ODD: The Isaac Bell House Entry and Photograph by Sarah Reddan

This week’s odd building is one that you may not find so odd. However, when it was first built, it was quite innovative and distinctive.


(Photo source: Sarah Reddan)

This Isaac Bell House in Newport, Rhode Island was built in between 1881-1883 by the architects McKim, Mead and White as a summer house on the chic Bellevue Avenue.  The architects hoped to create a new style using a mix of different historical references, “The Bell House represents the search for an American identity in architecture, based on combining the past and present with great freedom and experimentation.”

McKim, Mead and White designed a New England shingle style house, however nothing about this house is ordinary.  The architects used five different types of shingles to create diverse patterns around the façades.  For the form, the architects created a new style by including colonial style gables, a semi-circular tier porch to reflect a medieval tower, and a large, wrap-around front porch, which is a symbol of American Architecture.

(Photo: Different shingle types, source: New York Social Diary)

The Isaac Bell house also included Japanese features throughout.  On the exterior of the Bell House, the porch columns are shaped like bamboo stalks and there are dragons supporting the porch roof near the main entrance.  The interior’s most notable and “odd” feature is the Japanese style open floor plan with large sliding doors, which was a unique plan for the time.  The interior is also full of nooks, wood panels, and interesting details everywhere you look.

(Photo – Open floor plan, Source: Preservation Society of Newport Country)

In addition to the open floor plan, the architects were also clever in the way residents and guests could move in and out of the house.  The large front windows on the main level and second floor open up to become a door to access the porches.  In addition, the side entrance steps are two different heights – one is for walking up fro and the other is set higher for those arriving by carriage.

(Photo: Japanese influence on porch & different step sizes, source: New York Social Diary)

McKim, Mead and White’s Isaac Bell House was revolutionary and influential in the development of the American style:

“The Bell House is a unified design that does not slavishly imitate any one historic precedent, but brings together many decorative details and architectural motifs into one harmonious whole. This is the pivotal role it served in inspiring the work of the next generation of architects, and its legacy is seen in the open planning and masterfully designed “Prairie Houses” of Frank Lloyd Wright.” – National Historic Landmarks Nomination Form



National Historic Landmarks Nomination Form, 1977. http://www.preservation.ri.gov/pdfs_zips_downloads/national_pdfs/newport/newp_perry-street-70_isaac-bell-house.pdf

“Big Old Houses: Something New and Different in Newport,” New York Social Diary, (November 2014). Accessed October 2, 2016. http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/the-way-they-live/2014/big-old-houses-something-new-and-different-in-newport

“Isaac Bell House,” The Preservation Society of Newport Country: Newport Mansions, accessed October 2, 2016. http://www.newportmansions.org/learn/architecture/aspects-of-architecture-design/isaac-bell-house