Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Rosecliff," the House of Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, Newport, Rhode Island

"Rosecliff" Herman Oelrichs  Estate - Newport, RI

"Rosecliff" Herman Oelrichs  Estate - Newport, RI

Notable American Homes
By Barr Ferree
Photographs by Almann and Company
"Rosecliff," the House of Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, Newport, Rhode Island

"Rosecliff" Herman Oelrichs  Estate - Newport, RI

The Sea Front
A Stately Fountain with a Seated Figure of a Woman is the Chief Adornment of the Garden of the Sea Front

"Rosecliff" Herman Oelrichs  Estate - Newport, RI

"Rosecliff" - The House of Mrs. Herman Oelrichs 
   THERE is so much of splendid architecture in the newer homes of Newport that it is unfair to one and to all, to the critic and to the observer, to signalize any particular
dwelling as the utmost expression of the builder's art in our summer capital. Nor could the discerning critic find safety to himself in so doing, since the architectural achievements at Newport have crowded each other so closely in point of time that what might seem the most notable to-day might, in a few months, be relegated to a secondary rank by some newer grandeur.

  There are, of course, many ways in which Newport has found distinction, but in no way has its visible supremacy been more completely realized than in its dwellings. Colloquially termed "cottages" they represent everything that a cottage is not, and the newer terms of "villa" and "mansion" fit them, on the whole, more appositely; while the word "palace," did we dare to use it in this democratic America, would, in numerous instances, be the most appropriate of all. 

  If the designation "palace" has ever been justified in America it is at Newport. The doings of this gay city have long been public property. It vies with New York and Washington, in being the most interesting town in the United States. Its people and their doings have attracted an immense amount of attention, so that comparatively unimportant episodes are familiar to hundreds of thousands of persons who have never set foot in Bellevue Avenue and perhaps never hope to do so.

  One need scarcely be told, therefore, that the Newport "cottage" is a building apart from all other residential structures, and it need hardly be explained why "palaces" seem so peculiarly in place there. But it is impossible to understand any considerable building without some idea of the conditions which brought it into being or the needs, ends, purposes or circumstances to which it is adapted.

  The Newport palace, it is then well to note, is justified by the gay life for which it is at once a background and a setting. Obviously, if our rich people would be gay—and who would have them otherwise—they must have an environment suited to their means and to the special kind of life they desire to live. If dinners and parties, receptions and balls, fetes of all kinds—the fashionable names for the most fashionable functions change so rapidly that the chronicler must keep close in touch to know the word to use and when to use it—if these diversions are an essential part of a summer's pleasurings, then, truly, a suitable setting must be provided, a setting adequate in size and in style, adequate in form and in expression. So splendid house after splendid house has been built at Newport, until to-day the "cottage" section of the city contains one of the most splendid collections of splendid houses in America.

  One uses the word "splendid" deliberately and of choice, for whether the architecture of these buildings be good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, they are dominated by the supreme idea of splendor. And fortunate it is that the social distinction that has made the city what it is should have found visible expression in houses of genuine distinction —fortunate that the great building activity of Newport has arisen in an epoch of considerable architectural culture. Never were our architects so well equipped to design splendid houses as in the last ten or fifteen years, during which period the larger number of Newport's costliest dwellings were erected. Not every great house is an architectural masterpiece, but many of them are fine in a true architectural sense. And this is an architectural distinction of no mean sort.

  On the contrary, the architectural achievements of Newport, in some instances, are of the most impressive kind. There are few more difficult tasks than to design a sumptuous house in a quiet and unpretentious way. A contradiction of terms, no doubt, but a simple statement of the real problem! Splendor in architecture is not necessarily produced by richness of parts and elaborateness of detail. A skilled designer can give a true splendor to a comparatively simple design by his mere way of designing. But the task is not an easy one, though the results will amply repay the labor put upon it.

  And there are limitations that must be met in designing a splendid house in America. These are the limits of size and time. The large American house is, as a rule, a comparatively small affair measured by the great houses of England and the Continent. Our American "palaces" are small; those of Europe are vast, almost beyond comparison. The building of the European palace, moreover, has been spread over a great period of time—centuries, in not a few instances. We haven't yet begun to have the time to carry on such building operations in our swift and rapid land.

