The Newport Casino
Home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum
The Newport Casino, home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, was first opened on July 26, 1880. The origins of the Newport Casino unfold as follows.
The setting was Newport, Rhode Island, August 1879. James Gordon Bennett, the influential publisher of America’s leading newspaper the New York Herald, and Captain Henry Augustus Candy, retired officer of the Queen’s 9th Royal Lancers and skillful British Polo player, were the two key figures in the origins of the Newport Casino. Bennett, as a summer resident, was a member of the Newport Reading Room, a gentlemen-only club, which was a gathering place for prominent Newporters. As Bennett’s guest, Captain Candy also enjoyed the benefits of Reading Room membership. The story goes that one late summer day, the two men were up for some amusing entertainment and Bennett presumably bet or dared Captain Candy to ride his polo horse up onto the front porch of the Reading Room. Candy, without hesitation, mounted his horse and rode onto the porch…and then proceeded into the club! Although Candy won the afternoon wager, club members expressed their displeasure at the insulting disruption. The Governors of the Reading Room were also not amused and revoked the guest privileges of Captain Candy. Bennett was not one to be chastised and tempers flared, all resulting in the end of Bennett’s Reading Room membership.
Bennett’s loss was our gain, as Bennett turned his attention to building an establishment, a “new club house” to serve summer visitors that would be both public and private. In the late fall of 1879, Bennett commissioned the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to design and build the facility. McKim, Mead and White was the premier architectural firm of the late 19th and early 20th Century, and the Newport Casino was one of the firm’s earliest projects. Stanford White has often been credited with the Victorian shingle-style design of the Casino, although it was Charles McKim who was responsible for capturing the symmetry and balance of the Bellevue Avenue façade, inclusive of its revenue producing storefronts. The name, Newport Casino, was never meant to refer to gaming and gambling, as the word casino stems from the Italian word cascina, meaning “little summer house.”
Construction underway, the Newport Casino complex was built in only six months. On July 26th, a soft opening was held with guest admittance by invitation only. One week later, on August 2nd, the public was invited to inspect the premises and more than 3,000 attended. The Newport Casino offered a block of shops on Bellevue Avenue, a restaurant and gentlemen’s lodging. Archery, billiards, concerts, dancing, dining, horse shows, lawn bowling, reading, tea parties and theatricals, along with the staples of its present day offerings of lawn tennis, croquet, and court tennis, were all part of the social scene. Writing three days after the opening, the Newport News boasted, “It is doubtful if a more lively place can be found.”
With its centralized three-story clock tower, the main building consisted of ground floor shops and second story clubrooms (clubrooms solely for the private members). The Billiards Room was the most popular of the club rooms, lofty and spacious with full-size windows overlooking the courtyard. Towards the east of the property bordering Freebody Street was the Casino Theatre and Court Tennis building. A full-length piazza porch with upper and lower levels connected these two impressive structures.
A visual masterpiece, the Casino Theatre served as both a 500-capacity removable seat theatre and as a ballroom for dances. The interior was gold-trimmed ivory with a sky blue ceiling, decorated with golden stars. It was the scene of many artistic performances, both amateur and professional. Dances, recitals, poetic readings, shows and ballets were held for the adults, while children were entertained by vaudeville acts and magical mystifications.
The original game of Court Tennis (also known as Real, or Royal, Tennis) dates back to 12th Century Europe, and was first played in the United States in Boston in 1876. The Casino court was the second of its kind built in America. Court Tennis, still played in Newport, is a very different game from lawn tennis. Few words can describe the ominous 90x40-foot cavern-like court with red cement floor and towering gray slate walls. Unique and challenging, Court Tennis is an original and fascinating component of the Casino’s history.
Within the main courtyard remains the Horseshoe Piazza, with its traditional lattice-work, one of the most elegant workings of McKim, Mead and White’s original design. It defined the inner court’s circular sweep of lawn and served as a transitional partition to the tennis grounds beyond. The pristine and colorful grounds consist of the Horseshoe Courtyard and the lower lawn, including grass courts, lying between the Horseshoe Piazza and the Theatre/Tennis buildings.
The Newport Casino complex is as wonderful today as it was on opening day in 1880. It stands as a National Historic Landmark (1987) and shrine to the game of tennis, having hosted in 1881 the first U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championships, the tournament that evolved into today’s US Open. It has weathered a number of ravaging northeast storms, has resisted the transformation of taxing and daunting times, and has fought off the flames of two major fires, the most recent occurring in 1998. Time has changed the happenings at the Casino, but the complex boasts the world’s oldest continuously used competition grass courts and the only competition grass courts open for play to the public. The Casino continues to bring people together for sport, leisure, special events, and to view the phenomenal Museum which chronicles the history of tennis.