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Seen: The Isaac Bell house

Newport, Rhode Island

I first photographed the Isaac Bell house for a book on the Shingle Style in 1995, just after it had been acquired by the Preservation Society of Newport County. After 40 years of hard use—first as a nursing home, then as apartments and offices—this masterpiece of American architecture was on the verge of collapse. I wanted to capture the Japanese-inspired open planning of the ground floor—a radical innovation when McKim, Mead & White designed the house in 1881—but my efforts were vexed by the deterioration of the structure. The header beam spanning the vast opening between the living hall and drawing room had sagged, leaving the celebrated rolling doors stuck in their closed position.

Two decades later, I was delighted when my work on a new book about the Shingle Style took me back to the Isaac Bell house. In the intervening years, the Preservation Society had commissioned Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects, a firm specializing in historic preservation, to produce a historic structure report about the house and to supervise an exacting restoration performed by Kirby Perkins Construction. The house was stabilized, and its decorative splendor was restored. I was able to open and close the once immovable rolling doors with just the pressure of a fingertip and to capture—at last!—the flow of space from room to room and into the landscape.