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Published in Home & Garden/Gardening & Horticulture
A few years ago, my husband and I were staying in the storied Lake District of Italy. Rising early, I was drawn to the scene from our window. A deep, luminous mist was coming oft Lake Maggiore, grand trees spread their cooling shadows across the lawn, and the abundant blue hydrangeas were heavy with morning dew. In that moment, a rush of memories, something akin to homesickness, gripped me. I called out, "Wake up and come see-it looks just like Newport."
I caught myself and smiled. Even while taking in the idyllic beauty of this far-off place, I still thought of Newport. Having the sense that you live in one of the most breathtaking spots on earth is a rare privilege. I know that is a bold statement, but no one in Newport would ever consider this an exaggeration; it is just a fact of life that we all feel blessed to experience. I'm reminded often on warm days brushed by sea breezes, on cool misty nights-that as early as 1789, Aquidneck Island was referred to as "the Eden of America."
Newport is so much more, though, than spectacular scenery and climate. It is a collection of memories that linger and tug at our hearts, telling us this is home. That is what inspired me to write this book-to tell the story of Newport through this most personal lens of its private homes and their gardens, which are tended with love, imagination, and a definitive taste by those who care deeply about Newport's traditions.
A writer's plight time and pages-has limited this work to eighteen properties. But for each, I have chosen a favorite element around which to frame its special story a peaceful, meditative Japanese garden, a whimsical playhouse, a brilliant sunset view, an inviting, cozy fireside setting.
Behind the privet hedges and stone walls-on the Avenue, by the sea, and off the beaten path-exists a very private Newport: understated, reclusive, valuing their anonymity. Unlike the famous public mansions, well documented in earlier publications, most of the homes and gardens here have never before been the subject of a book. And may never be again ... caught in a moment in time, one that may pass all too soon, as retainers retire, taxes go up and up, an owner passes away. Some of these properties have been in the same family for generations, others have more recent owners who have brought a renewed vision to bear, and still others were originally summer cottages that are now lived in year-round.
And lived in they all are. For these are not Hollywood sets; they are genteel homes that belong to friends whose personal stories are amusing, entertaining, and sometimes touching. Happily, a sense of play is pervasive. One of my favorite tales took place at Bois Dori and is recounted by a gardening chum. "Remember the circus that we gave my grandmother as a surprise birthday? Well, the grand flourish of the evening was to have been the presentation of the birthday card by Cathy, a full-size elephant. However, because of her size, taking her into the ballroom through the garden doors wasn't going to work. So we tried bringing her through the front door of Bois Dori. But she was too tall to clear the crystal chandelier in the hall; it was swaying and swinging madly as she kept bumping into it. Finally, we had no choice but to steer her out of the house, backward, through the front door and down the stone steps. If you drove down the street at just the right time, as two friends did, you saw the backside of an elephant coming out of Bois Dori."
Each house's story is a piece of the wonderful tapestry called Newport. Each reminiscence or recounting reveals not only something about this City by the Sea but also the strong spirit of continuity that is one of our most cherished characteristics. Newport life revolves around family-layers and layers of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins-with much warmth and affection the focus of family life. It also includes friends, who return year after year, generation after generation. As the matriarch of Beaulieu said, "My great-grandchildren are friends with my friend's great-grandchildren ... it goes right on down the line. Everyone is very close."
This continuity, this sense of interconnectedness, is also found in the retainers, craftsmen, and service people who have loved these homes and devoted their lives to them across generations. During a stroll through the greenhouses, Fairholme's owner remembers that "our caretaker is our painter's nephew on his mother's side and our electrician's nephew on his father's side. According to our plumber, his father put in the swimming pool, and he and his brother assisted." In a real sense, this book is as much about those who make these homes and gardens possible as it is about those who own them-testimony to an unbroken circle of care and caring that unites our community.
Yes, private Newport would seem like a bygone era. But look more closely. Though perhaps not to the scale of earlier days, the face of residential Newport has changed much less than that of other comparable communities. You can still find many of the same procedures carried out, the same techniques applied, the same machinery used. It is a way of life. For Newport, blessed by nature and steeped in history, architecture, and gardens for 365 years, is really about its people and their affection for this magical place.
Come, step inside. This is the Newport that I love, that I wish to share with you.
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