Four hundred dedicated (if not necessarily eminent) Victorians gathered at Newport, R.I., last weekend for four days of reverence before some of the western world's most exuberant architecture.
The Victorian Society, which was founded in 1966, is a group of 7,000 Americans who all tremble a little at the very thought of a gaslight or a tub of brown paint. The period that fascinates them is from 1837 to 1901, the reign of Queen Victoria, which in both England and America saw the triumph of industrial society.
It was an age of great and sudden fortunes, of unbounded optimism in the future, and it had a sense of bold assurance in decorated architecture that drew on every style from Greek through Gothic through Turkish, often combining totally alien forms in one great enthusiastic display. For decades the Victorian style was looked down on as impure and crass, but in contrast with current architecture it seems solid, innovative, boasting superb materials superbly crafted, and its legion of admirers has skyrocketed in the past 20 years.
Many society members themselves own fine Victorian houses. Others are designers, refurbishers, manufacturers, architects, and all admire the endless variety found in every corner of America. New York, Philadelphia and Washington are important centers of society membership, but there are outposts in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and virtually every region that existed in the last century. If some of the Victorian buildings are ponderous, heavy with dull-colored paint and gloomy light, others are masterful in the combination of volumes, new materials (such as iron columns) and sophisticated textures.
Those smitten by Victorians are capable of forging right past Trinity Church itself (the most splendid 18th-century public building in Newport and a treasure of American architecture) with scarcely a glance, on their way to the rich exalted gimcrack of the town's Victorian houses. Which are marvels, no doubt of that. But you do wonder.
"When I joined the society," said a handsome young woman originally from Tennessee, "I assumed the members would all be waxworks figures and you'd have to dust them off when you met them. Not at all. They are pretty lively as you'll see. Plenty of young people. And the old ones are by no means petrified. There's old George Vaux, the society's treasurer. That man is a pistol."
Mr. Vaux, who refreshed himself on a walking tour by removing his shoes and socks for a spell, sitting on some convenient sidewalk stairs of a Victorian house, said that "for all my sins I have been made the treasurer," and when reminded that hardly any man has sinned all that much, he said he wasn't through yet. "Wait till you see how I perform as treasurer."
He is president of the Philadelphia Athenaeum which he said nobody in Philadelphia ever heard of, but (he went on) the Victorian Society's publication is now identified with it, "so it is becoming much better known about the world than in Philadelphia itself."
The Promenade des Refuses -- the walking tour of those refused admission to other tours because of too-late registration -- was conducted by Richard Howland of Washington, the society's president and a man of utter recall, sound factual scholarship and almost sublime indifference to the little hazars of daily life and delayed schedules.
"I know some of you are anxious," he said following luncheon at a seaside club during a daylong tour of Victorian houses, "that we are a few minutes behind schedule. Some of you wonder if you will get to see all the houses on your schedule. Please be assured you will miss nothing. Indeed, we have built into our schedule ample time for any small delays, so that in fact we are right on schedule."
You would not say this was a flat lie. But you might well say it was a highly positive, indeed optimistic, reading of the situation in which ordinary pessimists reckoned the schedule was already two full hours behind . . .
"I never got to Chateau-sur-Mer," said a politely distressed woman later.
"Well," another one said, "I did not get to see Kingscote. It was my understanding we could go later but this was not the case."
On another occasion Howland, who perversely (and very fortunately, some felt) included 17th- and 18th-century monuments in his walking tour of 19th-century Victoriana, led a group into Trinity Church, which has nothing Victorian in it except some rather inappropriate 19th-century stained glass which Howland was too much a gentleman to point out or even to notice.
"Note the remarkable triple pulpit," he said, "and the projecting enjambments of the entablature where it advances in front of the rest of the cornice from time to time, wherever there is a column. That is very typical of Newport buildings, and rare elsewhere."
An agitated man, though to be the sexton, kept explaining a wedding was to take place in 15 minutes and the tourists really must clear the church for this religious event.
"Yes indeed," said Howland, "we must leave promptly. I call your attention to the extraordinary organ case of 1743 -- perhaps it is 1733 -- and the instrument itself which you hear playing [for the organist was ready for the wedding] was a gift of Bishop Berkely. Now in the pews you will notice armchairs. People wished to be comfortable. Many of the fine 18th-century buildings of Newport show how well the builders absorbed the lessons of the architectural handbooks of the day. The spire is very much in the style of Wren. It's interesting to note that --"
"Sir," said the presumed sexton who appeared on the verge of a standing fit.
