Wonders Come in Small Packages: An Overview of Kingscote
(First posted on Victoria Magazine's Victoria Vignettes blog, 9/24/20)
Kingscote, on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, RI, was built in 1838 for southern planter George Noble Jones. At that time, Newport, once a prosperous and bustling colonial city, had become a resort town for wealthy southerners escaping the summer heat of their home states. All that ended with the Civil War, and in the following years Kingscote was sold to William Henry King, who made his fortune in the China export business. At the time of Murder at Kingscote, 1899, Mrs. Ella Rives King, a widow and William’s niece by marriage, lived there with her two adult children, and eventually bought the house outright from the other heirs.
Kingscote was one of the first mansions built on Bellevue Avenue, long before the Gilded Age swept through the city with its conspicuous consumption and social competition. As a result, this house cannot compete, size-wise, with the likes of The Breakers, Elms, Marble House, or Ochre Court. Those mansions were designed with Italian palazzos, Greek temples, and French chateaux in mind. Kingscote’s interior is cozy rather than cavernous, its furnishings tasteful and subdued, at least in comparison to the ostentation favored by many of society’s Four Hundred.
Designed in the Gothic Revival style that followed the Federal period, Kingscote could be described as part castle and part gingerbread cottage with its gabled peaks, turrets, diamond-paned windows, and touches of fleur-de-lis and crenelated trim. Though not on the ocean side of Bellevue Avenue and lacking water views, the house would have enjoyed a pastural setting quite in keeping with its storybook aspect. It would only be in the latter decades of the 1800s that the area around Kingscote would become built up, with newer houses and the Newport Casino—with its shops and restaurants—built close by.
But Kingscote’s true treasures lie within, especially in the dining room, added in 1880 by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, who famously designed so many Gilded Age masterpieces. While most of the rest of the house can be termed distinctly Victorian with Gothic elements, the dining room offers a mingling of styles that include a built-in American Colonial sideboard, a Japanese-inspired cork ceiling, and Elizabethan coffered paneling, all enhanced by touches of Italian, Moorish, and Aesthetic design. Natural light is also an important design feature in the room, with sunlight pouring in through windows made of tiny colorful, opalescent glass tiles fashioned by Louis Tiffany. The result of this blending of styles and light is both enchanting and welcoming.
Kingscote would continue to be the private home of the King family until 1972, when the last descendant turned the house over to the Preservation Society of Newport County. By that time, its next door neighbor, Stone Villa, home of James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, had been demolished, and a shopping center put in its place.
I toured Kingscote several years ago, and returned in August of 2019, happy to record last minute details to be included in Murder at Kingscote. Seeing these gems of the Gilded Age never grows old, and this house continues to welcome, enchant, and delight countless visitors each year with its intimate look at a particular way of life, the family who lived there, and the craftsmanship and artistry that make each of Newport’s Gilded Age houses an American treasure.