House Lust: Inside Merrillton, a Gilded Age Mansion with a Romantic Landscape
The Newport estate, which underwent a significant restoration in 2013, bears all the charm of its original design.
Merrillton in Newport has lured many notable stewards over its 168-year lifetime.
To start, the Episcopal minister George Merrill, the mansion’s namesake, bought the place in 1933. Then came the famed singer and Broadway star, Jane Pickens; in 2009, her daughter, conservationist Marcella Clark McCormack, deeded a majority of the property to the Aquidneck Land Trust. And Peter de Savary, the developer behind the Carnegie Abbey Club, ushered the early Gilded Age estate into the twenty-first century. He snagged it for a cool $2.5 million in 2012 and, two years and a period-sensitive renovation later, sold it to an overseas buyer for $8.7 million. It’s now back on the market with Vanderbilt International Properties, where de Savary is a partner.
But no one had a greater influence than Samuel Powel, who designed the Italianate villa himself and planted each specimen tree, “setting out all the paths by use of a long rope curved into agreeable turns, and spacing the groups of shrubbery to create long vistas and a constant change of aspect, under the guiding principles of [landscape architect] Andrew Jackson Downing,” writes Lucinda Brockway in The Historic Designed Landscapes of Newport County.
Brockway cites a Newport Historical Society story by Powel’s daughter, Mary, who recalled the time a small birch seedling had secreted its way into an arbor vitae hedge delivered to the property. Mary wanted to keep the seedling, hoping it’d someday grow large enough to be carved into a canoe. Her parents obliged and now it’s among a fleet of beautiful trees on the property. The top tree, however, is the massive hornbeam, which the Newport Tree Society estimates is one of the largest in New England.
But you don’t have to be an avid arborist to appreciate this property. You just have to be the type of person who would enjoy stretching out on a comfortable bench beneath the majestic branches of a century-and-a-half-old tree — and the villa that’s stood equally as strong amid the many tests of time.
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