A Meeting of Great Minds: The Moravian Tiles of Harbour Court

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The story behind the terracotta tiles at Harbour Court

When you step out onto the decorative tile flooring of the formal terrace on the north façade of Harbour Court, you wander into a bit of personal history played out against the backdrop of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth century.

That thought may cause the outdoor air to hang a little heavier as you experience the wondrous view of Newport Harbor, yet it also lends insight into the origins of Harbour Court, beginnings which are key to the preservation mission of the New York Yacht Club Foundation

Consider the plight of young widow Natalie Brown, who upon the unexpected loss in 1900 of her husband of a mere three years — John Nicholas Brown — was committed to completing construction of the Loire Valley chateau for herself and her infant son, John Nicholas Brown II.

Sometime between Brown’s death and 1905, Mrs. Brown visited Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston, and she fancied the artistic sense of her friend, a globe-trotting art collector and philanthropist.  “Mrs. Brown has seen Mrs. Gardner’s floors and likes them,” wrote Frederic Allen Whiting of the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston.

To mimic Gardner’s terracotta Moravian tile floor in Newport would cost $1.25 a foot, and a sketch was requested of Henry Chapman Mercer, the potter and archaeologist who founded the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in 1899 in Pennsylvania, ultimately producing 5,000 handmade tile molds. In 1985, the museum was declared a National Historic Landmark.

The floor went in; fast forward through decades of use and deterioration to 2012 and the Foundation four-part façade restoration project, which upon its completion in 2015 cost more than $1 million ($266,000 was directed to restoration of the formal terrace) and received the prestigious Doris Duke Historic Preservation Award from the Newport Restoration Foundation and the City of Newport.

Martha Werenfels, a principal with DBVW Architects of Providence, Rhode Island, is the Foundation’s lead partner on the work at Harbour Court. The tiles were included in Phase II of the restoration.

“The decorative clay tile in the formal terrace on the outside of the building was badly deteriorated,” she says. “Each of the tiles were of different patterns – 17 different tile designs. “We reused as many original tiles as we could and ordered new tiles from Moravian Tile to match the original tiles.”

To complement the restored terrace, a new mahogany pergola with a canvas awning was constructed to replace the previous awning that was supported on an aluminum frame.

All in all, the tiles, from their original installation to restoration, represent a meeting of great minds: Natalie Brown, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Henry Chapman Mercer.

Ponder that the next time you gaze upon a Newport sunset from Harbour Court.

Project Completion Date: 2015

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