May 13, 2011  
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Restoration and Renovation  

Above: Marr Scaffolding's snorkel crane moving restoration worker Kevin Doyle into position

This past winter, the National Museum of American Illustration initiated important
critical renovations on the eight iconic chimneys at Vernon Court, the Gilded Age mansion which houses the Museum collection. These slender, noble, eighty-five foot chimneys cast long shadows on the gray, steep-sloped slate roof. This combination of forms creates an aesthetic of great note - a model of classical perfection. 

Above: Four of Vernon Court's eight chimneys as seen from snorkel crane over 100ft above the Marble Terrace 

Vernon Court was designed by the noted architects Carrérre & Hastings in 1898 for a wealthy Dutch-American widow, Anna van Nest Gambrill, as a summer 'cottage' for entertaining. In 1904, in his seminal work American Estates and Gardens, architectural historian James Barr Ferree wrote Vernon Court has "a startling beauty and daring originality... giving it high rank among the notable houses in America." The mansion's distinct crown of chimneys, unique amongst Newport 's Revival-style mansions of the Gilded Age are "a very marked feature" according to Barr Ferree, and were without a doubt an important  factor in the author's esteemed opinion of the building.


  (l-r):Chimney restoration in progress; View from the snorkel crane toward Vernon Court's West Sunken Gardens 


Vernon Court celebrates its 113th birthday in August, and the effects of the passing years have necessitated many repairs and restoration projects. In particular, repeated freezing and thawing has led to cracking of the chimneys' stucco exteriors. All eight chimneys are in need of repair and are the focus of the Museum's 2011 restoration projects. 


Above: Exterior restoration in progress during the late 1990s at Vernon Court


The chimney restoration is the most recent in a long series of restoration, renovation, and repair projects that the NMAI has undertaken at Vernon Court since the Museum's founding in 1998. Following the original owner's (Gambrill) sale  of the property in 1956, Vernon Court was used  as the administrative building by Hatch Preparatory School, and then as Vernon Court Junior College (1960-1972). For the two and a half decades following Vernon Court Junior College's 1972 bankruptcy, the property was owned by private parties with plans varying from turning the property into condominiums to using the building as a private club; obviously none of these goals materialized. When NMAI founders Judy & Laurence Cutler acquired the property in 1998, much work was needed before its July 4th, 2000 opening to the public as an art museum.  


Above: Restoration of the white plaster traceries in Vernon Court's Petit Salon, derived from Queen Marie Antoinette's private suite at Versailles 

The necessity of this work was the result of age, wear and tear, and neglect. "There was no heat, no air-conditioning" said co-founder Laurence Cutler in an interview shortly after the 1998 founding of the Museum. "Dangling wires were everywhere. Not a single door closed properly. The pipes leaked - so did the roof - and there were sixty-one broken windows." Beyond the extensive repairs, the property had to be converted for use as an art museum. Prior to the July 4,th 2000 opening, the Cutlers installed new boilers, air conditioning, a humidity control system with twenty-eight different zones, and tinted glazing for ultraviolet control. The interiors were extensively refurbished and period correct furniture acquired for display. The exterior required, among other projects, all the modillions on the soffits be replaced. New garden sculptures sourced in Europe replaced those original to the building which had been sold at auction in 1972, prior to the NMAI acquiring the property.  

Other building and grounds restoration projects include the following sampling: 


Main Entrance Gate and Wrought Iron Fencing


When the NMAI was founded in 1998, the wrought iron fencing was in a dismal state of repair. Parts were rusted through, broken, and in some cases, completely missing. First steps included stabilizing the base, recasting missing parts, motorizing the gate mechanism for security, followed by repainting and regilding. Gilded lions were placed on the gates, and the missing flourish (the decorative element on the top of the gate) was redesigned to feature the Museum's coat of arms, rendered in stained glass by local artisans Tom and Priscilla Mallone. The ironwork was fabricated and installed by Santos Welding. Replacement sconce lights were installed at the entrance gate, and matching replica Gilded Age street lights were installed in the adjacent Frederick Law Olmsted Park.  



