For one who has written two illustrated books on Newport houses, driving down Bellevue Avenue late the afternoon of February 25th was heart wrenching. Within three blocks of my own home, I was witnessing a historic private residence being totally consumed by voracious flames; so violent was the conflagration that the smoke and flames could be seen across Narragansett Bay.
A fire of such magnitude has not occurred in this estate-studded neighborhood since 1983. Mrs. John Drexel’s former home, Stonor Lodge, is now a black hole in the ground. What is left is the sense that an era has passed. It may be subtle, but to many it is palpable. This incident profoundly affected a very private Newport, destroying the once cherished house of a revered lady who was interwoven through her ancestry, philanthropy and tireless support of many causes into the fabric of our town. Stonor Lodge was much of Newport in microcosm, which poignantly evokes a sense of loss.
In many ways, Noreen Drexel provided a window onto another age, one that is slipping away and deserves to be remembered. At my invitation, John Tschirch, a gifted architectural historian and storyteller, will do the honors. During his 25 years at the Preservation Society of Newport County, he worked with Mrs. Drexel on major educational, preservation and cultural projects.
The privilege of working with Noreen Drexel was both an education and an inspiration for she was a window on to the past, a fine guardian of the present and a far sighted steward of the future. Knowing Noreen was knowing Newport and the tangible heritage embodied in the buildings and people she cared about. For me, her passing in 2012 signaled the end of an era. At Stonor Lodge, her humor, generosity and grace permeated the atmosphere, that most intangible but powerful thing that captures the spirit of a storied place. The house may be gone, an age has passed, but the spirit is still in the air of Newport.
My first meeting with this exceptional lady happened on a summer day. A warm reception awaited me at Stonor Lodge, where I, a scholar of architecture, entered the realm of Noreen Drexel. I left with an engaging and colorful view onto an entire world. In this historic and beautiful setting, she created a lively and vivid milieu, a combination of humor and gravitas, of privilege worn lightly and duty taken seriously.
On another occasion, I arrived on the Drexel sun-porch for lunch. Presiding over the room was an ethereally beautiful portrait of Noreen by the society portraitist, René Bouché. As I spoke with my hostess, it became apparent that the painter had perfectly expressed her vitality, elegance and charm. A perfect soufflé sat in the middle of the table while a pampered parakeet made its home on my shoulder. Conversation ranged from architectural restoration issues and the history of Bellevue Avenue to how much the bird enjoyed nibbling on my ear. It was the most unique, informative and productive meeting of my preservation career.
Is it any wonder that everyone came to call on Noreen. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Jacqueline Bouvier, members of the Salvation Army and countless volunteers in health services all counted themselves as guests. Stonor Lodge became the scene of many gatherings, each as richly layered, complex and character filled as the history of Newport itself.
Newport, family connections and venerable old buildings were beloved by Noreen. Born at Stonor Park in Oxfordshire, England for eight centuries home to the Stonors, she grew up in a setting rich in tradition. Her father, the Honorable Ralph Julian Stonor, 5th Baron Camoys, was heir to an ancient lineage and a fine ancestral estate. He came to call at Newport, where the William Watts Shermans resided in a house designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson and now recognized as a landmark. In 1911, Lord Camoys met and married the Shermans’ daughter, Mildred Constance, a descendant of prominent Rhode Islanders Roger Williams, father of the colony, and Nicholas Brown, a founder of Brown University. The courtship and wedding of an English lord with the heiress of a distinguished American family was the fashionable trend in this glamorous epoch.
The pageantry of the “Gilded Age” found its most opulent expression in Newport. To Noreen, it was simply called “home,” one she knew in every detail and nuance. It was a place of which she was an integral part and a world she also transcended. Her mother, Lady Camoys, brought her to Newport on the eve of World War II. In 1941, Noreen married John R. Drexel III, scion of the prominent Philadelphia banking family with close Newport ties. While she could have stayed within the exclusive confines of an elegant life and its social whirl, Noreen ventured forth to be an ambulance driver and Red Cross volunteer, an affiliation enduring through successive wars and culminating in her role as a Red Cross representative at the United Nations. In causes from education and healthcare to social welfare, Noreen personified the age old aristocratic ideal of “noblesse oblige.” To serve humankind always came first.
In 1948, Noreen’s mother purchased a rambling cottage called “Mayfield” on Bellevue Avenue and renamed it “Stonor Lodge.” Upon Lady Camoy’s death in 1961, the Drexels acquired the house. They made it home to generations and the center of Noreen’s charitable works. An invitation to Stonor Lodge always marked a special occasion, with wit and wisdom present in equal measure.
One evening, I sat at the Drexel table for dinner enjoying the scent of abundant flowers and the shimmer of Noreen’s prized silver horses on the mantle. Seated to Noreen’s left, I thanked her for help with a recent project then turned to my right to chat with C.Z. Guest. During dessert, Noreen asked me to tell John Drexel the subject of my current research.
I said, “I am working on the Age of Enlightenment.”
With a twinkle in his eye, John asked, “do you think it has arrived on these shores yet?”
Winking at her cousin, C.Z. Guest said, “with a little effort, Johnny.”
Noreen added, “we can only hope, dream and then make sure it happens.”
John Tschirch is an award winning architectural historian and accomplished photographer who worked for 25 years at the Preservation Society of Newport County, most recently as director of Museum Affairs. He was made an Honorary member of the Garden Club of America for his services to the research and restoration of historic landscapes. Currently, he is writing a trilogy of historic fiction novels and is the creator and author of the blog entitled John Stories: Confession of a Globetrekking Architectural Historian. His photography is featured at Fine Art America. For more on John’s work, visit JohnStories.com.
Featured image photo credit, Nicholas Mele Photography