  The American palace must be quickly built, that its splendor be enjoyed by the person commissioning it. And even if a capacious structure, as it often is, its size is in no sense comparable to the great palaces, castles, chateaux of Europe. No one in this country has any use for such colossal dwellings, and the conditions under which our great houses are built are so different from those that brought forth the great house of Europe that a comparison between them is unfair.

  "Rosecliff," Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs's superb house at Newport, is a fine type of the splendid house that, in very recent years, has become characteristic of Newport. Nothing whatever was left undone to obtain a satisfactory and satisfying house, splendid in every sense of the word, and thoroughly adequate to meet any social demands which would be put upon it. The first step, naturally, was the selection of an architect, and in giving her commission to Messrs. McKim, Mead & White, of New York, Mrs. Oelrichs was not only taking her first important step, but was practically securing the very result desired before any plans were drawn or any work of construction undertaken.

  It is a singular characteristic of most of the Newport houses that the grounds that surround them appear inadequate to the great houses built upon them. It is an inadequacy that is comparative rather than actual, and seems actually so since a great house, quite naturally, presupposes a great garden. This is not the case in Newport, where the grounds are restricted and the gardens small; and "Rosecliff" is no exception to the rule, although it has a very unusual situation from the fact that its grounds are entered from Bellevue Avenue by a private road that adjoins the Whitney property, and which must be traversed before the grounds before the entrance front are reached. The other side of Mrs. Oelrichs's house overlooks the sea, and is finely situated.

  The design of the house is very obviously based on that of the Grand Trianon at Versailles. It is in no sense a reproduction of that famous palace, for no attempt has been made to reproduce its vast scale, and the second story, which in this design is treated as an architectural attic, does not appear in the prototype. But this addition was obviously necessitated here, since a residential mansion in America is required to be a structure of more than one story in height; and, as a matter of fact, a third story is built behind the crowning balustrade of the center of the house for the accommodation of the servants.

  The Grand Trianon is a somewhat cold building of not very great architectural interest. Quite the contrary needs to be said of Mrs. Oelrichs's house, for it is smaller, more compact, more ornate; and being an American residence containing a suite of splendid modern rooms—the whole structure, in fact, being adapted to modern American requirements —it is apparent that the design is original, although like many original designs, it is based on a distinct historical idea.

  While the chief interest of this house may be considered to lie in its design and its architectural qualities, its structural aspects are of the most unusual kind and merit earnest consideration. At the first glance, and even on close consideration, the house appears to be built of white marble; as a matter of fact it is built of China glazed terra cotta, and it is not only the first house ever built of this material in America, but the first building in which it was used. The terra cotta received a full white China glaze. It was then put under a sand-blast and reduced to a dull ivory finish. The result is practically that of old marble, which has successfully stood the test of severe winters. There can be no doubt of the success of this material, and the interest that attaches to its use gives a special importance to this exterior.

  The whole design is characterized by great simplicity. The general plan is after the form of the letter H, giving an open court on each side. Both fronts are, quite rightly, very similar in design, or, more properly speaking, represent but slightly different phases of a single design. The leading feature consists of a series of large round arched windows, inclosed within pilasters that support an entablature that is carried continuously around the building. Each end of each wing contains one of these windows, supported, on either side, by a smaller flat topped window, above which is a small oval window, open in some instances, closed as a medallion in others. The three central windows of the entrance front are emphasized by coupled columns standing before the pilasters. This feature is omitted on the garden front, where the pilasters alone appear. Above the columns are four groups of statuary, which constitute the most elaborate feature—the most notable decorative feature—of the exterior.

  The second story, as has been said, constitutes an architectural attic; that is to say, a story designed as an attic to the parts below. As befits an attic  its design is of the simplest possible nature, consisting of rectangular windows between pairs of plain shallow pilasters. The bases of these pilasters rest on an ornamental band which is interrupted by each window frame, and their capitals extend into the frieze that is carried below the crowning cornice. The attic windows differ somewhat in design in each front. Those at the ends of the pavilions are identical in each front; but those in the center of the entrance front consist of a single window to each bay, each with a molded frame; while those of the ocean front are in pairs and are without the elaborated frames. The simple cornice of the attic is surmounted by a balustrade which, as has been stated, veils the third story in the central building. Of the remaining external characteristics it is sufficient to point out that the wings of the entrance front project further forward than those of the ocean front, a distinction of no very great importance save as it affects the size and disposition of the rooms within.