"We must go now," said Howland."Good of you to let us come. Now as we leave, you will notice" this, that, and other fascinating details which all edified the touring group but which did nothing for the sexton's blood pressure.
In and out of buildings, up and down hills, the pilgrims trudged, some scribbling in notebooks, others gazing at the sky, and still others establishing bonds with fellow Victorians.
"I'm from Philadelphia," said one.
"What an English muffin of a city," said a friend. Meaning (it turned out) that Philadelphia gradually grows in your affection (or at least hers) and in its modest, unglazed, unraisined way, is at last found very satisfying. With or without butter, probably.
Although Howland's tour could fill a whole book, missing nothing from the immense cut-leaf beeches (he knew the date, 1835, of the famous one that everybody knows, of course, at the 18th-century Redstone Library) to the dormers of Sunnyside, a McKim, Mead and White house of 1885, to a remarkable rare 1740 gazebo in a garden, noting the andromedas were still in full bloom, to the Victorian improvements made on earlier buildings, to the ingenious devices of landowners determined to squeeze as many cubic feet as possible on their restricted sites -- indeed, Howland missed nothing and even people who fancied themselves amateurs of architecture had to admit they would have missed two-thirds of what they saw if they had not had a scholar on hand to point it out. But though the Promenade des Refuses tour could make a book, Howland said of course it was a trifling tour in comparison with the other tours going on at the same time exploring topiary gardens, the decorative work of Ogden Codman, the marvels of Kay Street (where writers of Longfellow ilk once summered) and so on.
Lectures were worked in after lunch and dinner, jampacked with detailed information on window hardware, commercial architecture which is pretty wonderful in Newport, the design of boulevards and all other things calculated to enchant Victorians. Along the way one woman who occupies a wonderful McKim house, with an astonishing staircase of maple and polished brass railings and purple velvet handrails, said originally it had all been done in four shades of brown, and she knew it was wicked of her to do it in while and violet, but after all she did have to live in the place.
Every morning people had breakfast at a little table with one board member of the society. Lucy Ainslie of Washington was one such hostess. She is vice president of the society and surprisingly far gone in Victorian lore though given to pretty high-fashion clothes and hairdos.
"But what about your husband who is such a wheel in the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and you a wheel in the Victorian Society. Isn't that rather a conflict of interest?"
"It certainly is," said Lucy Ainslie, who presides over a fine Victorian house in Georgetown. "A very real conflict of interest. Fortunately we have been able to work it all out in bed."
Two Vanderbilt women competed vigorously in 1892 to see who could build the most amazing house in Newport. The Breakers is said to be inspired by 16th-century Italian palaces and Marble House is all but copied from a block of the palace at Versailles and has more marble in it, almost certainly, than all the burial grounds of North America. All the wonders were explored by the society in its most ambitious annual tour to date, and while everybody laughed at the opulent dining rooms of the two houses when they were flashed on a screen at a lecture, there was no laughter at all when the rooms were examined in the flesh.
In one house the Vanderbilts saw nothing funny about hanging a huge portrait of Louis XIV over a fireplace and his own symbol (the sun god) worked in with Vanderbilt symbols. One Vanderbilt lady, who could have bought any antique she fancied, did not want a lot of that old rickety antique furniture in her house so she had it all made to order for her in Paris, substantially improving on the original, of course, by suggesting little features of her own. The result was not less than spectacular. Among her ingenuities is a set of chairs made of solid bronze that nobody could possibly move about, so they are all on wheels, and in her day a footman stood back of each chair to wheel them back and forth as required.
Fireplace andirons in these vast extravagant Newport houses do not hesitate to adapt the Medici Chapel funerary statues of Michelangelo to the more practical domestic use of supporting fireplace logs. There is much to gape at and it was duly gaped at by everybody, and if an occasional smile or laugh broke out, still one gradually realized these houses all have a remarkable seriousness and innocence about them. Nothing was done for irony, nothing for camp, nothing for purposes of shock or outrage, but all was done fairly solemnly and with a straight face both by the owners and the architects.
You could be moved, along the way, by noticing in the corner a memento of that young Vanderbilt who took off his lifebelt on a sinking ship and gave it to a woman, himself perishing as a result. The role some of these tycoons played -- which seem so inflated in some ways -- were roles they took seriously. They fancied themselves lords and sometimes made themselves heroes, so that their relics, the gargantuan houses, have an underlying dignity one was not prepared for.