Above: Replacement flourish being unloaded and installed at Vernon Court's main entrance gates

Tiffany Loggia Murals


Above: Vernon Court's Tiffany Loggia featuring Louis Comfort Tiffany's murals viewed in 2010 (top) and 1902 (bottom)

Above: Winterthur Art Conservation Professor Richard Wolbers examining a damaged section of Vernon Court's Tiffany Murals

From May 2007 to May 2009, conservators from Winterthur Museum, University of  Paris - The Sorbonne, and Rhode Island School of Design Professor Amy Bartlett Wright restored the Tiffany murals in Vernon Court's  South Tiffany Loggia. The murals suffered from years of neglect, a leaky roof, a nesting family of raccoons, and invasive amateur attempts at restoration prior to the founding of the NMAI. The conservation treatment included reinforcing the structure of the roof, ceiling, and murals, themselves, improving the overall aesthetic condition by removing surface grime, tear mending, cleaning, and removal of discolored and incorrect overpaint. After cleaning and stabilization, experts were brought in to repaint the small areas of the murals which had been essentially destroyed. State of the art lighting was installed, and the South Tiffany Loggia reopened to coincide with the beginning of the 2009 Summer Admissions season.  


(l-r): Winterthur conservators Nadege Jacobe, Amber Kerr-Allison, Professor/Conservator Joyce Hill Stoner, and NMAI Director Judy Cutler in South Loggia

The murals were created by Tiffany Studios, famous for their stained glass works, lamps in particular. The painting was done by James Wall Finn, who was known as 'Tiffany's Michaelangelo', due to his mural painting skills. They are modeled after the murals by Bartolomeo Ammanati for Pope Julius the III's Villa Giulia in Rome, presently the site of Italy's National Etruscan Museum.  


Renaissance Revival Style Fire Escape

Above: Vernon Court's Renaissance Revival Fire Escape

Following the restoration of the Tiffany Murals in 2009, perhaps the world's only Renaissance Revival-style wrought iron fire escape was installed. The fire escape, with its rectangular framework featuring flourishes and embellishments incorporating Baroque and Rococo influences, in keeping with Vernon Court's Revival-styled exterior, with its relatively austere facades adorned with markedly ornamental wrought iron railings and decorative wall panels with garlands. Barr Ferree further wrote of Vernon Court, "The fine proportions, the admirable spacing of the voids and solids, the treatment of the carved ornament...serve at once to give this design distinction." Vernon Court's new fire escape follows architects Carrérre & Hastings design theme while providing modern safety measures.  


(l-r): Fire Escape installation in progress, alternate view of Fire Escape


Other projects at Vernon Court include the conversion of portions of the third floor to Museum office and studio space, the installation of copper roof flashing, a new exterior staircase and balaster walls, alarms and lighting, construction of the Museum Shop  and five new galleries on Vernon Court's lower level, and restoration of the Boleyn House - Vernon Court's exemplary carriage house.  

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Eric Brocklehurst 

National Museum of American Illustration
492 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI 02840
T: 401-851-8949 ext. 18. F: 401-851-8974

The Museum is open Fridays for a guided tour only at 3pm sharp, and year-round for visitors and Group Tours by advance reservations. General Admissions Hours resume Memorial Day weekend, 2011. 


Tickets: Adults: $18; Seniors (60+) & Military: $16; Students: $12; Children ages 5 to 12: $8. Children ages 5 to 12 are permitted only if they are vouchsafed by parents or guardians as being 'well-behaved.'



The National Museum of American Illustration is a nonprofit, independent, educational and aesthetic organization. It is located in Newport, RI, on Bellevue Avenue at Vernon Court (1898), a Carrére and Hastings designed Beaux-Arts adaptation of an 18th century French chateau. It is the first national museum devoted exclusively to American illustration art. Illustration consists of original artwork created to be reproduced in books, magazines, newspapers, and advertisements. 'Golden Age' paintings by such luminaries as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, NC Wyeth, JC Leyendecker, and 75 others are displayed in 'Gilded Age' architecture, creating a unique union of architecture and art - a national treasure. The Museum is administered by the American Civilization Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the goal to present the best possible venue for appreciating the greatest collection of illustration art - the most American of American art.


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