There are few things that get me in the Christmas spirit like an old historic building or city block decked out in its holiday fanciest. There’s just something about the twinkling lights at dusk and miles of pine roping neatly adorning some fabulous architecture that ignites the sentimental holiday sap in me — which is exactly why I found this year’s Newport Victorian Christmas Tour, and in particular the General James Taylor Mansion, so utterly charming.
It is rare that an outsider gets access to this beautiful building since it is privately owned. The Taylor Mansion, also known as the Bellevue, is not only masterfully executed and lovingly restored (most recently in 2005), but every square inch of the massive home is steeped in history. Which leads to a disclaimer — just about every quote, fact and/or tidbit included in this piece likely came directly from Russ Thomas, historian and a manager with the Gerner & Kearns law firm (the owners and occupants of the building), who is a living, breathing history textbook.
Gen. James Taylor first built the Bellevue as a log home in the 1790s. That structure was replaced by a Federal Style home designed by Benjamin Latrobe in 1815, which was in turn completely redecorated in the Greek Revival style after a disastrous 1842 fire, allegedly started by a slave. The final and most extensive structural remodeling took place in 1889 and resulted in the removal and relocation of the side wings — which, now on the northern side of the building, were updated in the Victorian-era Queen Anne style — and the rearrangement of the building’s fašade from the northern to the southern plane of the home.
Starting with the legacy of the Bellevue’s founder, whom Thomas fondly refers to as the Forrest Gump of the Revolutionary Era (in that Gen. Taylor was present at many well-known historical events and was an acquaintance with just about every “big name” of the day), the home itself oozes history out of every pore. The entryway is impressive, but even more so when viewed from the original, southern-facing side of the central hall.
From this vantage point, the guest is exposed to an encompassing view of the magnificent spiraling cherry and mahogany staircase, as well as the original 1870s Cornelius and Baker “gasolier” (chandelier illuminated with gas lights). Ceilings throughout the home are still adorned with the original decorative plaster works. The circular molding at the top of the staircase is especially noteworthy, because this feature helped identify the home as a Latrobe.
The second floor houses many interesting pieces, such as a painting executed on woven spider webs and framed in stained glass, divine painted glass pocket doors and built-in cherry cabinets in the hallway leading to the Victorianera service wing. Since the pair of cabinets were rare when they were created in the 1840s, they’re naturally even rarer today. The unfinished attic is rustic and enchanting, displaying the simple charm of folk art at its finest. This floor actually served as a speakeasy during the 1920s, just part of its lengthy history as a funeral home.
While the home is stunning, what make it truly captivating are the tiniest details (such as the intricately carved Victorian door hinges) and associated legends and lore (like a tunnel that supposedly led to the river — incidentally, Thomas theorizes that this “tunnel” was actually a sunken walkway which served to discreetly remove waste from the building).
This brief summation hardly does justice to the Bellevue’s beauty and historical significance, but since the owners would like to remain part of the Victorian Christmas tour indefinitely, the curious can thankfully experience this holiday treat for themselves next year.
The JAMES TAYLOR MANSION is located at 335 E. Third St., Newport.