History Bytes: Sightseeing through Theophilus North

March 19, 2019

Newport has long attracted the inquisitive; this week’s History Byte follows Theophilus North along Ocean Avenue, where he passes the homes of a scientist and explorer who made Newport their summer residence.

When Theophilus North, the main character in Thornton Wilder’s novel of the same name, arrives in Newport in in the spring of 1926 he heads down Thames Street towards Ocean Avenue or “Ten-Mile Drive.” He passes Fort Adams, the Agassiz House, and the Budlong House where he stops to look out to sea.

The Agassiz House, Castle Hill. NHS, P5803.

The Agassiz House, more well known as Castle Hill, was built for renowned marine biologist and engineer Alexander Agassiz in 1874-1875 as a summer home. A few years later he had a laboratory constructed on the property. Agassiz heirs sold the property to JT O’Connell in 1939 who turned it into a summer hotel. Thornton Wilder was a guest and referenced the turret room in his novel Theophilus North as a magical room where he “could see at night the beacons of six lighthouses and hear the booming or chiming of as many sea buoys.” Castle Hill is now a luxury year-round hotel where you can still stay in the turret room.

Milton Budlong estate, The Reef. NHS, P5801.

The Budlong house referenced in Theophilus North was built in the 1880s for Theodore Davis; lawyer, collector and Egyptologist credited with the discovery of several Egyptian tombs. The Reef, as the estate was originally known, was located on Brenton Point with unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean. After Davis’ death in 1919, the property was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Milton J. Budlong. The couple divorced in 1929 and the property was neglected. During WWII anti-aircraft gun emplacements were set up on the estate. The main house was demolished in 1963 after suffering years of vandalism and a fire. The property is now a state park where remnants of the original estate can still be seen, and visitors can still stand with the wind in their face gazing “across the glittering sea.”

Banner image: Castle Hill, view of the laboratory, taken by Henry A. Curtis. NHS, P5616.