You might not have heard of Doris Duke but in 1925 when she was only twelve she was left eighty million dollars – that’s almost one billion dollars in today’s money. Fortunately for Newport, Rhode Island she grew up to be a sensible and enlightened woman and found plenty of wise ways to spend her money well.
One of her many philanthropic activities was to save from the wrecking ball almost single-handedly over eighty 18th century and early 19th century houses in Newport’s Point and Hill districts. This was a piece of extraordinary civic vision, for without Miss Duke much of Newport’s precious early architectural heritage could have been lost forever, and by now be just a dusty memory concreted over by cookie cutter condos.
In saving these houses and neighbourhoods Miss Duke, through her formidable resources and foresight, saved the town’s architectural soul through a scale of preservation that few have attempted before or since.
So it is thanks to Miss Duke all those years ago and to the agent, Annie Becker, now that I was privileged to see 35 Second Street. This is a corner-located clapboard home that once was half the size. Originally built in 1760, it was added to later when a house of similar vintage was moved from another location and then joined to it.
This is certainly the house time has not forgotten and has just emerged from its latest programme of modernisation. It is now a master class in careful reincarnation within the strictures of the conservation rules and guidelines of this neighbourhood.
The exterior, painted according to a period palette, is unaffected. It is the interior which has been addressed. This is now an astonishing contemporary space which has lost nothing of its architectural integrity. How was that done? It seems to me by alchemy. It is very clever, very attractive, very practical and very comfortable. It is a modern interior in a historic skin. The two work perfectly together.
So it is thanks to Miss Duke and her later disciples that we are able to delight in visiting such houses today. But imagine how much better it would be to actually live there. If you think you may like to, give Annie a call.
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