Archi-TEXT: The Samuel Tilton House by McKim Mead & White (1881)

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In the 1870’s the United States was undergoing a massive change. The country was expanding westward following the completion of the Civil War and the economy was booming as a result. This in turn lead to the creation of massive industrial fortunes. In urban centers like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia these newly wealthy families competed for social prominence and power with the “establishment” families, many of which traced their lineage back to the settlement of the American Colonies or even earlier. On the architectural front this mean there were great commissions to be executed for these families and this time corresponded with the rise and growth of the architectural profession in America.

American men like Richard Morris Hunt and Charles Follen McKim had travelled to Paris to study at the preeminent school of Architecture of that era, the Ecole des Beaux Arts. This school taught that architecture, sculpture, and painting were all part of a larger whole and that was reflected in the architecture that the graduates of this program designed that many of the most prominent architects in the country were designing houses and buildings in Newport, Rhode Island. With the purchase of Beechwood by William & Caroline Astor in 1880, Newport went from a genteel, but somewhat sleepy, summer resort community to the epicenter of social life for “the 400” during the months of July and August.

“The 400” was the name given to the select number that could fit in the Astor’s New York Ballroom and became the bellwether of who stood at the top of New York (and therefore American) society and who did not. This was a small and tightly knit community that socialized together, did business together and (to a large degree) summered in Newport together. In 1880 the Newport Casino, which is often identified as America’s first country club and first shingle style structure, opened with cardrooms, lawn tennis clubs and a tennis court, a theatre and communal ballroom and a coaching ring. The Newport Casino was a new type of facility in America dedicated not to industry or education but only for entertainment, sport and pleasure of its membership, it was also the very first building designed by the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. Designer Stanford White began with many elements of the Queen Anne Revival Style that was popular in coastal resort communities in New England during the 1860’s and 1870’s. But because of the level of inventiveness, the emphasis of various shapes of shingles instead of painted colors, and the confidence of the designers in detailing this collection of structures seemed to cross the line into “The Shingle Style,” a new stylistic form when viewed in retrospect from the modern era.

The residential equivalence of this building are the Isaac Bell and Samuel Tilton Houses, both designed by McKim, Mead, and White in 1881 and constructed in Newport in 1882. Like the Newport Casino, these buildings demonstrate an inventiveness, artistry and supreme confidence that make them true masterpieces of American Architecture.

The Samuel Tilton House was designed for a Boston merchant on a small side street off a road connecting the town of Newport with the beaches on the back side of the hill on which the city was founded. The house, seen from the street, seems modest and understated and concealed the size, elaboration and grandeur of the interiors. Few would guess this is an eight-bedroom home of greater than 6000 square feet. The massing of the building is quite simple in comparison to its Bellevue Avenue first cousin, the Isaac Bell House. The vast majority of the structure is sheltered in a single four-story gable with only the spacious music room projecting out from the simple massing.

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