  The external adjuncts to these fronts form an essential feature of the aspect of the house and add immensely to its grace and beauty. Once more there is a similarity in disposition, although the effect of each front is highly individual and distinctive. The space between the wings of each front constitutes a terrace. Each terrace is reached by a broad flight of steps, quite filling the space occupied by three bays of the house. Sculptured lions guard the center of these steps on the entrance front; here each end of the terrace is filled with a flower garden; and splendid bay trees and ornamental vases add to the decorative features which are completed by a small fountain directly before the central window. A larger fountain plays in the center of the space below, where the decorations include great marble seats placed before clipped hedges.

  The terrace of the ocean front is completely different in design. It is somewhat higher than the other, and the ends beyond the steps are inclosed within balustrades, the corner piers of which are surmounted by vast closed vases. Bay trees are arranged around the ends of the terrace, and an awning is hung before the three central windows. Immediately below, on the lawn, are three impressive groups of sculpture. Smaller groups stand on pedestals on either side, thus extending the ornamental treatment almost to the ends of the house; and in the center is a noble fountain, the chief feature of which is a seated figure of a woman that faces the terrace. The ground supporting this fountain constitutes a raised terrace surfaced with grass, from which, at the center, a flight of steps, with vases at top and bottom, leads to the lower lawn.

  Here, then, is a thoroughly charming summer home, one built with every outward aspect of magnificence, and yet, as the architects will tell you, by no means as costly a structure as it seems to be. Whether actually built of marble or not is a somewhat immaterial point, since the material used is a thoroughly legitimate building material, used, in this instance, with rare taste in a thoroughly legitimate way. And everything that might be brought into service in obtaining a fine result has been employed. The elements of the design are essentially elegant, and they have been developed in an elegant manner, that is to say, with a real feeling for elegance artistically developed. The house is large enough to be impressive as a building, and its external embellishments—the garden, terrace, walks, fountains, vases and plants—are all arranged and combined to yield the most interesting results.

  The entrance to the house is through the right wing of the entrance front. The space immediately within constitutes a vestibule; then comes the staircase hall, with the main hall beyond, the whole of the right wing being thus given up completely to the approach, to hallways and to the stairs. The magnificence that is suggested by the sumptuous exterior is immediately realized. The entrance-hall and stairs are finished in Caen stone, white marble and cement. The walls are treated in panels separated by pilasters carrying a cornice decorated in relief. Engaged columns stand in the angles of the doors, whose great decorated arches inclose sculptured tympanums.

  The stairs are at right angles to the visitor, and directly face the drawing-room, which occupies the center of the house. They are superbly designed, with a great outward curve that, at the base, is nearly thirty feet in diameter. They rise with curved sides to about half the height of the floor, then divide on either side and rise in other curves to the second floor. The platform at the dividing point is immediately below a great window. A splendid metal railing is the chief ornament of the stairs, unless the first place be given to the pair of old Spanish twisted columns standing within the lower curves, each of which is surmounted with a figure of an angel, treasure-trove from a European church. It is a magnificent flight of steps, truly palatial in conception and carried out in a very bold and strong manner.

Residence of Mrs.. Hermann Oelrichs   Staircase Hall     McKim, Mead & White, Architects.  Architectural Review 1908

The Staircase is of Palatial Size and Splendor

   The space beyond is termed the main hall, and is a spacious rectangular apartment. It has an enriched paneled ceiling, supported on a cornice, below which is a decorative frieze. The windows are inclosed within paneled pilasters, richly decorated, and the walls are paneled and hung with superb pieces of tapestry. The mantel, of marble, is copied from the antique, and is surmounted by an elaborately carved and decorated over-mantel. There are many fine old pieces of furniture in the hall, the floor of which is almost completely covered with a magnificent rug.

