Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Beacon Hill House", The Newport Cottage Of Arthur Curtiss James

"Beacon Hill House" is one of the more odd cottages in Newport RI. Built in 1909 for millionaire railroad magnate Arthur Curtiss James and his wife, Harriet, on the site of a previous home. Sitting atop  the tallest hill on Aquidneck Island, it occupied one of the best spots in all of Newport, with sweeping views of the ocean and the magnificent gardens.

 Arthur Curtiss James Was A Quiet, Conservative Millionaire, Focussed Mainly On His Many Charitable Contributions Rather Than Society, Which Was Left To His Wife

Harriet Edey James Was A Typical Society Debutant, She Loved Clothing, Jewels, Parties And Large Homes, She, Unlike Her Husband Who Just Signed The Checks, Was The Driving Force Behind "Beacon Hill House"

The plans had been drawn up by Harriet herself and afterwards turned over to architects Howells & Stokes, who had the house completed between 1909 and 1910. The mansion was centered around the 2 story great hall and featured rooms designed for comfort, yet still acceptable for entertaining. There was no ballroom, in it's place was a removable wall in between the dining room and living room, so that at anytime the walls could be pushed back and the two rooms turned into one gala ballroom.

 The First Floor Of "Beacon Hill House" (Based On Photographs And Descriptions)

The interior of the mansion was quite comfortable, compared to the high strung interiors of other Newport cottages. Each room had exceptional views of the grounds and the gardens, not to mention the fantastic ocean views. On the rare occasion that they were in Newport and not entertaining, the James spent most of their time away from one another, Mr. James in his study and Mrs James either in her boudoir or in the Della Robbia Room (conservatory).

The 2-Story Great Hall Housed The Large James Collection Of Tapestries, Which At That Time Were Valued At $300,000

The Drawing Room, Which For Large Events Would Also Double As A Banquet Hall, Had Beautiful Parquet Floors, Which Were Covered Up By Three Large Polar Bear Rugs

The Large Living Room, Which Doubled With The Dining Room To Create A Ballroom On Entertaining Nights, Was One Of The Most Comfortable Rooms In The House

The Dark Dining Room Could Seat 40 People For Dinner, It Could Also Sit 2 People When The James Dined Alone

The Della Robbia Room (Conservatory) Was Mrs. James's Favorite Room, Where She Could Spend Hours Reading About Flowers, Her Favorite Thing To Read About

Shortly after the house was completed, the James had a farming complex added to the grounds. Surprisingly it was called The Swiss Valley Village, even though the buildings were designed in the Italian style. Over the years, James continued to add to Swiss Valley Village, eventually having cottages erected for all of his staff, a pergola with a flower-thatched roof were Mrs. James entertained friends, a cow barn, dairy plant, piggery, henhouse, smokehouse, carpenter shop and a maternity hospital.

In 1917, a surprise birthday party was given at "Beacon Hill House" in honor of Mrs. James's birthday, at which the entire formation of the USS Vermont battleship attended. The party ended at 3 in the morning.

Mrs. James decided she wanted to hold a large party at "Beacon Hill House", which she called "The Masque of the Blue Garden". The party would be held in the new Blue Gardens Mrs. James was having constructed. The large party would be the highlight of the season and would finally triumph over Mamie Fish's "Mother Goose Ball".

On The Night Of The Ball Mrs. James Was Dripping With Sapphires, So Much So That People Called Her Lady Sapphira Throughout The Night

The Night Only Added To The James's Already High Social Status, In Attendance That Night Were Vanderbilts, Astors, Belmonts, Reids, Whitneys, Fish, Oelrichs, Cushings, Clews, Van Pelts And More

Besides in Newport, The James Also Had Residences In New York City, on the Hudson and in Florida.

The James's Residence In New York City Had Been Built In 1917 And Was The James's Principal Residence

Arthur Curtiss James's Estate On The Hudson Had Been Built Long Ago By James's Ancestors, Who Had Sold The Estate, James Bought It Back In 1921

The James's Estate In Florida Was Rarely Used By Them, When They Were There, The Normally Were Dedicated To Their Charities

In 1939, James retired from active business, although he continued to maintain an office in New York City. He spent most of his time at "Beacon Hill House", where he could garden for hours. He also spent quite a bit of time onboard his yacht, "Aloha", traveling the seas in style.

The James's Yacht, "Aloha", Which Contained A 50-Seater Dining Saloon, Library, Parlor And Numerous Bedrooms

Mrs. James passed away in 1941, while enjoying a summer at "Beacon Hill House". Arthur went into deep mourning, quitting his social career altogether. James died three weeks after his wife.

For Once Since It Had Been Built, "Beacon Hill House" Sat Empty And Cold, The James's Furniture Soon Began To Collect Dust

The mansion passed through several hands, until finally it was destroyed by a fire in 1967, only after being ransacked and vandalized countless times. Today the Swiss Village survive and so do The Blue Gardens.


  1. Does the blue garden really survive? I thought the property had been sudivided. It would be nice to know that it still exists. Their NYC home was also quite spectacular. Great post of a generous family that still managed to enjoy their money.

    1. I believe the Blue Gardens still survive, I have seen pictures of them as they look today, I could send them to you if you want. What is your email?

  2. The Blue Garden built by Arthur Curtis James on his estate exists but not as grand, it is part of a estate which had a modern contempory house built next to the garden. The house and Gardens have been sold for 2.5M to Dorrance Hamilton who had the house torn down and is building a new shingle style home and is going to restore the gardens to their former glory. She also owns large parcels of the Arthur Curtis James estate including the Swiss Village Farm which is used for the SVF Foundation.

  3. Does the house in Tarrytown, the cottage rather, still exist? My mother in law's famiily had rented it in the summer of 1926. My daughter lives in Hastings, so I would make a special effort to see the property.
    Thanks so much

  4. This is a wonderful assemblage.
    Do you have the photo credits for these images? I would love to view other works by these photographers.

  5. Oh what a crying shame. By the time I got to the end of this I was just sick. I love all that gilded age homes and just all the stuff that went with it. If I could go back in time that's the age I'd go to. Everything was so beautiful and I just hate to see it destroyed. I know it costs a lot of money, but to me it's worth saving. It will never be again. How sad.

  6. Thank you for such a detailed account. It brought back many childhood memories for me, because my favourite relative was Mr. James' private nurse. Mary would spend hours at her cottage recounting her adventures on the Aloha, giving descriptions of The Blue Garden to me and your excellent synopsis of it all, has brought it alive again. When I was a child, this recounting of Mr. James, was a real life Fairy Tale to me.

  7. Does anyone know where the James' Hudson River house was located? Does it still exist?

  8. Can one still visit the Blue Gardens at the former Beacon Hill House....?
    mp 5/29/2017

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  10. Dorrance Hamilton who passed this year had the Blue Garden Restored as part of her estate that she built after buying the former Curtis James property. Her summer home the "Bird House" is currently for sale but it appears the Caretaker's Cottage and the Blue Garden will now be part of the SVF foundation and hopefully open once a year. It's great that she wanted to restore this famous garden, she was a devoted gardener and the landscaping around her Newport home was amazing.

  11. The Blue Garden is private and not open to the public.
    People who are affiliated with a group or an institution involved in garden design, horticulture, historic preservation, or landscape architecture are invited to email Sarah Vance for an appointment to see the garden on Thursdays at 11:00am or 2:00pm, from mid-June to mid-October.

    Please include relevant information about your affiliation.

    Sarah Vance
    Director, The Blue Garden


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