Of course the Vanderbilts made it hard on other owners of lavish houses in Newport. The poor Herman Oelrichs, for example, had to build their own version of the Grand Trianon out of white terra cotta, and while it looks every bit as grand as the Vanderbilts' Marble House, it only cost about a thirtieth as much and is quite sparing of Sienna and Numidian marbles, and while it has a few cherubs sailing about the ceiling, it is hardly of Vanderbilt class and you suspect Mrs. Vanderbilt did not let Mrs. Oelrich forget it.
Eileen Slocum, one of Newport's current grandes dames, had everybody to tea at her house (300 cookies gobbled up in nothing flat, and fortunately some very large cakes), famous for a wall of Tiffany glass and much else. It was built in 1839 by Savannah people, for southerners were the reigning society of Newport until the Civil War made them distinctly uneasy and they went elsewhere, replaced by Bostonians and later New Yorkers.
There was a ball at the poor little Oelrich house, Rosecliff, the one of terra cotta. But then it does have that elegant little 40-by-80 foot ballroom and a wonderful staircase shaped like a valentine heart, and while you could probably reproduce it today for a scant $20 million, still it is a nice house all the same, and was a scene of considerable brilliance with the chandeliers blazing amid much general glitter. The bal blanc of the invitations meant everyone should wear white, though the men wore white tie and you simply had to overlook the black that goes with it in their outfits.Some of the poor boys wore dinner jackets and one man wore blue jeans and a good bit of shaggy hair, but nobody made him feel bad.
Janet Terry of Philadelphia, an important figure in Victorian affairs, felt free to wear black tip to toe, with a good bit of the African veldt represented in her head plumes, also black. A woman from St. Louis wore blue, on the theory that blue is the same as white, probably, and since the ball was given on the eve of the late Queen Victoria's birthday, she copied the hair wreath of tiny roses in which that empress is shown in a famous portrait.
Eileen Slocum, so newly deprived of so many cookies and cakes, was fully recovered from hundreds of feet tromping through her house, and was dancing with Hugh Auchincloss Jr. The Auchinclosses have the only farm in Newport (Hammersmith Farm), which was, of course, the site of the wedding reception of Jacqueline Bouvier and John Kennedy.
Elizabeth and Bill Clementson of Philadelphia were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary a few days early at this ball, she with Scottish plaids in her hair and he in Sinclair kilts, "not at all sure about my knobby knees," he said, but assured by more than one that his knees were all that a man's knees should be.
Antoinette Downing was given a special award for her work in preserving Victorian heritage generally -- a sort of combination den mother and earth goddess to the society, one gathered -- and much given to unexpected enthusiasms. Such as getting eight Quonset huts (named for Quonset, R.I.) declared national treasures and thus guaranteed perpetual preservation. These are, or, mercifully, were, surprisingly ugly, temporary cheap structures made of arched corrugated metal insulated inside with wood fiber. Many soldiers returning to college, in the great influx of those immediate post-war years, were obliged to live in them, and during World War II you saw them everywhere. To us, as Antoinette Downing said, they are mainly a wretched memory, but a century from now Americans will probably view them with the same awe as Trinity Church.
It's hard, though, to see how buildings could ever get any more dismal than a Quonset hut, even allowing for American ingenuity and determination.
Larry Kolp, executive director of Bacon House in Washington (the home of Virginia Bacon, one of the most famous of all the Washington grandes dames, who before her death made arrangements for her great F Street house to continue useful into the future) was up for the Curator's Tour, and Sibley Jennings of Washington was among a number of architects and designers determined not to miss such a rare display of Victorian architecture and the experts in that field, among them Richard Guy Wilson of the University of Virginia faculty, whose "Little Old Ladies and White Elephants" lecture was a smash success, and John Cherol and Christopher Monkhouse who lectured in tandem (taking alternate turns at the microphone) on Victorian design. Cherol is curator of the collections of the Preservation Society and Monkhouse is curator of decorative arts at the Rhode Island School of Design.
John Panaggio, tourist chief for Rhode Island, spoke on land use, traffic and the changing landscape of Newport over the centuries, and one way and another a surprising amount of specific information was waterfalled onto visitors who bathed joyfully in it.
At one reception in a marvelous Richard Morris Hunt house of 1863, the society did misbehave. Many of them raced towards the red wine room before sampling the white.
"Come back," cried a woman who knows proper deportment, "you can't have your red wine till you've had your white."
Can't have your ice cream till you eat your collards. But then there was a great sense of deja vu in Newport, and the society members -- none of them tots any more -- took particular pleasure ignoring the lady and heading straight for the red.