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Behind the Walls: Uncovering the History of Vernon House

In the Fall of 2020, the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) embarked on a historic structures report (HSR) at the William Vernon House (46 Clarke Street). The process has literally taken NRF behind the walls, and beneath the floorboards, to gain a deeper understanding of the building’s history.

Before the HSR, the history of the Vernon House was largely limited to what could be learned from archival research or gleaned through observations of the house’s extant conditions. Through the combined efforts of techniques such as building archeology, paint analysis, and dendrochronology, a much richer history has been uncovered.

Take the northwest attic room as an example. By carefully removing floorboards, the HSR team uncovered original carpenter’s marks. In Colonial timber-frame construction, each joint is custom cut and these carpenter’s marks, or marriage marks, ensure that the timbers prepared for the house are assembled in the correct locations when brought on site. These marks are seen throughout the Vernon House, but not always intact. In the northwest attic room, however, they are still in numerical order (i.e. I, II, III, etc.), meaning they are in their original location and therefore likely representative of the earliest iteration of the house (c. 1708), before it was expanded to its present size.

Just down the hall, the removal of additional floorboards revealed whitewash and black paint that appears to delineate an earlier staircase. The function of this staircase is still unknown. Could it have served as a passageway for servants or enslaved people from the attic to a lean-to kitchen addition, no longer extant? Or, did it run alongside a chimney that once existed in the center of the house? No matter what conclusion is drawn by the HSR team, the scar of this staircase provides insight into the original floorplan and how the occupants moved within the house.

Traveling downstairs to the second floor, selective removal of wooden baseboards demonstrated that there was once a black mopboard (or, plaster painted black to depict a faux baseboard). This finish is seen throughout the house, even on top of the chinoiserie panels in the northwest parlor on the first floor. This indicates that before the installation of the elaborate millwork seen today, there was a period of time in which the house was finished with much simpler details.

Finally, in the northwest parlor on the first floor, where the famous painted chinoiserie murals are located, untouched mural remnants were found below the windows, behind the window seats. This evidence indicates that the murals were more extensive than what exists today, helping one envision what the room may have looked like in the early-eighteenth century.

These examples provide just a quick glimpse into the discoveries being made at the Vernon House, and the immense value that careful research and investigation bring to preservation and stewardship efforts.

The journey to uncovering Vernon House is just beginning! Click here to learn more about the HSR findings through our latest video series and learn how to get involved.

By Alyssa Lozupone, Director of Preservation at Newport Restoration Foundation

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