ITHF Presents ‘The Casino’

April 22, 2010

NEWPORT, R.I. — In the summer of 1880, the majestic doors of the Newport Casino swung open on grand Bellevue Avenue, inviting Newport’s rich and famous summer residents to enjoy a social venue that became known as the nation’s first country club. The facility, which quickly became the summer resort’s premier location to see and be seen, featured entertainment ranging from theatre, balls and concerts to croquet, lawn tennis and horse shows. Writing three days after the opening, the Newport Daily News boasted, “It is doubtful if a more lively place can be found.”

In celebration of the building’s 130th anniversary, the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum will proudly present The Casino: Newport’s Playground 1880 – 1954, a special exhibit chronicling the founding of the Newport Casino, early tennis in Newport, the social history of the property, and the Casino Theatre. The exhibit will open on May 3, 2010 and may be viewed as part of regular admission to the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, which is open daily from 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Admission is $11 for adults, $9 for seniors, and free for children 16 & under.

“Since its opening in the summer of 1880, the Newport Casino has played an instrumental role in the social and cultural life of the Newport community,” said Mark Stenning, CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum. “We look forward to showcasing the building’s wonderful stories and important history to Newport’s visitors and residents, many of whom have personal connections to the facility. We encourage area residents to visit and enjoy this fascinating look at our facility’s rich history.”

The exhibit will feature a number of unique artifacts including original stock certificates to the building, diaries from the superintendent, and programs from theatre shows and tennis tournaments. Displays also include wonderful imagery of turn-of-the-century life in Newport, showcasing moments such as theatrical performances, grand balls, tennis tournaments and local kids serving as tennis ball boys, and much more. In addition, the exhibit will highlight the Casino Theatre, a long-standing part of Newport’s fabric, which is currently under restoration and will re-open later this year.

The history of the development of the Newport Casino is itself one of Newport’s most charming tales. In August 1879, James Gordon Bennett, the influential publisher of America’s leading newspaper, the New York Herald, and Captain Henry Augustus Candy, a retired officer of the Queen’s 9th Royal Lancers and a skillful British Polo player, were socializing in the Newport Reading Room, a gentlemen-only club, which was a gathering place for prominent Newporters. Late one summer day, the two men were up for some amusing entertainment and Bennett presumably bet or dared Captain Candy to ride his polo horse up onto the front porch of the Reading Room. Without hesitation, Candy mounted his horse and rode onto the porch and into the club – much to the dismay of the members, which ultimately resulted in the end of Bennett’s Reading Room membership.

Bennett turned his attention to building a “new club house” to serve summer visitors that would be both public and private. The premier architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was commissioned to design and build the facility, and the Newport Casino complex was built in only six months. The name was never meant to refer to gaming and gambling, as the word casino stems from the Italian word cascina, meaning “little summer house.”

The Newport Casino opened on July 26, 1880, offering a block of shops on Bellevue Avenue, a restaurant and gentlemen’s lodging. Archery, billiards, concerts, dancing, dining, horse shows, lawn bowling, reading, tea parties and theatricals, lawn tennis, croquet, and court tennis, were all part of the social scene. The facility featured several acres of grass tennis courts, which hosted the first U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championships in 1881, a tournament that evolved into today’s US Open. In August 1880, an ornate 400-seat theatre designed by Stanford White was added and was used for live performances and balls.

The Casino: Newport’s Playground 1880 – 1954 will detail the remarkable history of the Newport Casino complex, which is as wonderful today as it was on opening day in 1880. It has weathered a number of ravaging Northeast storms and hurricanes, has resisted the transformation of taxing and daunting economic times, and has fought off the flames of several fires, the most recent occurring in 1998. The facility has undergone significant restoration and preservation efforts over the years, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Today, the venue stands as a shrine to the game of tennis, housing the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum. The historic grass tennis courts on the property still play host to professional tennis, as the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships, an ATP World Tour event, is held annually in July. The property’s most recent restoration commenced this past September, when work began on the Casino Theatre. The theatre has been vacant for 30 years and will re-open later this year and be utilized by Salve Regina University’s Department of Theatre Arts.

Time may have changed the happenings, but the Newport Casino’s initial purpose remains, as the Casino continues to bring people together for sport, leisure and special events.

The Casino: Newport’s Playground 1880 – 1954, will be on display for one-year. Group tours are welcome. For additional information, call 401-849-3990 or visit