The International Tennis Hall of Fame is set in The Newport Casino, a National Historic Landmark that was first opened on July 26, 1880 as a social club for Newport’s turn of the century summer elite.
Despite what its name implies, the Newport Casino is not, and never was, a gambling facility. However, the beautiful property’s history does have its roots in a story about a bet. The setting was Newport, Rhode Island, August 1879. Per legend, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the influential publisher of the New York Herald and a summer resident of Newport, reputedly bet his polo partner, Captain Henry Augustus Candy, a retired officer of the Queen’s 9th Royal Lancers and skillful British polo player to ride his horse onto the front porch of the exclusive gentlemen’s-only club, the Newport Reading Room. Candy took the dare one step further and rode straight through the clubrooms, disturbing members. After Candy’s guest membership was revoked, Bennett purchased the land across the street from his home, Stone Villa, and sought to build his own social club.
In reality, Bennett already had plans in 1878 to create a social gathering place. Nonetheless, by October 1879, Bennett had purchased land on Bellevue Avenue opposite his summer home Stone Villa and had decided on his preferred architectural firm. The Newport Casino opened in the summer of 1880 and quickly emerged as the center of Newport’s social society.
Bennett commissioned the newly-formed architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to build a social club with both private and public areas. McKim, Mead & White was a premier architectural firm of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Newport Casino was one of the firm’s earliest projects. The name, Newport Casino, was never meant to refer to gaming and gambling, as the word casino traces its origins to the Italian word casa and refers to a small country villa, summerhouse or social club.
The structure combines shingle, stone, and brick to evoke an English design. The horizontal façade on Bellevue Avenue included storefronts and a restaurant on the ground floor, with club rooms, reading rooms, and billiards on the second and third floors. Gables, tall chimneys, small windows, and open-air porches complete the building’s architectural aesthetic. The grounds were designed to include a theatre, court tennis facility, bowling alley, and lawn tennis courts. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987, the Newport Casino represents one of the finest examples of American Shingle Style architecture.
The Newport Casino complex was built in only six months. On July 26th, 1880 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.”
On August 31, 1881, the first U.S. National Men’s Singles Championship was contested at the Casino, among a field consisting of 25 participants, accompanied by a string quartet. Dick Sears emerged as the country’s first champion, going on to win the first seven championships (1881-1887) before retiring undefeated. Sears and James Dwight also partnered to capture five doubles championships (1882-1884, 1886-1887). By 1914, the event had outgrown Newport, leading the USNLTA to relocate the championships to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York. The tournament evolved to become known as the US Open.
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 theatre was utilized by the Newport community through the 1980’s, when structural concerns forced its closure. However, thorough a complete restoration in 2009, the stage is now live once again. A creative partnership between the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Salve Regina University, along with the dedication, vision, and fundraising efforts of a committee of supporters, resulted in successful fundraising the $5.2 million necessary to restore the theatre to its original grandeur. The theatre opened in October 2010 and it now hosts regular events. The Salve Regina University Department of Performing Arts manages and maintain the facility day-to-day, with the Hall of Fame retaining the venue for special events on select days. The partnership provides the students with the opportunity to study all aspects of the theatre from acting and directing to set design, lighting, and facility management, and gives life to a beautiful historic theatre once again.
Following a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the early 1950s, Jimmy Van Alen, then-President of the Newport Casino, and his wife Candy, decided that tennis also needed a place to honor its great figures. The Newport Casino was in danger of demolition, and with its rich tennis history, it was the perfect spot to establish a hall of fame. Jimmy Van Alen successfully lobbied the leadership of the United States Lawn Tennis Association to sanction the establishment of a National Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. The venerable Newport Casino became the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum and was officially recognized by the International Tennis Federation in 1986.
Completed in the summer of 2015, the Match Point Capital Campaign originally set out to raise funds for four specific goals that would significantly improve the Hall of Fame's programming and facilities.