Home to the Museum since 1916, the John N.A. Griswold House is a National Historic Landmark and an Official Project of Save America’s Treasures. Designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, it was completed in 1864 for John N.A. Griswold and his wife Jane Emmet Griswold. The Griswold House was Hunt’s first major commission in Newport and is the premier example of Modern Gothic or American “Stick-Style” architecture.
Richard Morris Hunt and the Creation of the Griswold House
Griswold House architect Richard Morris Hunt, a Vermont native, was the first American to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After his return to the United States in 1855, Hunt was quickly assimilated into the New York world of arts and culture and began to receive architectural commissions. Hunt met his bride, Catharine Clinton Howland, in Newport, and while traveling in Europe on their honeymoon in 1861, they stayed with John and Jane Emmet Griswold, also recently married. Griswold had inherited his father’s China Trade business and was on his way to a career as a real estate entrepreuner and railroad magnate. During this visit Hunt agreed to design a Newport residence for the Griswolds, and drew original sketches for what would eventually become the Griswold House, the architect’s first full commission on Aquidneck Island.
“The style is quite peculiar but attractive,” an article in the Providence Journal noted. With a steeply pitched roof, clipped gables and half-timbering, the design was inspired in part by Swiss chalets and rustic medieval structures that Hunt had seen in Europe. Unlike those buildings, the half-timber details on the Griswold House were merely decorative and not structural. The style, Modern Gothic, for which the Griswold House was a premier example, would become popularly known as “Stick-Style.” Hunt followed with similar cottages for actress Charlotte Cushman (1870), Boston literary figure Thomas Gold Appleton (1870-71) and the grand Linden Gate (1871-1873), for philanthropist Henry G. Marquand. None of these cottages still exist.
The Griswold’s Occupancy
The Griswolds moved into their new home in May 1864. John Griswold became involved in many local business ventures and purchased property throughout Newport, while his wife threw lavish parties and entertained. A frequent guest at these social gatherings was artist Jane Stuart, daughter of the renowned portrait painter Gilbert Stuart, who had been a longtime Emmet family friend. Paintings by both Stuarts can be seen today in the Griswold House galleries.
The Griswolds had five children: Minnie Emmet, Florence Temple, John Noble, George (nee Addis McEvers) and Richard Alsop, who died in infancy. John and George died childless in their thirties. Both daughters lived to adulthood, married and had children. A portrait of Minnie Griswold Forbes by cousin Lydia Field Emmet is on view in the Griswold House. Sometime in the 1890s the Griswolds separated. Jane Griswold stayed in New York and owned a cottage at the art colony of Onteora Park in the Catskills. John Griswold lived out the rest of his days in Newport. They died within months of each other in 1909. Griswold’s will bequeathed $125,000 to each daughter and the remainder, estimated to be several million dollars, to a trust with New York Life Insurance and Trust Company. The trustees of the John N. A. Griswold estate took hold of the property to put it on the market.
Home of the Art Association of Newport
Founded in 1912, the Art Association of Newport (AAN) was a group of community-minded artists and intellectuals who came together for “the cultivation of artistic endeavor and interest amongst the citizens of Newport.” In 1915, AAN adopted a new charter, which included the establishment of a public art museum. Looking for a space large enough to meet their needs, the group purchased the Griswold House in late December of 1915 for $40,000. In the spring of 1916 the first floor became galleries and offices and second floor bedrooms became studio space for art classes.
Renovations and Restorations
The AAN quickly made alterations to the property to accommodate its needs. Although many changes were made, two of the biggest involved an outbuilding and an upstairs bedroom. The stable, designed to match the house, was moved from the northeast corner of the lot and attached to the rear of the building to create additional exhibition and lecture space, now the Museum’s Ilgenfritz Gallery. Another major change came on the second floor, which the Association intended to use as classroom space for their art classes. The ceiling/floor between one of the second floor bedrooms and the room above was removed to create a two story room. A large window was added here on the north wall so the painting classes could take advantage of the north light. Today this room is the Museum’s Studio Gallery, named for its history as a painting studio. The AAN also added a new building to the original Griswold House grounds. The Cushing Memorial Gallery, completed in 1920, was built as additional gallery space and a memorial to Howard Gardiner Cushing, an early member and talented artist who had died in 1916.
By the late 1990s the Griswold House was in need of repairs and the organization (now officially the Newport Art Museum) undertook a massive restoration effort both inside and out. Third floor servant’s quarters were restored and made into office space, former classrooms (art classes were moved to a new building in 1998) were repaired and repurposed as additional galleries, and several period rooms were restored to their former splendor. The exterior renovations included the re-tiling of the slate roof, repair and replacement of rotted wood and a fresh coat of paint, in historically accurate colors. The house was also brought up to code with the installation of its first elevator and new handicap accessible restrooms. In 2012, storm windows were added and the porte-cochère enclosed to create a more climate controlled environment for the preservation of the artwork and the building.
The Griswold House was Richard Morris Hunt’s first full commission in Newport. He would go on to design over 40 buildings and public monuments in this city alone, including the Travers Block (1870 – 1871), Ochre Court (1888-1892), Marble House (1888-1892) and The Breakers (1895). Despite the popularity of his later work, it was the success of Hunt’s wooden “Stick Style” cottages and the Griswold House in particular that brought Hunt critical success. Sited by Vincent Scully Jr. as the first example of the mature “Stick Style,” the Griswold House is celebrated for its significance in American architectural history.
In 2014 we celebrated the Griswold House’s sesquicentennial year with a summer exhibition “Very Simple Charm”: The Early Life and Work of Richard Morris Hunt in Newport, 1858 – 1878. The show featured fourteen of Hunt’s original drawings of the Griswold House on loan from the Library of Congress and photographs of other early Hunt designed Newport residences. Artwork by Hunt’s brother William Morris Hunt and friend John La Farge was also included, along with related objects on loan from the Preservation Society of Newport County. A series of lectures, gallery talks, and a catalogue accompanied the exhibition and addressed topics ranging from Hunt’s designs to his artistic and social connections in Newport.