I was invited by Arthur Mark, chairman of the Bill Warner Bridge Coalition, to a “meeting” in Newport of the U.S. affiliate of the Royal Society of the Arts, an organization based in London. Arthur is a Fellow, and so was our host, Ronald Lee Fleming FRSA. We met at his house, known as Bellevue House, at 304 Bellevue Avenue, had lunch, listened to the new director of the Redwood Library, Benedict Leca, talk about the future of libraries, and then took a tour from our host of his grounds.
The house was designed by Ogden Codman Jr. and completed in 1910. It is not Marble House or The Breakers and, so far as I know, may not qualify as a “cottage,” a term of arch modesty favored by the wealthy families of the Gilded Age. It surely qualifies as a mansion by anyone’s reckoning. But while the mansion is impressive enough, what turned the head of your journalistic classicist – who visited Bellevue House a few years ago on a tour hosted by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art – was the grounds and their profusion of follies.
In architectural terms, a folly is a piece of garden architecture without any more utility than to set off the beauty of nature – already well tweaked by landscape architecture – with that of art. Britain’s greatest parks (private estates) have only one or two follies; here there are follies around every green corner – enough to create an elegant village, and each turned by Fleming to a use above and beyond its noble uselessness.
I took a few pictures of the house but mostly of its grounds, where I found here and there statues of monkeys, for which animal-lover Ron Fleming has considerable affection.
The final image depicts the design, being carried out for Fleming by J.P. Couture, of a personal library to be placed on the grounds at the end of a canal and bridge called “The Year of Living Dangerously.” The only danger I perceive on these grounds is the danger of never being able to bring oneself to leave. It may be hoped that Ron Fleming’s sense of placemaking, about which he has written extensively, will indeed leave here, however, and be communicated through the Royal Society of the Arts and Newport’s Redwood Library to the four corners of the world.