Monday, August 25, 2014

Asia in Newport

I visited Newport, Rhode Island last week with the intention of touring mansions and checking out the European gardens of each. To my surprise, I came across several examples of Chinese and Japanese influence in the region that I did not anticipate.

First, while walking through Touro Park on my way to see the historic Old Stone Mill, I noticed a large Japanese lantern.

Old Stone Mill

The lantern was installed in 1954 and was a gift from Japan to Newport in honor of Commodore Mathew C. Perry and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the "opening of Japan." Apparently, it was installed incorrectly with the Japanese inscription on the lantern being up-side down. In 1959, a Japanese navel officer studying at he nearby Naval War College noticed, and as a result, the error was fixed. Apparently the inscription indicates that the lantern had originally been installed at a Japanese cemetery in 1841.

The lantern is very large, as you can see from the picture below (note - I'm leaning in a sitting position, against the lantern):

Additionally, there is a bronze statue of Commodore Perry in the park nearby the lantern. It was designed by John Quincy Adams Ward in 1869, while the pedestal was designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

Around the pedestal of the statue are four bronze bas-reliefs illustrating events in Perry's life: Africa (1843), Mexico (1846), Japan - arrival and signing of treaty (1854).

After visiting the park, I made my way to visit some mansions, including Marble House. This mansion was built between 1888 and 1892 for William K. Vanderbilt as a "summer cottage." 

Marble House 

On the grounds of Marble House sits a Chinese Tea House. 


The Tea House was commissioned by Alva Belmont (divorced and remarried) in 1912. 

It opened on July 25, 1914 with a lavish Chinese costume ball at Marble House.

Alva Vanderbilt, seated, second from right

The Tea House was also used for rallies for women's suffrage. By 1919, the mansion and Tea House were permanently shuttered as Alva moved to France. 

Although the Tea House is based on a 12th century Song Dynasty temple, it is more characteristic of the wave of "Oriental Exotica" that spread across North America at the turn of the 19th-20th century. Many Japanese and Chinese style gardens were being built during this period, especially by the wealthy. These gardens had Asian characteristics, but were also reflective of late Victorian early 20th century tastes. The Tea House at Marble House is a good example of this movement.

side entrance

front entrance

front entrance

The front gateway was interesting, especially give that the plaque at the top illustrates what appears to be an example of Confucian inspired filial piety. The male figure in the center is being shown filial respect by a daughter (left) and and son (right).

front gateway

Confucian inspired, filial piety

spectacular view from the Tea House

interior view

back view

seaside view

Marble House side

Finally, the last surprise I came across in Newport was at the Chateau-sur-Mer. This Victorian era house was first built in 1852 and subsequently enlarged during the 1870s. 

William Shepard Westmore, who had the house built, had established himself by engaging in the early China trade. As a result, there are many items throughout the house reflecting an Asian influence. 

Most interesting, was a large Chinese moon gate along the edge of the property. It was made of granite and very sturdy. Using the railings and steps, one could easily walk to the top. The gate is known to locals as the "Monkey Seat Gate" because of a small seat at the top that allows one to look out across the street. When it was originally built, there were only fields on the opposite side. The Westmore family originally owned all the land down to the seaside where the current Breakers mansion now sits. One story has Mr. Westmore placing a monkey atop the gate in the seat to inform him when guests arrive. This seems an unlikely myth. The other story says that Mr. Westmore sat in the seat and could view the ocean from the perch, a more likely account, since at that time there were few trees to obstruct the view and very little development occurred around the property until almost 40 years later.

A historic photo I saw in the home showed the gate when first installed. There was nothing present expect the gate itself (I was unable to get a copy). The image below was the only historic image I could locate, from 1914, more than 50 years after the building of the house.

Moon Gate, 1914
Unfortunately, it didn't occur to me to take a photo from outside the gate, it was locked after all. Below is an image I located online.


Overall, my trip to Newport was worthwhile. I didn't intend to find Asian elements such as the lantern, tea house, and moon gate. I saw plenty of European style gardens, but these three discoveries were my favorite.

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