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Whitehorne House Museum celebrates the ingenuity, artistry, and significance of cabinetmaking and related arts in 18th-century Newport and connects the historic traditions of making to handcraft practices of today.

The museum’s collection includes some of the best examples of Newport and Rhode Island furniture and decorative arts from the Colonial and Revolutionary War periods. Here you can see work by the renowned Townsend and Goddard families and many others. Newport cabinetmakers created some of the most highly regarded examples of classic American furniture to meet the needs of a merchant class made increasingly wealthy through global trade. Superb craftsmanship, the finest materials, and distinctive, elegant design make Newport furniture highly sought after to this day. The collection is housed in a renovated Federal-style mansion along Newport’s historic Thames Street waterfront.

History

The history of Whitehorne House Museum follows closely the history of the founding and early development of the Newport Restoration Foundation. 

Heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke founded NRF in 1968 to rescue and preserve the earliest architectural heritage of Newport, which was threatened at the time by long-time neglect and various urban renewal efforts. In her lifetime, Duke bought and restored 84 18th- and early 19th-century houses, most of which are still owned today by NRF and leased as private residences to tenant/stewards.

From the earliest days of the organization, Duke also bought and donated to NRF early Newport furniture and related decorative arts, including 18th-century silver, Chinese export ceramics, glass, and paintings. Her purchases were recorded in NRF Annual Meeting minutes alongside reports on house purchases, and by 1972, she had acquired for NRF 87 pieces of furniture of which some 35-40 still comprise the core collection of significant pieces firmly attributable to Newport craftsmen.

In January 1969, NRF bought the 1811 Samuel Whitehorne House at 416 Thames Street, a majestic, if much dilapidated Federal brick mansion.

By the end of the year the director, Francis Comstock, made a note in his day book, “Inspected again the large brick Whitehorne House. . .The rooms are very large, with high ceilings. A possible museum, perhaps?” By 1971, Whitehorne House was referred to in NRF Annual Meeting minutes as “our future museum.” At the time, the furniture was either in storage, kept at Doris Duke’s Rough Point mansion, or on loan to other organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Hunter House (Preservation Society of Newport County).

Doris Duke took a close and special interest in restoring Whitehorne House to serve the needs of NRF’s growing furniture collection. She and Francis Comstock consulted on interior finishes and the interpretive scheme with decorator Leon Amar; members of the NRF Board, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Katherine Warren, and Alletta Morris McBean; furniture and preservation experts, most significantly Joseph Ott and Antoinette Downing; and with staff from related organizations, including SPNEA (now Historic New England), Colonial Williamsburg, and the National Trust.

Whitehorne House Museum opened to the public on August 4, 1974 on an appointment basis and continued to operate under these terms until 1978, when it began to open daily from 10 am to 5 pm.

From the late 1990s it was open seasonally from May through October for five days/week; and in 2015 and 2016 for just three days/week. It is now closed, except for occasional open houses, private appointments, and group tours.

The house itself is one of a handful of Federal period brick mansions to survive in Newport and the only one open to the public. For more on its architectural significance, see the entry for the Samuel Whitehorne House (416 Thames Street) on our Preservation Properties pages.

The garden is a recent addition and represents an interpretation of a Federal period garden for an affluent, urban family.

Doris Duke continued to buy, or attempted to buy, for the collection right up to the end of her life.

In 1989 she was the under bidder for the John Goddard desk and bookcase sold from the Nightingale-Brown House in Providence (now the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University) to support the staggering costs to renovate that historic wood mansion. The desk sold for $12.1M, the highest price ever paid at auction at the time for an object other than a painting. Additions are still made to the collection today through gift, purchase, and long-term loan.

The core collection of some 40 pieces of Newport furniture is well known to curators, scholars, and collectors in the American Decorative Arts field.

Pieces have been included in major loan exhibitions, including John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2005) and Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650-1830 at the Yale University Art Gallery (2016). Individual collection items are included in the Rhode Island Furniture Archive at the Yale University Art Gallery and in Newportal, the consortium online collections database for Newport museums.

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