Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Wakehurst" The Van Alen Mansion, Newport

Wakehurst was built in 1887 for James J. Van Alen, son of Civil War General James H. Van Alen, by Newport architect Dudley Newton. The Van Alen family fortune came from railroads and was doubled by interests in banking. James H. had a home in Newport called " The Grange " and lived there year round with his son. James J. was a colorful character also described as eccentric but he had a wonderful connoisseur's eye and developed a brilliant collection of fine and decorative art pieces. James J. married Emily Astor, Daughter of Caroline Astor, in 1875, but unfortunately she died 8 years later. To help James J. get over her death, James H. gave him a large plot of land toward the front of his estate and told him to build whatever home he wanted. James hired Dudley Newton to build him a home modeled after Wakehurst Palace in England with expansive gardens and green houses. When completed the home had cost Van Alen some $750,000, and looked like an exact replica of Wakehurst Palace. 

The large garden was a topiary playground for Van Alen who loved flowers and he was able to expand his gardens even more when his father died, after which he demolished "The Grange" and added a large green house and an automobile garage.  

                                       Gates to The Gardens (Former site of "The Garange")

Guests entered the estate through a pair of massive iron gates with decorative floral patterns and four tall iron lights. A long, tree-lined, gravel driveway led the guests up to the main estate. Along the way guests would have views of the gardens, greenhouses and the ocean.   
                                                              The Entrance Gates 

They would be greeted at the entrance by by footmen, attired in the Van Alen family colors, who would escort them inside. "Wakehurst" was so imposing and it's owner so aristocratic that when guests would arrive a red carpet would normally be rolled out to lead them in side 

                                                                 Entrance Detail 

Once inside, guests would normally be greeted by Van Alen himself in the hall, which connected the north and south wings of the house and featured oak paneling and stain glass windows. The floors were decorated with numerous persian rugs collected by Van Alen over the years. The low ceilings gave the hall a comfortable feel as opposed to the extremely formal halls of other Newport residences like the Vanderbilt's "The Breakers" and the Geolet's "Ochre Court". 

                                                                      The Hall 

Directly ahead was the stair hall, which was done in wood paneling as well and featured a large stained-glass window. The walls were adorned with a large tapestry, antique paintings and the extensive china collection. On one side the handsome marble staircase led guests upstairs, while on the other a beautiful marble fireplace warmed the sometimes chilly hall. 
                                                                    The Stair Hall 

Down the hall to the south wing is the dining room and the library which both face the sunken garden and have access to a terrace. The dining room is dressed in dark, carved, wood paneling with the upper walls made out of hand-tooled leather wall coverings, which is surmounted by an oak coffered ceiling filled with stucco niches.

                                                                  Dining Room 

Next door the library is done in a totally different style with light oak paneling shipped from France. The main piece in the room is the large fireplace from Germany. The library was reported to be Van Alen's favorite room were he could spend hours upon hours reading from one of his many antique volumes which he housed in the bookshelves. The library also housed a sofa said to be from Napoleon Bonabarte. 
                                                                   The Library 

 At the opposite end of the house, was the den and the ballroom, which occupied the entire north wing of the house. The den was dressed in dark wood paneling that had originally been in the home of Lady Fitzherbert. Portraits of Van Alen ancestors grace the walls while the floors are covered in velvet rugs. The den all so doubled as a reception room where guests would be received and on nights when Van Alen hosted dinners it would be used as the smoking room. 
                                                                        The Den

The ballroom was the largest room in the house and occupied the entire first floor of the north wing. 
On nights of balls all of the furniture would be cleared out and the rugs would be rolled up to create space for dancing. The furniture in the room came from a mixture of sources, suuch as the armchairs coming from Europe while the sofas came from "The Grange". Just like the den, the walls were covered in portraits of Van Alen family members. The iron candle-lit chandeliers blazed at night and were only put out when Van Alen made the annual routine of blowing all the candles out himself before bed. 

                                                                   The Ballroom 

If guests were staying the night they were led by footmen up the handsome oak staircase to the upstairs hall and from there to one of "Wakehurst"'s numerous bedrooms.  

