Design & Décor, Living with Style, The Newport Diary

The Swanhurst Theater: A Private Home for Music Aficionados

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The Swanhurst estate, though certainly not as well known or visible as some of its neighbors, has a delightful story that deserves to be told. Dating back to 1851, it was one of twelve Newport mansions that served to first establish the new Bellevue Avenue residential corridor (long before The Elms, Marble House and Rosecliff were built). In 1892, a stable was added at the rear of the property (above), designed by McKim, Mead and White, mimicking the stone in the main house .

Though it may have had humble beginnings, the stable grew in stature through its many incarnations, serving the Newport community well…from a school associated with the Newport Art Museum, to an early home for the Rhode Island Shakespeare acting company as well as the Swanhurst Chorus, and finally a private residence. This small building’s interior was once just a stage with seating area. It took on its present appearance in 1989, when architect Maximilian Ferro transformed the structure into a home with new living spaces and a two story addition (coincidentally, the builder, Peter Kent, had just finished this work when he began our home, Parterre).

For a couple who had met while singing with the distinguished New York-based Blue Hill Troupe, the decision to purchase a Newport get-away in 2013 could not have come at a better time. Proudly wearing the moniker that it has earned over the years, the Swanhurst Theater continues now as a fanciful setting for the musicales, piano concerts, Christmas caroling and chamber ensembles that the couple graciously share with friends. Excellent acoustics are assured by the living room’s vaulted, coffered ceiling (accented with gold-leaf flowerets). A Steinway “living room grand piano” rests in a corner, testament to the musical events that take place here.

On the walls are framed copies of architect and designer, Byron Bell’s drawings for the sets of every Gilbert and Sullivan fully staged production performed by the Blue Hill Troupe from 1979 to 2005.

The minstrels’ gallery, and massive fireplace, were the former owner’s architectural additions that add their own heft to this dramatic room.

Just off this grand space is the master bedroom, created from what was once the theater’s stage. The lit a’ la Polonaise bed carries on the magical feel of the now grand spaces.

The entire new west wing contains the library, kitchen, breakfast area and an extravagant dining room…plus the 2nd floor — that assure the comfort and livability of a home that can also entertain 40 guests for a range of musical events.

At the end of a wide and airy hallway in this wing, the hexagonal dining room is an elegant complement to the grand living room. Again, a ceiling takes center stage — this one domed and accented with gold relief plaster stars.

Punctuated by Palladian windows on three sides, this “pavilion” feeling is enhanced by views of the garden terrace and courtyard on one side and the pool on the other.

So much about the Swanhurst Theater experience is a meant-to-be-moment enjoyed not just by the owners but very especially by their wide circle of friends. Promisingly, it seems assured that musical theater will always be at the heart of this former stable. Even now, my friend is dreaming about next year’s possibilities…a cappella singing group, a semi-staged Gilbert and Sullivan concert with a mix of professionals and amateurs, Broadway sets performed by emerging young singers…all designed to showcase the depth and variety of the world of music in an intimate, private setting.

Flowers are in place, guests have enjoyed their tasty cocktail buffet and lights are dimmed…cue the musicians and let the show begin!  

Thank you, Karen and Stuart…

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

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