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Joseph Wharton House (Marbella, Horsehead)

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Marbella, Horsehead
1882–1884, attributed to C. L. Bevins (J. D. Johnston, builder). 240 Highland Dr.

William Trost Richards's Philadelphia friend, Joseph Wharton, a wealthy Quaker industrialist, was also among the first to be drawn to Ocean Highlands. He had Newport roots and had summered with cousins in the Robinson House in the city's Point area, but loved boating and exploring for marine specimens along Conanicut Island. He purchased Southwest Point, the climactic promontory of the area, and named his house after a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean at the Spanish town of Marbella (beautiful seas). Its subsequent designation refers to an unusually shaped rock in Mackerel Cove. From a car on Highland Drive, one sees only the overbearing gate with two entrances (originally one in, the other out), with a wall connecting the two, which is topped by arching intended perhaps to confer a Mediterranean flavor. The house itself, however, is a conspicuous landmark from various points along the south shore of Jamestown and across the East Channel from Newport.

A high-roofed, shingled second story rises from a first story in random dressed masonry. Its predominant feature, especially from afar, is a bloated circular tower toward the East Channel which culminates in a circle of windows under a bonnet roof. Facing the sea is a stonegabled frontispiece with paired arches on rustic monolithic columns making a porch beneath second-story windows. These are also paired, and windows in the attic gable paired again. It is a sophisticated example of the most basic and inherently the most vertical of all symmetrical arrangements. It gives the front a confrontational verticality in relation to the ocean reminiscent (formally if not inspirationally) of Beavertail's pylon. This verticality up the center of the spread stone gable also stabilizes the contrast between the opposed shapes on either side of it: the swelling roundness of the viewing tower on the east elevation set against the angularity of an octagonal turret on the west embedded into the larger gables from which it protrudes into a pointed, faceted cap. More utilitarian in appearance than the tower, it drops off the side of the ledge on which the main portion of the house sits, providing an additional two floors below the level of the rest, with a porch on the uppermost of the two overlooking a former tennis court. Its bonnet and tapering sides suggest a windmill. Swollen dormers and tall, fluted brick chimneys, with windows varied in placement and rhythm, complete the composition. Finally, a separate L-shaped carriage house, also in shingle and stone, extends the in-line quality of the elongated house. The quirky audacity yet bold simplicity of the compositional elements and their tense combination suggest as architect the shadowy Bevins.

The interior is sparsely adorned with little other than vacation furniture accumulated over generations, a far cry from the palatial interiors of Newport. Horsehead has remained in the Wharton family to the present and is among Rhode Island's finest extant shingle houses on one of the state's most spectacular sites. In both panoramic site and architectural quality it ranks with McKim, Mead and White's better-known Low House in Bristol, which is, unhappily, gone.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


What's Nearby


William H. Jordy et al., "Joseph Wharton House (Marbella, Horsehead)", [Jamestown, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 596-596.

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