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Stable Condition

Project: Wetmore Hall, Salve Regina University, Newport, RI

Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects, Albany, NY

Farrar & Associates, Newport, RI

By Eve M. Kahn

Newport, RI, is rife with high-profile preservation success stories, from the reused brick mills downtown to the immaculate Colonial side streets to the mansion museums along the seashore. But quietly, off the main tourist trail, a university has been reactivating two dozen historic buildings in surprising, resourceful ways.

Salve Regina University, a 61-year-old institution founded by a Catholic order, the Sisters of Mercy, owns a 75-acre campus dotted with structures dating back to the 1850s. They range in style from vernacular outbuildings to oft-published Gilded Age icons by the likes of Richard Morris Hunt, H. H. Richardson, Frank Furness and Peabody & Stearns. Drive around the back of some of Newport's best known public attractions, like the Breakers and the Elms, and you'll likely see low-key signs on lawns explaining which Salve department is taking care of some slightly less opulent places.

The school educates 2,600 undergraduates and graduates in two dozen fields, from chemistry to philosophy to holistic counseling. Originally housed at Ochre Court, an 1891 French Flamboyant Gothic pile by Richard Morris Hunt, the university has steadily expanded, mostly by recycling buildings and occasionally by commissioning new ones in deferent Newport styles. In 2000, it debuted a shingled, gambrel-roofed athletic center designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. Across the street, Salve has just finished converting a stables and carriage-house complex into the Antone Academic Center, home for the Fine Art, English, History, Theater and Cultural and Historic Preservation programs. The structures are so solidly engineered – they were meant, after all, to withstand horse hooves – that they easily accommodate students sometimes messily experimenting with paint and clay or hauling in buckets from archaeological digs.

"The buildings have radically improved the way we can teach and research," says Dr. James C. Garman, head of Salve's preservation program, which was previously quartered at McAuley Hall, an ornate 1883 Richardsonian Romanesque mansion by Peabody & Stearns. At the former stables, Garman adds, "we don't have to worry about delicate walls or floors when we're tromping around with artifacts or spreading out student work on drafting tables. The students feel empowered here."

The $7.5 million Antone Center – named for the university's longtime president, Sister M. Therese Antone – has two halves. To the north is Mercy Hall, an 1889 Queen Anne carriage house designed by Richard Morris Hunt; restoration is slated for completion this fall. The building has just been connected to Wetmore Hall, an 1853 stables built for Château-sur-Mer, which shipping magnate William Shepard Wetmore commissioned as Newport's first palatial oceanfront home. Based on designs from Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects, Newport contractor Farrar & Associates has undone decades of benign neglect in the Wetmores' luxurious horse stalls and grooms' bedrooms. "It's become an inspiring place for future preservationists," says James Farrar, head of the construction firm (which also built Stern's gym at Salve and has restored Mercy Hall).

The Wetmores' stables started out as just two bays clad in board-and-batten and sandstone, designed by Seth Bradford, a local architect also responsible for Château-sur-Mer. Richard Morris Hunt greatly expanded the Château in the 1870s, and probably helped Newport architect George Champlin Mason add some 84 linear feet and 14 stalls to the stables. The Wetmores commissioned further additions over the next three decades, including feed-storage rooms and an exercise yard paved in concentric circles of Belgian block. All conveniences inside were sophisticated, and the finishes elegant.

A rooftop windmill powered a ventilation system that funneled hot air, and the attendant risk of fire, away from the hayloft's bales. The roof's drainage system channeled rainwater from an attic cistern into the horse troughs. Feed stored in attic bins could also be dumped directly into the troughs. The rooms were lined in a cheerful palette of yellow and red brick, beaded board and Minton tiles in celadon or terra-cotta red quatrefoil patterns. Cast-iron lions' heads imported from an Irish foundry ornamented the controls for the hopper-style clerestories.

"The grooms and the horses lived very well there," Garman says. "The building was a prime example of how much interest the upper class at the time had in improved agricultural technology. They wanted to keep their servants happy – there would have been a lot of competition in Newport at the time for the best horsemen – while demonstrating how farming should be done."

By the 1930s, however, the family chauffeurs scarcely needed the place, and it was largely abandoned by the time William Wetmore's granddaughter Edith died in 1966 and the estate was auctioned off. The Preservation Society of Newport County bought the Château and opened it to the public, while Salve's facilities and athletics departments took over the stables. The staff partly covered the slate roof in asphalt and added a few dropped ceilings, wallboard partitions and HVAC ducts. The flashing, brick chimneys and wood window sash were kept stable but ailing, while rising damp seeped into the masonry. But overall, Garman says, "The building's bones were very, very solid. Some historic fabric had been covered up, but hardly any was deleted or even painted over." On the interior, he adds, "the original room configurations worked beautifully for us – that was a big advantage, and one reason the project could proceed so swiftly."

Salve moved out its facilities and athletics equipment only four years ago, soon after completing a "campus heritage preservation plan." Partly researched by Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects, and funded by a $202,000 Getty Grant, the study prioritized the university's architecture needs as urgent, necessary and desirable – and many of Wetmore's problems qualified as urgent.

Farrar has rebuilt the unsound chimneys and re-covered the roof in purple slate (from Vermont Structural Slate in Fair Haven, VT). He replicated long-lost cupolas, repaired gabled dormers (while adding three more, to illuminate a graphic arts studio), and edged the complicated roofline with zinc flashing. New copper gutters lie hidden within replicated deep cornices. Farrar was able to save about half the wood windows, and replaced the rest with units from Zuerner Woodworking, Inc., of Middletown, RI. The masonry walls required extensive repointing, as did the Belgian block (Peckham Brothers Co. of Middletown, RI, reset the bluestone pavement).

On the interior, Farrar made one dramatic change: he leveled the stalls' brick floors, which had been pitched to maximize drainage. He patched and re-varnished the beaded board and exposed joists, and repaired some gaps in the Minton tiles – exact matches left over from the Wetmores' original order, fortunately, turned up in the Château's basement.

Offices, labs and classrooms now occupy the high-ceilinged former stables and are tucked into sunny dormered spaces upstairs. A kiln runs in the Wetmores' carpentry shop, and painters' easels are posted around the family hayloft. Farrar, while finishing up Mercy Hall next door, sometimes stops by to observe the academic scene at Wetmore. "We love to see the rooms busy and lively now," he says. "It has a good creative feel, and it's very open to experimentation. There couldn't have been a more fitting reuse for the building." TB

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