Stanford White Casino Theatre, An Architectural Treasure


The celebrated Casino theatre was created by architect Stanford White as part of the Newport Casino complex designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1879-81 and formally opened in 1880.  This unique recreational complex,

incorporating sports facilities, reception areas, restaurants, shops, and a museum, was considered the first resort country club in America.  It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987.  The theatre, situated at the rear of the compound, is connected to another of the original shingle-style buildings by a piazza.  The natural dark-brown shingled exterior is repeated throughout the Casino landscape, as are the lattice-patterned enclosed porches.

The beautifully proportioned theatre interior was admired for its excellent acoustics. The space, measuring 80 x 100 feet, had handsome parquet floors,  500 removable seats, a 25-foot square stage,  and was exquisitely adorned in plaster and gilt.  The finely detailed decorations of shells, woven wickerwork and lattice patterns in

gold leaf on the ivory walls and upper boxes are all original. The boxes sit under elegant arches that rest on pillars rising around the perimeter under a sky-blue ceiling dotted with gold stars.  Attached to the auditorium were dressing rooms and a small kitchen.   As described in The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island, by Antoinette Downing and Vincent Scully of  Yale University, “A shallow balcony at the rear holds 3 additional rows and the graceful, arched boxes adorning either side of the upper level contain about 10 moveable chairs each.  Beneath these side boxes are shallow rooms flanking the auditorium, the further side devoted to storage, the North side housing the entrance lobby, powder rooms, ticket office and stairs to the upper porch.”  Double doors at the entrance open onto the piazza and a view of the entire Casino complex.


The theatre thrived throughout the Gilded Age, but has suffered from neglect and lack of funds since then.  It was closed much of the time between 1904 and 1927.  In the 1920s, needing repairs, some renovations were undertaken, including the addition of 350 fixed seats, an enlarged stage, and dressing rooms.  The newly remodeled theatre, with deep blue curtains and carpets, opened in 1927, and the theatre enjoyed what became known as its Golden Years, but they waned again seven years later with the Great Depression, and the start of World War II forced the closing of the theatre.


Desperate for funds, in 1941 the Casino Board of Governors sold the theatre, and it was brought back to life with productions from both Hollywood and Broadway. The theatre changed hands again in the 1950s, eventually − and fortunately− ending up with James Van Alen, National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame President, who turned it back to the Newport Casino in 1963.  The exterior was renovated in 1978; later grants helped restore the auditorium.  Productions were held on and off during this period, but, in the interest of public safety, the theatre closed in 1987.  And so it remains.


The Stanford White Casino Theatre, one of only three of the architect’s extant theatres, is among the most important shingle-style buildings in America and without immediate attention is in danger of being lost.  Architecturally it is unique and its condition is intact, still with its original interior paint.  The entire Newport Casino complex has been likened in architectural significance to Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

 

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