Commissioned by Gilded Age banker and developer, Ogden Goelet, as his
family's summer residence, Ochre Court (1888-1892) is the first of a
group of spectacular houses in the Grand Manner designed by Richard
Morris Hunt, America's foremost architect of the late nineteenth
century. The mansion was gifted, in 1947, by Ogden's son, Robert, to
the Religious Sisters of Mercy who established Salve Regina College.
For this limestone palace overlooking the reddish seacliffs that give the estate its name, Hunt drew his inspiration from the late medieval period in French architecture. With its high roofs, turrets, whimsical gargoyles, and tall chimneys, Ochre Court recalls the style of Francois I, a transitional era when established medieval elements like the pointed Gothic arch and heavy stained glass were lightened by newly-emerging Renaissance details including rounded arches and delicate lacy ornamentation. The Atlantic Ocean is ever-present, framed by windows and terrace entrances, reflected in mirrored walls, and repeated in symbolic motifs. Hunt emphasized the social position of the Goelet family and their patronage of learning and the arts with exuberant decoration both within the house and on the grounds. In classical ceiling paintings, royal heraldic devices, carved emblems and statues, and a rainbow of antique stained glass, the architect signaled his client's aristocratic status and intellectual interests. Inside the mansion, Hunt used details from French Gothic chateaux and churches to create a Great Hall, which soars upward for three stories and dramatically frames a seaward vista. Radiating off the Great Hall, both the impressive ground floor reception rooms and the private upstairs family rooms, which are now University offices, were richly designed with imported antique fireplaces and lavish wallcoverings. The formal gardens and walkways of Ochre Court, designed by the Olmsted Brothers, are shaded by several mature specimen trees including the dramatic Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica atropunicea), a European variety that reaches a height of 80- 90 feet. The exquisite blossoms of the Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa) transform the grounds in June. The dense flower heads this Far Eastern native are surrounded by creamy-white bracts.
The Goelets were an established American dynasty that had grown from humble eighteenth century trade. Ogden Goelet was one of the most famous competitive yachtsmen in the world. His wife, Mary Wilson Goelet, was one of the most important hostesses of her generation in a time when the operation of Ochre Court during a typical eight-week summer season required twenty-seven house servants, eight coachmen and grooms, and twelve gardeners. Their daughter, May, married the English Duke of Roxburghe, taking with her an $8 million dowry, while their son Robert became a major force in the development of American railroads, hotels, and real estate.
It was Robert's gift of Ochre Court to the Religious Sisters of Mercy in 1947 that established the then Salve Regina College in Newport. The stately fify-room mansion was the entire college for the first few years, with the original fifty-eight female students living on the third floor. The original fifty-eight women students lived on the third floor, attended classes on the second, studied, prayed, and dined on the first, and snacked and purchased books in the basement. The eight Sisters of Mercy who made up that post-war faculty established their own modest living area in the servants' quarters. Salve Regina University has since grown to encompass over 60 acres and more than two dozen buildings, yet Ochre Court remains its heart.