Home Rhode Island Hunter House, A Colonial Treasure Amid Newport’s Gilded Age Mansions

Hunter House, A Colonial Treasure Amid Newport’s Gilded Age Mansions

But if you're not into Early American furniture, go to The Breakers instead

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Perhaps no dwelling illustrates Newport’s tumultuous past better than the Hunter House. Built during prosperous times, it suffered through two military occupations, economic decline and then returned to its former glory when preservationists got hold of it.

Today it’s a house museum filled with local arts and crafts as well as luxuries imported during Newport’s golden age.

Hunter House

People sometimes call it the Nichols-Wanton-Hunter House after the key people who lived in it. Jonathan Nicholls, Jr., deputy royal governor, built the house in 1748 on the working waterfront. He chose the Georgian style then coming into fashion.  Nichols died five years later, and another deputy governor, Joseph Wanton, Jr., bought it and expanded it.

Wanton remained loyal to the king, an unpopular position in colonial Rhode Island. Patriots placed him under house arrest on his farm in Jamestown. But Wanton got the last laugh, for a while, at least. British forces seized Newport, and Joseph Wanton went back home. He spent the next few years wining and dining British officers. Three of them married his daughters. But then the British left Newport and Wanton fled. The French Navy then arrived and used Wanton’s house for its headquarters.

Joseph Wanton

After the American Revolution, William Hunter bought the house in 1805. He won election to the U.S. Senate and then an appointment as U.S. ambassador to Brazil. But his grand old house sat amidst a city in decline.

Before the British arrived, Newport ranked as one of the most prosperous ports in the colonies. But the three winters the British spent on Rhode Island were extremely cold. The British denuded Aquidneck Island and chopped down some houses for firewood as well. Newport never regained its pre-Revolutionary prosperity.

When Hunter died in 1849, his wife couldn’t keep up the house without taking in boarders. It then became a convalescent home, then a convent. By 1945, the house was on the verge of demolition. The Preservation Society of Newport County formed to save it. The group now has 11 properties under its stewardship, including The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House.

The Point Neighborhood

The Narragansett people had a summer settlement on Newport until European settlers came and turned it into a thriving seaport. Newport shipping merchants got rich and the town was one of the most prosperous in the colonies.

Nichols built his house right on the waterfront, now a historic neighborhood called The Point. Newport’s artisans, like cabinetmakers Goddard and Townsend and clockmaker William Claggett, set up shop in The Point neighborhood near their wealthy customers.

The Goddard house in Newport’s The Point neighborhood.

Today the Point has one of the densest concentrations of colonial buildings in the United States. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Doris Duke’s Newport Restoration Foundation bought 27 historic buildings in The Point, restored them and rented them out.

Newport has plenty of restaurants, but if you came for colonial history, you can get it at the White Horse Tavern. Proprietors have served adult beverages there since 1683.

No Gilded Age Mansion

By colonial standards, Hunter House is a large, 2-1/2 story mansion. By Gilded Age standards, not so much. It doesn’t have the wow factor of The Breakers or Marble House. If that’s what you’re looking for, don’t bother to go. But if words like “Hepplewhite,” “Chippendale” and “Georgian balustrade” make you salivate, you’ll love Hunter House.

Click here for a virtual tour.

The old keeping room serves as an orientation gallery, including replicas of documents that record the enslavement of people who lived in the house.

Throughout the house, the surviving carved moldings have been restored. The Hunter House has some original furnishings and artifacts, but most represent the era in which those first wealthy inhabitants lived.

Five Things You’ll Remember About Hunter House

Exquisite Furniture

The house features pewter made by famed local artisans Benjamin Day and the Melville family, a clock by famed local clockmaker William Claggett and silver by famed local silversmith Samuel Vernon. In the rooms, you’ll find a triple-top gaming table, Chippendale marble topped console table and a mahogany highboy  by Goddard and Townsend.

Image courtesy Library of Congress.

From a later period, the house has a Federal-style table made by famed local artisan Holmes Weaver.

Dr. Hunter’s Spaniels

Gilbert Stuart moved with his family to Newport as a young boy, and his artistic talent soon emerged. A visiting Scottish painter, Cosmo Alexander, tutored him. At 14 he painted Dr. Hunter’s Spaniels, which now hangs in the Hunter House. The house also has paintings by Alexander and Samuel King, as well as a portrait of le Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French expeditionary force.

Dr. Hunter’s Spaniels, by Gilbert Stuart, supposedly when he was 14.

Amazing Location

Try to visit on a nice day so you can enjoy the spectacular view of the waterfront and Goat Island in the distance.  The back yard (formerly the front) stretched down to the docks, where ships brought cargo, including human beings. Joseph Wanton sold kidnapped Africans as slaves right on the property.

The Hunter House from the back (it used to be the front).

Garden

The Preservation Society has planted a Colonial Revival garden in the back yard for visitors to enjoy. Don’t miss the sundial.

Maps

Along the walls of the second floor hallway hang framed old maps of 18th-century Newport, including troop positions during the military occupations of the town.

Climb these stairs to see the maps. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

If you visit…

Call to check the times for guided tours and arrive early. The house is small (at least compared to Newport’s Gilded Age mansions) and can accommodate limited numbers of people at a time. The guided tour lasts an hour.

Admission to the Hunter House is included in the Newport Mansion Membership of the Preservation Society of Newport County. But it is not included in the Society’s five-house pass.

Park on the street. You can pay for parking at the visitors center a few blocks away.

Tours by the hour, but check. No gift shop.


Images: Hunter House By Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4031852; Hunter House from the water, Swampyank at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5878327. Goddard House By The original uploader was Swampyank at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper., By The original uploader was Swampyank at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5872189 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5872189.

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