visible reason, people took to driving on the Third Beach, an inaccessible and lonely point which for two or three summers was considered the only correct promenade.

I blush to recall it, but at that time most of the turnouts were hired hacks. Next, Graves Point, on the Ocean Drive, became the popular meeting-place. Then society took to attending polo of an afternoon, a sport just introduced from India. This era corresponded with the opening of the Casino (the old reading-room dating from 1854). For several years every one crowded during hot August mornings onto the airless lawns and piazzas of the new establishment. It seems on looking back as if we must have been more fond of seeing each other in those days than we are now. To ride up and down a beach and bow filled our souls with joy, and the “cake walk” was an essential part of every ball, the guests parading in pairs round and round the room between the dances instead of sitting quietly “out.” The opening promenade at the New York Charity Ball is a survival of this inane custom.

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The disappearance of the Ocean House “hops” marked the last stage in hotel life. Since then better-class watering places all over the country have slowly but surely followed Newport’s lead. The closed caravansaries of Bar Harbor and elsewhere bear silent testimony to the fact that refined Americans are at last awakening to the charms of home life during their holidays, and are discarding, as fast as finances will permit, the pernicious herding system. In consequence the hotel has ceased to be, what it undoubtedly was twenty years ago, the focus of our summer life.

Only a few charred rafters remain of the Ocean House. A few talkative old duffers like myself alone survive the day it represents. Changing social conditions have gradually placed both on the retired list. A new and palatial Newport has replaced the simpler city. Let us not waste too much time regretting the past, or be too sure that it was better than the present. It is quite possible, if the old times we are writing so fondly about should return, we might discover that the same thing was true of them as a ragged urchin asserted the other afternoon of the burning building:

“Say, Tom, did ye know there was the biggest room in the world in that hotel?”

“No; what room?”

“Room for improvement, ya!”

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