Archi-TEXT: Newport Casino – An Architectural Monument to Tennis

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Newport is notable for many things including its sporting traditions, its architecture and its storied history. At the annual professional tournament at the International Tennis Hall of Fame beginning this next week all three of those will be on prominent display as the eyes of the world are upon Newport, particularly during the televised induction of the new Hall of Fame class.

 

The Dell Technologies Hall of Fame Tournament will be held on the complex of the Newport Casino, one of the most widely recognizable buildings in the city. Hosting a notable draw of outstanding players from around the world, the tournament will begin July 15 and is scheduled to end the following Sunday on July 22. The induction ceremony will be held July 21.

 

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The Newport Casino is really a complex of buildings which are acknowledged masterpieces of the “Shingle Style,” which is a design style that evolved during the 1880’s. Designed by the firm of McKim Mead and White, the Newport Casino structures share many stylistic details with the Isaac Bell House and many other projects that the firm designed during the same era. These shared features include intricately cut cedar shingles, rounded towers, encircling covered porches and a loose asymmetric arrangement of masses made to suit each building program and site. In 1987 the Newport Casino complex was designated a National Historic Landmark, which is the highest designation that an individual building can receive in terms of importance and recognition.

Photo Credit: Ross Cann, AIA

 

This Casino is located on Bellevue Avenue and was commissioned in 1879 by James Gordon Bennett, who owned an estate across the street on the site where the Bellevue Gardens complex now stands. He reportedly founded the club after being chastised by fellow members of the Newport Reading Room (an exclusive Newport Club) for encouraging his polo instructor to ride his horse into the clubhouse on a bet. When the fellow members took exception he set out to create a different sort of club where he could “have a bit of fun.” Construction began in January of 1880 and, amazingly, the doors were opened to the public in July of that year. Just three days after the opening, the Newport Daily News trumpeted, “It is doubtful if a more lively place can be found!”

 

Bennett chose the firm of McKim Mead and White to do the design. This firm would later become the most prolific and famous of the Gilded Era but in 1879 they had just hired Stanford White as a new junior design partner and the Casino project would be their very first as a partnership of these three individuals. Although Charles Follen McKim and his partner, William Rutherford Mead, had enjoyed some modest success with another partner, William Bigelow, it was after Bigelow was replaced with the flamboyant but extremely talented Stanford White that the partnership truly thrived and became one of the most predominant American design firm of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

 

The Casino (meaning “little house” and not “place of gambling” in those days) represented a new sort of leisure facility with dining, sporting and other facilities under one roof—what would later become known as the “country club.” This magnificent facility is more or less intact thanks to the vision (and generosity) of summer Newporters James and Candace Van Alen, who saved the complex from becoming a strip shopping center in 1954 by inventing a new use for the facility—the Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame.  In 1973, induction into the facility was widened to include international players and in 1976 it was declared to be the “International Tennis Hall of Fame” by the Association of Tennis Professionals.

Photo Credit: Ross Cann, AIA

 

The Newport Casino hosted the first men’s United States National Lawn Tennis Association tournament in 1881, where it remained for 44 years. In 1915 that tournament was moved to Forest Hills, NY, and then to Flushing Meadows, NY in 1978, where it became known as the “US Open” once professional players were allowed to participate. In addition to being the original site for the US Championship, the legendary courts at Newport have hosted two Davis Cup tournaments and numerous professional tennis events, including the annual Hall of Fame Tennis Championships for the Van Alen Cup, which is the only ATP tennis tournament in the United States to still be played on grass. This tournament has seen increased participation by many of the top players in recent years and has become the place to see players like Andy Murray, James Blake, and the Bryan Brothers as they rose to stardom.

 

This year the tournament is to be again sponsored by Dell Technologies and is scheduled to begin with qualifying matches starting on July 15 and ends with the finals on Sunday, July 22nd. Many of the top players in the United States, including John Isner and this year’s Wimbledon phenomenon Mackenzie MacDonald, are scheduled to join other top players from around the world to compete for more than half a million dollars in prize money. The Semi-finals and Hall of Fame induction will be held on Saturday, July 21. This year the recent player inductees are to include Michael Stich from Germany and Helena Sukova of the Czech Republic, both. Past winners of major open championships.

 

This year there will also be a special exhibition or women’s tennis. Sloane Stephens, the reigning US Open Champion, and Madison Keys, a US Open Finalist, will compete in a women’s exhibition match at the International Tennis Hall of Fame on Friday, July 20. This best of three sets match is scheduled to take place on Friday afternoon, following that day’s quarterfinal matches of the men’s ATP World Tour event. While the Newport Casino has a rich history of hosting women’s professional tennis during its 138 year history, the exhibition match will mark the first time that current WTA stars will compete in Newport in more than 25 years.

 

Whether you are coming for the architecture, for the high-quality lawn tennis, for the unmatched collection of tennis memorabilia or to see where tennis was first played more than five hundred years ago, you will not find a better destination to see and learn about the game of tennis than the Newport Casino in Newport, Rhode Island.

Photo Credit: Ross Cann, AIA
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