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Pre-Palatial Newport
by [?]

The historic Ocean House of Newport is a ruin. Flames have laid low the unsightly structure that was at one time the best-known hotel in America. Its fifty-odd years of existence, as well as its day, are over. Having served a purpose, it has departed, together with the generation and habits of life that produced it, into the limbo where old houses, old customs, and superannuated ideas survive,-the memory of the few who like to recall other days and wander from time to time in a reconstructed past.

There was a certain appropriateness in the manner of its taking off. The proud old structure had doubtless heard projects of rebuilding discussed by its owners (who for some years had been threatening to tear it down); wounded doubtless by unflattering truths, the hotel decided that if its days were numbered, an exit worthy of a leading rôle was at least possible. “Pull me down, indeed! That is all very well for ordinary hostleries, but from an establishment of my pretensions, that has received the aristocracy of the country, and countless foreign swells, something more is expected!”

So it turned the matter over and debated within its shaky old brain (Mrs. Skewton fashion) what would be the most becoming and effective way of retiring from the social whirl. Balls have been overdone; people are no longer tempted by receptions; a banquet was out of the question. Suddenly the wily building hit on an idea. “I’ll give them a feu d’artifice. There hasn’t been a first-class fire here since I burned myself down fifty-three years ago! That kind of entertainment hasn’t been run into the ground like everything else in these degenerate days! I’ll do it in the best and most complete way, and give Newport something to talk about, whenever my name shall be mentioned in the future!”

Daudet, in his L’Immortel, shows us how some people are born lucky. His “Loisel of the Institute,” although an insignificant and commonplace man, succeeded all through life in keeping himself before the public, and getting talked about as a celebrity. He even arranged (to the disgust and envy of his rivals) to die during a week when no event of importance was occupying public attention. In consequence, reporters, being short of “copy,” owing to a dearth of murders and “first nights,” seized on this demise and made his funeral an event.

The truth is, the Ocean House had lived so long in an atmosphere of ostentatious worldliness that, like many residents of the summer city, it had come to take itself and its “position” seriously, and imagine that the eyes of the country were fixed upon and expected something of it.

The air of Newport has always proved fatal to big hotels. One after another they have appeared and failed, the Ocean House alone dragging out a forlorn existence. As the flames worked their will and the careless crowd enjoyed the spectacle, one could not help feeling a vague regret for the old place, more for what it represented than for any intrinsic value of its own. Without greatly stretching a point it might be taken to represent a social condition, a phase, as it were, in our development. In a certain obscure way, it was an epoch-marking structure. Its building closed the era of primitive Newport, its decline corresponded with the end of the pre-palatial period-an era extending from 1845 to 1885.

During forty years Newport had a unique existence, unknown to the rest of America, and destined to have a lasting influence on her ways, an existence now as completely forgotten as the earlier boarding-house matinée dansante time. {1} The sixties, seventies, and eighties in Newport were pleasant years that many of us regret in spite of modern progress. Simple, inexpensive days, when people dined at three (looking on the newly introduced six o’clock dinners as an English innovation and modern “frill”), and “high-teaed” together dyspeptically off “sally lunns” and “preserves,” washed down by coffee and chocolate, which it was the toilsome duty of a hostess to dispense from a silver-laden tray; days when “rockaways” drawn by lean, long-tailed horses and driven by mustached darkies were, if not the rule, far from being an exception.