Last Thursday, Newport’s famous Bellevue Avenue lost its Stoner Lodge, across from Château-sur-Mer, to a fire probably caused by an accident resulting from its ongoing extensive renovation. The lodge was sold by the daughter of socialite Noreen Drexel in 2012. The original house, known as Mayfield Cottage and completed in 1880, was destroyed by fire a century ago. After the 1916 conflagration, Lord and Lady Camoys, Ralph Stonor and Mildred Sherman bought the ruins then “built a completely new home on the spot,” according to one account.
Mark Reynolds reports in the Providence Journal that according to historian Tyler Hughes, Jacqueline Bouvier, contemplating on Sept. 11, 1953, her marriage the next day to John F. Kennedy, visited the Stonor Lodge, owned by Bouvier family friends from Philadelphia, to chill before her wedding: “Hughes [said] that the owner of the lodge, Noreen Drexel, recalled that the future First Lady had felt overwhelmed and so she had grabbed her favorite book, driven down Bellevue Avenue, and rung the doorbell at the lodge.”
Mrs. Drexel recalled to Hughes that Jackie said, “Oh Mrs. Drexel! Could I please stay here for the day? I just need to get away – I won’t bother you! I brought a book!,” Jackie is said to have sat on a sofa in the sunroom of the lodge and read for hours. I wonder whether the title of her book is known.
Unlike the one a century ago, Thursday’s fire left no salvageable rooms. In photographs of the fire you can see through the walls, as if its plaster’s removal had completely exposed its structure, which the owner of the construction company doing the work confirmed. Early speculation suggests that space heaters might have sparked the blaze.
It seems likely, to me at least, that renovating an historic building poses more risk of fire than restoring it. More things can go wrong when you are making more changes, and the workers are less likely to be experts at how to avoid the most common hazards.
I posed the question to Jean Dunbar, a leading preservation practitioner and scholar, who replied, with some reluctance, that the evidence suggests that renovation and restoration were just as dangerous.
As a specialist in recreating historic interiors, I’d like to think that restoration causes fewer fires, but I fear that isn’t so. Since it’s difficult to define just what is renovation and what is restoration, I can’t point to statistics—just cases. Restoration at the historic Philadelphia Waterworks resulted in fire, so did the work at Central Synagogue, and many otherwise carefully planned projects have had the same unintended and catastrophic outcome. The threat isn’t the extent of the work, but the failure to recognize that messing with building fabric renders it vulnerable to fire.
Two weeks ago the Ritz Hotel in Paris, near the finish of a $150 million renovation in the Place Vendôme, was seriously damaged by a fire of an origin apparently similar to that in Newport. It is the hotel that Princess Diana left just before her death in an auto accident, and the hotel I slipped into briefly to consume the tiniest thing on the menu, in 2003.