                                                     Stairway to The Second Floor Hall 


                                                       Two of Wakehurst's bedrooms 
Van Alen loved Wakehurst and lived there year round. On his death in 1923 it passed to his son James L. Van Alen along with a fortune of some $26 million. James and his wife, Margaret "Daisy" Post, used "Wakehurst" as a summer home occupying their residence in New York City during the winters. Upon his death he left it to Daisy. Daisy sold the New York City residence and lived year around at "Wakehurst" where she presided over Newport society. The Van Alen millions combined with the Post millions and the $10 million she had inherited from her uncle, Frederick Vanderbilt, allowed Daisy to live a life of vast luxury and splendor at Wakehurst.  

                                         Daisy with her son William and her daughter Louise 
                                                                  (Corbis Images) 

Since Daisy didn't follow the Newport crowd back to New York City for the winters or to the country in the falls, she and a few of the other year around residents would travel to Europe for the winters to replenish her wardrobe spending normally $75,000 on clothing. By the 1940's no one wanted the expense of maintaining a large Newport cottage anymore and many Newporters were downsizing. Robert Geolet, for instance, had just left the massive mansion "Ochre Point" and moved to a much smaller cottage and Julia Bradley, mistress of "Seaview Terrace", couldn't even afford to pay taxes on her mansion anymore and had to surrender it to the city. Nevertheless Daisy, and a small group of others, continued to maintain their mansions just as they always had. By 1950 only "Wakehurst", Edith Wetmore's "Chateau Sur Mer", Mrs. William Watts Sherman's english styled house and Eileen Slocum's villa remained. By 1960 only Daisy and Eileen were left. Well into the 1960's Daisy continued to employ a staff of over 23 people including the butler, housekeeper, maids, footmen and gardeners to maintain the estate and grounds. As Daisy herself put it "Wakehurst is the last estate in Newport to be properly run". Daisy died in 1969 and an auction was held that stripped the home of close to 100 years of Van Alen accumulations. Fortunately the Salve Regina University bought the home for $200,000 and continue to maintain it brilliantly. 

*Note all photos of Wakehurst come from the Library of Congress 


  1. Hello, I hope you'll also post an article about the wealth of the Jones family, specifically, that of Edith Wharton's father, George Frederic Jones and her wife Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. I also hope you could write something about their New York brownstone mansion and their Newport country house, Pencraig. Thanks a lot!

  2. Found your blog is well written and addictive..have hours of interesting reading ahead of me....thank you for such a fabulous blog

  3. Your drivel [the article] rambles, replete with far too many empirical errors, clearly driven by the author's tell-tale "dime-store-romance-esque" narrative-disposition .... which sickens anyone informed -- who has either lived in one of Newport's mansions and/or has frequented the town amid that ilk [eg, the Bailey's beach crowd], during eg, the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s -- of the matters, settings, social, economic and/or architectural history of the place ..... Does anyone fact check these fanciful, foolishly slanted [name dropping, in a most disturbing and distortedly weighted manner, too] articles (?): Sickening and pitiful .... other than partially redeemed by the cursory research that hosts display the bevy of actual historic photographs posted. So thanks for the latter, but not the "whacked-out story-line": fix it fast please.

    1. I assume English is your second language, since you can't construct a simple, grammatical sentence. You should also study correct English punctuation, as well, before you inflict another of your gaseous tirades on all of us.

  4. What would compel you to spew such vitriol? How miserable do you have to be to hurl such invectives? This is an entertaining and informative blog. Why are you even here? Of course you're Anonymous! Hide behind that name and go away you sad, nasty troll!

  5. I'm a decendent of Richard Post of Newport who moved to Long Island NY before the Revolutionary War. I also may be related to Margaret Louise Post. I've been doing a lot of genealogy reserch but haven't gotten to this yet. An article about Daisy's death was found in some family papers. I'm not sure if this blog is still going but I'm writing anyway. Thanks. Cristin Post

  6. I'm a Newporter and know well the areas you talk about. Thank you for sharing your photos and observations :-)


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