The Main Hall has an Enriched Ceiling and Mantel Copied from the Antique

  The drawing-room occupies the whole of the center of the house. It is a room to which the word magnificent can be applied without any limitation. Lighted by five great windows on either side, it is an immense apartment forty feet wide and eighty feet long. As a room it is, therefore, of the first size in point of dimensions, and it is designed and furnished in a manner commensurate with the dignity of its parts. Its architectural treatment is in a rich type of the Renaissance. The walls are paneled throughout; the window frames, with richly decorated arches, are supported by channeled pilasters with Corinthian capitals. The ceiling is extraordinarily rich, with a vast central panel, surrounded by a broad border in relief with painted panels. The floor is of hard wood, covered in the center with a superb rug. There is a splendid chandelier at either end of the room.

The Spacious Drawing-Room is a Rich Renaissance Apartment, Sumptuously Decorated and Furnished
Residence of Mrs.. Hermann Oelrichs   Music Room(Drawing Room)     McKim, Mead & White, Architects.  Architectural Review 1908

  The further wing of the house has two great rooms—the dining-room on the entrance front and the library on the ocean front. The latter is entered directly from the drawing room; but the dining-room is approached through an anteroom, which, opening from the drawing-room, admits one to the dining-room through the adjoining left hand wall. The intervening space between these rooms is occupied by the pantry and by stairs to the kitchen and service rooms, which are placed in the basement.

  The dining-room is about thirty by forty feet, and is thus a large and spacious apartment. It is designed in a severe Louis XVI. style, with paneled walls, a plain ceiling and a marble mantel. The panels over the doorways and the mantel chimney breast are arched to correspond with the arches of the windows. The large wall panels are filled with tapestry.

The Dining-Room is Designed in a Severe Louis XVI. Style

  The library, which in some respects is the least formal room of the main floor, overlooks the ocean. It is finished with old Rhenish(Rhineland) oak paneling, in small squares, with a plate shelf or cornice just above the height of the mantel. The latter is an old stone structure found abroad. The ceiling is decorated with a richly interlaced curved pattern, and is supported by a simple molding, which surmounts the panels of the walls.

The Library is Walled with Old Rhenish Oak and has a Ceiling with Interlaced Curves

Click HERE to see "RoseCliff" at wikimapia. BING. Theresa Alice "Tessie" Fair Oelrichs Find A Grave.



THE ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN(1890) departs once more from one of its excellent editorial rules in printing as a frontispiece the portrait of a lady. Our subscribers —that fast-growing army of kind, sensible and appreciative spirits—have repeatedly requested us to print the photograph of Mrs.Herman Oelrichs ; and furthermore, to secure their point obviously, they—mark their sly flattery—write us : " I want to see her in The IllustratedAmerican, because in it she will look like something, while in all other papers portraits are absurd." In this, we confess, there is a great deal of truth.
Last June Mr. Herman Oelrichs, of New York, a young man of the hale-and-hearty order, who enjoys all the advantages of an excellent social position and all the comforts of abundant means, crossed the continent and led to the altar Miss Tessie Fair, a daughter of ex-Senator Fair, one of the richest men in California. The bridegroom being in himself a prominent figure, and the bride, by reason of the senator's wealth, being equally prominent, it is not surprising that, on a certain June day, the old ladies of the two seaboards discussed the marriage with their customary delight.
But, as to Mrs. Oelrichs, she is just twenty years of age. She is an excellent example of the Spanish type of beauty, which is met with occasionally in Ireland, with an almost olive skin, dark eyes, very black hair, and a tall, fully rounded figure.
She is an accomplished musician, paints very creditably, has travelled much, is a spirited rider, dances, and plays tennis vigorously, and is a daring swimmer.


  1. As a teenager, I had a book that featured the house. The entrance to the side bothered me until I finally visited and understood the floor plan. The glazed terra-cotta facing of slightly varying coloration is attractive in person.

  2. "not only the first house ever built of this material in America, but the first building in which it was used." Interesting note on the terra-cotta. Seems to be a lost art because you don't really see this material used anymore. If it can hold up on the seashore why you don't see this is a question.

  3. Rosecliff is spectacular.
    Cast concrete or stuccoed block seems to be the material choice of many seaside mansion builders today, mostly in Florida where one thinks about masonry construction for Italian villas and Spanish haciendas as the norm. For durability in New England one gets cast concrete boards and vinyl applied to mimic wood clapboard siding, probably more of a regional preference than anyones advoidance of terra-cotta. I presume casting cost and installation weighs heavily too. It did see a brief revival after the Woolworth Building restoration in New York, but appears to have faded again. NYarch