This gorgeous fall weather has reminded me of a very similar day three years ago. In the final stages of photography for my new book, Living Newport: Houses, People, Style…
I was documenting a home to be included in the Autumn section of the book. And what made it especially fun was that the action included twins, the sixth generation to live at Elm Court. This is a very Newport story!
It’s a glorious autumn day, the majestic, century-old fern leaf beech is bathed in rich golden yellow, its leaves set off by the Japanese maples that are ablaze in iridescent shades of scarlet, claret and copper. Elm Court’s sheltered position from Newport’s forceful sea breezes has preserved an important collection of these specimen trees, some to be seen as you enter the iron gates off Bellevue Avenue.
For the Cary family, Elm Court (built in 1853) served only as a summer residence until the 1950’s when the Italianate brick villa became a year ‘round home. In 2008, Mary and Guy Van Pelt took up full-time residence in the large house following Uncle Guy Cary’s death. Their five-year-old fraternal twins, Mary Vivian McGill and Cynthia Fairfax Cary (named after their grandmothers) are now the sixth generation to live at Elm Court. And living at Elm Court with a young family has European overtones that hint of old Newport while graciously acknowledging the realities of modern-day life.
Mary says, “I think it’s important to enjoy the space we live in, and to create memories! We have fun at Elm Court and use all of the house. Every room is shared by all four of us; nothing is off limits for the girls. We don’t worry about spots, spills or breaks. I envision the house evolving, but not losing its ambiance or patina. Yes, it may seem ‘museum-like’ (from the antiques in every room to the stacks of old Louis Vuitton trunks in the attic) but we make it livable and workable.”
To me, romantic is another descriptive for Elm Court: old hand-painted wallpaper graces the height of a tall folding screen, the evocative family portraits line the stairwell, a pleated silk lamp shade adorns a handsome column lamp on an eighteenth-century French chest. There is an authenticity and personality to Elm Court accumulated over the years by the contributions of architects and artists of their day. As Guy explains, “During the late 1800s it was the fashion to seize upon the newest architect to arrive in Newport and commission him to add a room, wing or tower to your home. For our house, George Champlin Mason was followed by McKim, Mead & White. Ogden Codman added his signature embellishments to the overlays.”
The cutting garden provides many bouquets to place throughout the grand rooms, their bright autumn colors complementing the warm patina of the oil paintings and gilt wood antiques.
The open gallery’s much-used sitting area creates one more spot for a cozy living space for the twins.
Guy’s childhood memories of Elm Court include peering over the balustrade during parties, watching “the grown-ups” dancing in the main hall below, after the rug was rolled up.
In the summer, we all head to the screened-in porch, our favorite spot, for breakfasts, family dinners and guest suppers.” Five-year-old Cynthia adds “I like the porch; it’s more fancy. My pearls look better.” The porch lets onto the parkland setting, which includes the old greenhouse with its fanciful cupola at the north end of the lawn. The greenhouse itself looks every bit like a vestige of the Crystal Palace from the 1851 London World’s Fair. Beyond the greenhouse are the requisite stables (with ten stalls) and carriage house.
The mention of stables raises a bit of interesting family history. Guy’s great-grandmother Frances was a fine equestrian and highly regarded Lady “Whip” (the formal term for one who drives a coach) who was invited to participate in many of the venerable Coaching Club’s events. It was rumored that she was the first woman to drive a four-in-hand in Central Park, quite noteworthy in its day. Like Mary and Guy, Frances was also the mother of a set of twins by her first husband, a titled Englishman, Sir James Boothby Burke-Roche, 3rd Baron Fermoy. Her eldest twin son Edmund inherited the title to become 4th Baron Fermoy; his granddaughter was Diana, Princess of Wales.
With young Mary’s words echoing in my ears—“Every five seconds there’s a tea party going on”—I’m reminded of a certain English country home that has become the subject of a very popular BBC series. Here in America, in Newport, the script seems to be playing out most charmingly in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Featured Image Credit, Mick Hales.