There’s always a story in Newport and as we head into hurricane season, this gripping tale from my book, Private Newport, deserves to be retold. Few in Newport recognize Seafair by any name other than its eponymous nickname, “Hurricane Hut.” Lacking a ledge reef to protect it from the brunt of storms coming off the Atlantic, Seafair’s existence today is a testimony to its rubble stone and slate composition.
Known simply as the Hurricane of ’38, this apocryphal event has become lore in the history of Newport. Mention of it creeps into conversations, surfaces in comparisons, for indeed it was truly a “perfect storm.” The Providence Journal, in a special booklet devoted to this event, provided vivid details:
September 21st was the highest tide of the year. A high pressure area over the Eastern United States and another at sea, prevented the storm from following a natural course and spinning out to sea; this same climatic condition acted as a right of way, directing the storm on a long, straight northerly course up the Atlantic coast. Gathering force, wind and water, with no land to break its stride, it raked New England, considered by meteorologists to be one of the most exposed areas in the entire world to be subjected to the full onslaught of such a storm. Finally, the rolling masses of waves, tripping one over the other as the shoals off the continental shelf broke their orderly progression, hit the shore with “an impact so great that the seismograph at New York’s Fordham University recorded the vibrations as if there were an earthquake.”
With no early satellite warning systems that we have today, and with no bridges for escape, the residents were ill-prepared, indeed were unaware, of the oncoming hurricane.
Come 5:00 PM, the cocktail hour at Seafair, the owners had unwittingly invited friends over to watch the waves, not an unusual form of entertainment for residents along the shore.
Soon, though, guests began to realize that here was something more than a September blow. Of the Newporters present that night at Seafair, their memories are of gales racing at 121 miles an hour, a boiling, cascading sea approaching 15 feet above mean high water, a “cyclonic madness” of screeching, beating wind. Escape suddenly became the only reality. Taking the grand staircase to the second floor…
guests exited the windows at the western end and were able to crawl along the leeward side of the roof, climb down to the ground and make their way to Ocean Drive…just in the nick of time.
Soon thereafter the waves broke up the granite block sea wall, hurling huge pieces over the roof of the house; however, the mammoth, solid structure withstood the onslaught of the churning sea being thrown against its doors and windows.
Seafair stood empty until the end of WWII, its interior damage repaired but left abandoned by the distraught owners who had first built it.
But the history of “Hurricane Hut” also includes one gift from the sea, a story told to me first hand or I would have thought it merely an entertaining fabrication.
Seafair’s second owner added a four foot lead statue of a peacock to the walled garden on the sea side.
Sometime in the early 1950s, a storm breeched the courtyard and swept the statue out to sea; ten years later, she sold the fated house and it was not until the mid 1990s that she had the opportunity to return as the guest of the recent owners. Leaving the party and crossing the front circle to her car, she was stunned to see the lead peacock, a bit battered but still easily recognizable as the peacock. Incredulous, she quickly returned to the house to ask where the owners had found the missing statue. Totally unaware of its disappearance 45 years earlier, they casually answered, “Oh, it was thrown up on the lawn during a storm.”