Sunday, September 27th, 2009
These days when you hear about a historic property getting renovated, it’s all too often turned into lofts or condos or retail space, so I was delighted to hear that the Newport Casino Theatre, designed by architect of the rich and famous and scandalous crime-of-passion victim Stanford White, is being renovated for use as an actual theater.
Built in 1880 as part of the Newport Casino complex, now a National Historic Landmark, the theater belongs to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It was tennis that rescued the Casino complex from decrepitude and almost certain demolition in 1954, and in 1963, James van Alen donated the theater to the Tennis Hall of Fame so the complex was unified again.
The complex is widely considered one of the best examples of Victorian Shingle Style architecture extant. Everything except for the theater was extensively renovated in 1997, and now it’s the theater’s turn.
It’s the first theater Stanford White designed, and the only one left standing, so even as it closed its doors in 1987 due to structural damage it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
A visual masterpiece, the Casino Theatre served as both a 500-capacity removable seat theatre and as a ballroom for dances. The interior was gold-trimmed ivory with a sky blue ceiling, decorated with golden stars. It was the scene of many artistic performances, both amateur and professional. Dances, recitals, poetic readings, shows and ballets were held for the adults, while children were entertained by vaudeville acts and magical mystifications.
Some of the most famous artists of their eras trod those boards, Basil Rathbone, Oscar Wilde, Charlton Heston, Helen Hayes and Will Rogers among them.
The theater closed its doors in 1987 and has been vacant ever since. Although its facade and structure have suffered some damage, it is still sound and the acoustics are said to be excellent. The original cosmetic features are still in place if in need of a face lift or two.
The building, which will seat roughly 300 people, maintains its original touches, from grand curtains and an orchestra pit beneath the stage to green-fabric chairs with spaces below for men to stow their top hats.
A walk along the theater balcony reveals gold-inflected woven wickerwork on the ivory walls and intricate renderings of scallop shells and flames.
The paint is peeling and some of the chairs may have to be removed. Air conditioning and heating units will have to be added, plus stuff like wider aisles and ramps to bring the building into compliance with modern laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Once it’s done, perhaps as soon as next summer, nearby Salve Regina University will get to use it as its school theater. The Tennis Hall of Fame and local organizations like the Newport International Film Festival will also use the space for a variety of functions.