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Whitehall (Dean George Berkeley's Farm)

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Dean George Berkeley's Farm
c. 1729. 311 Berkeley Ave. (open to the public)
  • Whitehall (Dean George Berkeley's Farm)

George Berkeley, then Dean of Derry in Ireland, later Bishop of Coyne, philosopher, poet, and philanthropist, traveled to North America in 1729 to establish a college in Bermuda. His ship was blown so far off its course that it landed in Newport. He liked Newport sufficiently to settle with his wife in the rural quiet of its farmlands while waiting for funding for his project. He determined to use the time to advantage by revamping an old farmhouse into a new one—calling it Whitehall in remembrance of the royal palace in London—with the idea that it might eventually supply his college with food. More immediately, he also used the time and the secluded spot for reflection. Here he wrote, among other things, a portion of Alciphron, or, the Minute Philosopher, a defense of the Christian religion against Deist free thinkers, which also criticized certain English customs by imagining their observance in the arcadian innocence of Rhode Island. Reportedly, he often meditated on Hanging Rock, giving it its alternate name of Berkeley's Seat. His life had its gregarious aspects, too. During his sojourn there, Whitehall became a center for intellectual life in Newport and inspired the founding of Redwood Library.

Berkeley's adaptation aggrandized an existing farmhouse into a two-story, five-bay, central-chimney house with a lean-to behind. Although its overall character was vernacular, several characteristics gave it a lordly air: its roof, hipped instead of the commonplace gable; modillions at the eaves; and, most conspicuous, its broad, two-leaved door enframed by Ionic pilasters and pediment—more suitable as the entrance to a public building than to a farmhouse. When it became clear that funding for his college was unavailable, Berkeley returned to England, leaving his 96-acre farm and its library to Yale College. It was renamed Vaux Hall in 1769, served for a while as an inn, then gradually fell into disrepair. It was in this ruined state that Charles McKim discovered it in the 1870s. Then a young architect working in Newport, he was a newly converted enthusiast of the revival of colonial architecture and an editor of a short-lived architecture magazine, The New-York Sketch-Book of Architecture. He published a photograph of the building in its dilapidated state in the December 1874 issue of the Sketch-Book, a view from the rear which focused on the slide toward the ground of the warped lean-to roof as something almost more topological than architectural. It was the first photograph of any subject ever published in an American architectural journal. At this evidence of the deteriorated state of Whitehall's fortunes, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America came to the rescue by restoring the house in 1899, under a 999-year lease of the property from Yale. It was restored again in 1936 by Norman Isham, and yet again in 1966–1968. After its deterioration and triple restoration, it is hardly surprising that much of the interior is conjectural.

As for Berkeley's vista, it remained until the mid-1980s, when Whitehall Farm, a cluster development, was built between Whitehall and Hanging Rock. If a multitude of clapboard gables and dormers of varied size and disposition can make a “village” of mass housing, this is the evidence.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Whitehall (Dean George Berkeley's Farm)", [Middletown, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-MI3.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 509-510.

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