Intern Voices: Elmhyrst Through Photos

Fri, 12/01/2017 - 11:14am -- mfarias

Photographs are single moments in time preserved for as long as the medium by which they are held lasts. They can be quite deceiving; the photographer could be leaving out particular objects or adjusting those left in frame so that the viewer sees the objects as the photographer intends them to. Every person has unique biases, so it is only natural that those biases permeate what man creates. This fact is important to understand when approaching any historical document but especially important when approaching photographs—it is easy to forget that they too are meant to convey something in particular to the viewer because they are capturing moments in time.

Two women sitting on the steps of Elmhyrst, ca. 1899-1909 by unknown, PH.NPT.0025
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library 

Newport, Rhode Island is best known for its association with the Gilded Age: the period within United States history when those with the means available to them took full advantage of the free market system to place themselves at the top of socio-economic class. Many individuals were and still are fascinated with the extravagant lifestyle led by these individuals. Accordingly, local photographs of Newport sometimes concern themselves with this opulence. But the luxury of Newport was so ubiquitous that some of it has been lost and waits to be reexamined.

Morris contact sheet #16, ca. 1933 by Mrs. Lewis G. Morris (Elizabeth), PH.NPT.0095
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library 

This is a contact sheet from the collection of Mrs. Lewis G. Morris, who was planning on writing a book on Newport architecture. The photographs were taken in 1933 and show the grounds of the Elmhyrst mansion. The mansion once stood in Middletown, Rhode Island on Miantonomi Avenue according to the 1979 “Historic and Architectural Resources of Middletown, Rhode Island” survey report by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, which can be found here. The contact sheet makes it clear that the owners of the home were well off: the mansion is characteristic of classical architecture with the enormous ionic columns at the front of the house. The reverse side of the photograph does not identify the grounds with Elmhyrst. Instead, written on it is: “Gov. Collins House – 1933 – 1 Mile Corner – All.” The building is still visible in this location, screened from the road by a stand of venerable trees and a dfunct gas station. It has weathered time and remodeling, but it remains. While the location is clear, the attribution to Governer Collins suggests other questions.

Three women playing croquet in front of Elmhyrst, ca. 1900-1910 by unknown, PH.NPT.0020
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library

In the photo directly above, the agenda is different from the photos of Mrs. Morris. Elmhyrst is in the background, while the women play croquet in luxurious dresses in front, indicating that life for these individuals was quite pleasant. This understanding of high society life is hinted at in Mrs. Morris’s contact sheet by impressive architecture of not only the mansion, but it’s guest house as well. These are enough to demonstrate the extent of their wealth. In this manner, both sets of photographs accomplish the same thing in different ways: a demonstration of the economic prowess of certain individuals in American society at the time.

Morris contact sheet #16, ca. 1933 by Mrs. Lewis G. Morris (Elizabeth), PH.NPT.0095.5
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library

Perhaps unintentionally, Mrs. Morris has aided in providing more information regarding the house than the earlier photographs. Through her, we have an identification that might have been lost: by writing “Gov. Collins House” on the verso of the photograph, we know of a seemingly prominent individual who was associated with the house for whatever reason. This identification does not necessarily mean Gov. Collins lived at the house, or had anything at all to do with the property. It means he was merely identified with it by at least one person.

Morris contact sheet #17, ca. 1933 by Mrs. Lewis G. Morris (Elizabeth), PH.NPT.0096
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library

From the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission survey report we know the house existed at least from 1833 to at least 1979. The description identifies that the guest house was used as an office at one point in its history and the report also discusses the changes the building underwent. Interestingly enough, it also identifies the house as the “William Vernon House.”  

Morris contact sheet #8, ca. 1913 Mrs. Lewis G. Morris (Elizabeth) by PH.NPT.0087.6
Vernon House, 46 Clarke Street: NRF 
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library

Both the William Vernon in the report and the William Vernon associated with the well-known William Vernon House on Clarke Street in Newport, Rhode Island were Newport merchants, indicating they could be the same person. The Vernon of the Newport Vernon House was an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and left so that the house could be used as the headquarters of Comte de Rochambeau. Elmhyrst being built in 1833 does not align chronologically with Vernon’s leaving his home, so whether or not this was the specific reason for the mansion being commissioned is unknown. There is no definite evidence that these figures described are the same people, but both men holding the same name and being merchants seems to be an odd coincidence. The two different addresses provided tell of either great changes that took place regarding Middletown geography or great confusion on Mrs. Morris’s part. Whatever the case, there might be a bit of local history left to uncover.

Exterior view of Elmhyrst from the right side of the house, ca. 1890-1900 by unknown, PH.NPT.0026
From the Newport Collection of the Redwood Library

{This week's blog post comes from Redwood Library intern and student at Salve Regina University, Christian Isidoro, who has spent the fall semester at the Redwood working with our Newport Collection of photographs. His valuable work scanning, analyzing, and describing these photos will be accessible online soon and new stories about Newport can be told, like the one he is sharing with us today.}