THE NEWPORT CLASSICS
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — For many people, visiting Newport in the summer is similar to when Bob Dylan played electric guitar there for the first time in public in 1965. It sounds good, but it’s not always pretty.
The Newport Folk Festival, the site of Dylan’s debacle, still reels in hordes of tourists each summer, as does the Newport Jazz Festival. But the area’s beaches, mansions, waterfront bars and restaurants are also hot tickets. Quite a switch from the late 19th century, when families like the Astors and Vanderbilts built massive estates (ironically dubbed their “cottages”) near the sea for summer getaways.
Come Memorial Day, Bannister’s Wharf is swarming with tourists. The wharf is a mish-mash of commercialism, where visitors can find fudge, frames and Sail Newport sweatshirts.
But what many people miss today during their hit-and-run weekend trips is the area’s rich history and lesser-known finds. If waiting an hour to just to order some swordfish or sharing a beach with scores of strangers isn’t your thing, head to Newport in the off-season or opt for less-crowded summer activities.
At the Newport Casino, home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum, visitors can swat a few balls on the same grass courts where the likes of Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe have squared off. Players are encouraged to book a court a week in advance. An hour of play runs $50 per person.
Built in 1880 by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, the Casino was Stanford White’s first major commission. Located on Bellevue Avenue — the street that houses many of Newport’s legendary addresses — the Casino was originally set up as a private club and playground for Newport’s affluent summer residents complete with lawn bowling, horse shows, archery and tea parties.
A year after its opening, the Casino hosted the first National Lawn Tennis Championships and continued to do so until 1915, when the event relocated to Forest Hills, N.Y. and eventually became the U.S. Open.
Other lawn activities are offered blocks away at the Newport Art Museum, where concert picnics are offered on Wednesday nights. Jazz, gospel and “ethnic urban New Age” tunes are on this summer’s lineup.
Attendees can check out the recently completed $1 million restoration project on the museum’s Griswold House. Originally built during the Civil War for John Griswold, a China trade and railroad magnate, Griswold House was listed as a National Historic Landmark last year. It represents the American Stick style of architecture, combining European rustic with French, Swiss, English and German picturesque.
Seven days a week, visitors can cover the museum’s special exhibitions and permanent collection in about an hour. Art is also a major attraction up the road at Marble House, the Breakers, Rosecliff, Chateau Sur Mer and other mansions that are open for tours.
At Rough Point, Doris Duke’s estate, works from Renoir, Van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds and artisans from the Ming Dynasty are on display. The 10-acre site was one of Duke’s favorite retreats and she typically spent a total of three months each year there.
The late tobacco heiress traveled the world, often bringing back art and antiques for Rough Point and her five other homes. The Islamic art collection in her Hawaii home is so vast it is being converted into a museum.
“She traveled everywhere. She hand selected everything in the house,” said Marlaine Salafina, operations manager for the Newport Restoration Foundation, a group founded in 1968 by Duke to preserve the area’s historic roots that now maintains 80 properties.
Rough Point was one of the many things — plus $113 million — Duke inherited at the age of 13 from her father, James Duke, the namesake of Duke University, when he died in 1925. His parting words were more succinct: “Trust no one.”
Duke’s bedroom, with its secretary bookcase and chair finished with mother-of-pearl, and a one-person elevator that transported her to a lap pool in the basement for a daily swim, is a favorite with guests. They also like the looks of the solarium, especially its views of the Atlantic Ocean “crashing in” from three sides, said Robert Foley, preservation coordinator for the NRF.
Something else that periodically makes waves at Rough Point is talk of the death of interior designer Eduardo Tirella in 1966. Duke’s companion had stepped out of the car he was driving to open Rough Point’s massive iron gates, and somehow the car struck and killed Tirella with Duke behind the wheel.
The case was ruled an accident and closed within a week. Foley said the theory that Duke struck a deal with local authorities to set up the NRF does not have “much credence,” and that the committee was founded a few years after Tirella’s death.
What’s more likely is that people approached Duke about funding the NRF since she had the authority and capital to do so, Foley said.
In its second season, Rough Point offers four tours Tuesday through Saturdays. To see Rough Point, tickets must be purchased offsite at the Visitors Centre on America’s Cup Avenue.
The Kennedys also left their mark on Newport. Kennedy buffs can swing by St. Mary’s Church where the young Senator John F. Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953, and then pass by Hammersmith Farms, the site of their wedding reception.
The 28-room estate was Bouvier’s childhood home and later served as the Summer White House for the Kennedys, complete with a landing pad on the side lawn for the presidential helicopter.
Former Fruit of the Loom chairman William Farley purchased the property a few years ago to convert it to a private residence. He has since sold it.
Those looking for a more distant glimpse of Newport’s architectural landscape can take a half-day tour with The Kayak Centre. Groups of four to eight people kayak from Kings Beach to check out the mansions from Newport Harbor.
Located on Lower Thames Street near hangouts like O’Brien’s, The West Gate and Scales & Shells, the Kayaking Centre often picks up business from late-night revelers who saw the office the night before.
Real thrill seekers can take in all of Newport’s scenic beauty at Skydive Newport, a 17-year-old operation run out of Newport State Airport. The focus is on first-timers, said owner Marc Tripari, who has 7,000 jumps under his belt.
Following a 15-minute briefing, skydivers strap on parachute packs, board planes and then make tandem jumps from 10,000 feet.
“One thing I do want to point out is the scenery is spectacular,” Tripari said. “At such an altitude, everything is below you — downtown, the beaches. You can see it all,”
That is, if you can keep your eyes open, free falling for 40 seconds at 120 mph before pulling the chute. Many rookies’ parting remarks are not fit for print, Tripari laughed.
After former president George Bush heard that a 90-year-old, Harold Symes, made the leap with Skydive Newport last year, he sent Symes a congratulatory letter. Bush, who also took up skydiving later in life, told Symes he hopes to do the same at 80.
“I must say, most people are psyched when they land,” Tripari said.