A Private Newport Mansion Restored
after 100 years in one family, this Newport mansion is passed
to a new family who respectfully refreshes it
produced & written by Bettie Bearden Pardee from her book, “Living Newport"
Seaweed presents a comforting presence overlooking the sweeping curve of Bailey’s Beach. Poised just above the end of Cliff Walk, the house survived the devastating hurricane of 1938 with only a swale in the lawn to hint of this sad note in Newport’s history. Philadelphian Thomas Dolan, founder of the Philadelphia Electric Company and the Philadelphia Gas Company, purchased the house in 1904; Seaweed was lived in by five generations of the Dolan family until his granddaughter Rita Seller’s death at 103.
Few homes in Newport have been owned and occupied by the same family for generations, and even fewer ever come on the market, so Seaweed’s pending sale occasioned much conversation–this grand home, playground to a large, extended family with deep roots in our town ( including a US Senator). Into whose hands would it pass?
As Doug Newhouse confesses, “We had no intention of buying a large, elaborate historic home; a turn-key beach cottage was all we had in mind.” Ah, but Seaweed boasts a complement of superlatives that aren’t easily matched, starting with its views of the sea from nearly every room. As a successful private- equity professional would, Doug can enumerate the logical reasons why he and his wife, Holly Bannister (a pediatric emergency medicine physician) took on much more than they ever intended: a magnificent site encompassing some of the finest views in Newport; both Cliff Walk and Bailey’s Beach a short stroll across the front lawn; the house’s architectural significance established by the contributions of two distinguished twentieth century architects, George Champlin Mason and Horace Trumbauer; and its west-facing orientation, unusual for a house on the East Coast.
It was “as though an old dowager had taken a new lover.”
The front porch is a favorite spot to sit and await guests, watch the surfers and fishermen and admire the swans alighting on distant Almy Pond. (above)
The Front Porch
In the end, however, it was more emotion than logic that led to the purchase. There is something about Newport that speaks to the spirit of preservation in many of us–some of whom were perhaps never aware of this alter ego. After months of contemplation and family discussions, the Bannister/Newhouses made the big decision, and the contractors were called in.
Holly and Doug have embraced Newport, endearing themselves to the Dolan family and new friends, by putting the time, thought and resources into the respectful “refreshing” of this second home. (A Newport friend has described it, colorfully “ as though an old dowager had taken a new lover.”) Perhaps their decision was made easier by the knowledge that Seaweed had been lived in by the same family for over 100 years, assuring a level of architectural preservation. Aside from a few infrastructure details, like re-wiring, Doug and Holly were looking at mostly cosmetic issues– exposing wood floors under linoleum tiles, replicating broken molding, restoring the handsome original marble bathroom sinks, removing years of paint and rust from elegant wall sconces, refitting fireplaces and chimneys. They cherished the house as it was–the layout, which accommodated the ease of moving between rooms, and the ability to adapt rooms to suit their needs without having to change doorways or take down walls. It is this “flow” that Holly responds to so fondly, as do guests who also point out “the warmth, spirit and energy of Seaweed” that they find so appealing.
The Side Entrance
Everything at the ready for arriving guests as well as family members heading out the door.
One house party commemorated the 100th year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic including some guests whose great-grandparents had sailed on the infamous voyage
The heart of the house, the large, expansive enclosed West Porch, is “broken down into warm nooks and seating groups so the whole family could be together, doing different things," Holly says.
The West Porch
As they both agree, “Seaweed gives us more opportunities to welcome friends, share with family, mingle with neighbors and to enjoy a broader group of people. We entertain much more here than we do in Connecticut. The house just lends itself to it. And one thing is for certain–we do have house guests! Newport is so easy to get to and enjoys such an engaging environment, from beach to cultural and historic assets.”
Seaweed’s twenty-one rooms (including eleven bedrooms and eight working fireplaces) are host to multi-generational gatherings (they have a son in college and a daughter who has just graduated), following in the long tradition of this Newport home. Thanksgiving dinner takes place in the large “West Porch” and the original dining room now serves other interests, games and media-related. Taking advantage of the intimately scaled entry foyer, a fall supper might take place here, in front of a blazing fire where Holly’s treasured seahorse andirons can be admired.
One house party early on was the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, with the menu recreating the last night’s dinner on the ill-fated ship. Out-of-town guests mixed with Holly and Doug’s Newport friends, including some whose great grandparents had sailed on the Titanic‘s infamous voyage!
“Seaweed, by design, puts an emphasis on light, air and circulation; one never feels closed-in. Surely this must be why the full porches were added so many years ago to all sides of the house, an inviting addition to which house guests gravitate. Each porch enjoys its own personality. At the front door, we purposely put out rocking chairs so we can await coming guests as well as watching all that unfolds from this wide vantage point–children playing on Bailey’s Beach, the striped umbrellas lending a festive air; fishermen setting off to cast their lures from the rocks; surfers on the water, waiting for that perfect wave; swans alighting on distant Almy Pond.” Soon the original porte coachere, which was destroyed in the 1954 hurricane, will be recreated and attached to the front of the porch.
The enclosed south-facing porch, dressed with white lattice and accented with a traditional light-blue ceiling, brings welcome footage to the public rooms that open onto this sunny addition. The office is at one end, with a partner’s desk (which serves as a bar come party time) in the same spot where an over-scaled doll house resided during “Aunt Rita’s” years.
But it is the large, enclosed semi-circular “West Porch,” providing an unobstructed vista over Newport’s craggy coastline, that is the heart and soul of Seaweed. In this main entertaining space, you’ll find elements of a life well lived–a baby grand is to the right in an alcove; at the other end of the porch is a long refectory table where
The Bannister/Newhouses live at Seaweed casually and joyfully; no rooms are off limit, even to Lily, the Samoyed, sitting in the lower level kitchen beside the original stove.
The Original Lower-Level Kitchen
breakfast can be taken, or dinner guests tended to. And between, embracing the roomy curve, are comfy sofas and overstuffed chairs, draped with throws to snuggle in, and close enough to provide intimate conversations. Either by accident or design, the deep, elegant shape of this favored spot creates an amusing architectural enigma referred to as “acoustic focus.” Stand in the center of the room, where the diagonal floor boards meet, start speaking and your words will echo back to you. As one of “ Aunt Rita’s” cousins put it so well, “you just wanted to be there, anytime. . . watching the play of light at different parts of the day, the reflections off the water, the sunsets!”
In a twist on homes of today, Doug and Holly have kept the working kitchen in its original location in the full, light-filled lower level, adding another bit of personality to this grand old house. This works very well for them, affording the practical point of keeping preparation work and cooking smells from the main floor (and yes, they still use the original dumb waiter.)
One treasured asset–a small private sandy beach nestled amongst the rocks of their property–was only discovered after they purchased the house. With just enough room for a few chaises on the blue stone terrace, a few steps above the sand, this secret get away is now a savored retreat.
As Holly shares, “Seaweed is only at the end of Bellevue Avenue, a mere two miles from town, but it does, indeed, feel like its own little world.”
Author, lecturer, garden connoisseur, former magazine editor and television host/producer, BETTIE BEARDEN PARDEE calls Newport, RI home, the inspiration for her most recent books on lifestyle and design, and her new website, “Private Newport.”
Her newest coffee table book, Living Newport: Houses, People, Style (Glitterati 2014) is the subject of lectures, appearances and book signings scheduled around the country as part of her upcoming book tour. (See the calendar of events for more information.)
All photography by Mick Hales.