Hamilton Hoppin (1821–1885) and Alexander Van Rensselaer (1814–1878) married sisters of the New York City-based Howland family, Louisa Howland (1826–1897) and Mary Ann Howland (1830–1910), respectively (Ancestry.com n.d.a, n.d.b; Findagrave n.d.). In 1855, Hoppin purchased 5¼ acres of land in on the top of Miantonomi Hill near the Middletown-Newport line that overlooked farmland, Easton’s Pond, and the Atlantic Ocean. Hoppin commissioned Richard Upjohn to design his house Villalon, completed in 1856, on the west part of the property and sold the east part of the property to Van Rensselaer. Van Rensselaer commissioned Richard Upjohn to design a nearly identical house, the Van Rensselaer House, originally called Villalou, in 1856, and it was completed in 1857. Van Rensselaer knew of Upjohn, as the architect had completed renovations of the Van Rensselaer house in Albany in 1840–1844 (see below). The two houses shared the intervening landscaped gardens designed by landscape gardener Michael Butler.
Alexander Van Rensselaer was directly descended from Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, a wealthy seventeenth-century Amsterdam jewel merchant and the first Patroon of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck, which became Albany, New York, when it passed from Dutch to English rule. The seventh child of General Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764–1839) and Cornelia Paterson (1780–1844), Alexander was born in the family Manor House in Albany. His father, Stephen Van Rensselaer had inherited a vast estate in Albany and Rensselaer counties. After graduating from Harvard University, Stephen served in state government and as a member of the U.S. Congress (1822–1829) and contributed to a wide variety of social, educational, business, and governmental institutions. In 1824, his vision and support made possible the founding of the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Stephen Van Rensselaer engaged the renowned architect Richard Upjohn to remodel the Van Rensselaer in Albany. In 1840–1844, Upjohn redesigned the colonial mansion of 1765 as an Italian Villa. Later, the house was moved to Williams College and opened as the Sigma Phi fraternity house in 1895. Alexander Van Rensselaer received a degree in medicine, but never practiced. During his adult life, he was a man of means and leisure who traveled extensively and devoted himself to charity. He lived in New York City for about 40 years and summered at his house in Middletown, and died in New York City (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 2017; New York Times 1878:4; Rittner n.d; Schenectady Digital History Archives 2017; Upjohn 1939:93).
Alexander Van Rensselaer married Mary Ann Howland of New York City in 1851. Mary Ann Howland was descended from John Howland, one of the signers of Mayflower compact in 1620. Her parents, Samuel Shaw Howland (1790–1853) and Joanna Esther Hone (1799–1848), resided at 12 Washington Square and were well connected in New York City business, politics, and society (Wood and Woodward 1996). Samuel Shaw Howland was the son of a leading eighteenth-century Boston shipping merchant, Joseph Howland, and was a partner in Howland & Aspinwall, a well-known New York shipping and trading firm. Joanna Esther Hone was the niece of Philip Hone, an early New York mayor, diarist, and industrialist. Alexander and Mary Ann Howland Rensselaer had two children, Samuel Howland and Mary Howland. After Mary’s death in 1855, Alexander married Louisa Barnewell (1836–unknown), also of New York City, and they had three children, Louisa, Mabel, and Alice. Following Alexander’s death in 1878, Louisa continued to own the house until 1904 (Ancestry.com n.d.a, n.d.b, n.d.c). It does not appear that the Van Rensselaer family of Albany had a connection with Newport prior to Alexander’s interest. The Howland family of New York may have visited Newport in the 1830s and 1840s, as three daughters had husbands who built houses in Newport or Middletown, including one who was a Newport native.
The connections that created Newport’s social web extended into support of architecture and the arts as an expression of cultured taste and means. It was common for prominent architects to be intertwined in the upper echelons of society where patrons and enthusiasts supported and admired their work. Richard Upjohn designed houses for a number of Newport summer residents, including three houses for three Howland sisters. In addition to the Hoppin House and the Van Rensselaer House, he also designed the earlier Oaklawn (1852–1853), demolished) at the corner of Bellevue and Narragansett avenues for Caroline Howland Russell (1821–1863), the eldest Howland sister, and her husband Charles H. Russell (1796–1884). Russell was a Newport native and owned a successful shipping merchant firm, Charles H. Russell and Co., in New York (Ancestry.com n.d.d). In New York, the Howlands knew Upjohn’s work as they worshiped at Upjohn’s Gothic Revival-style Church of the Ascension (1841, NHL listed December 23, 1987) at corner of Tenth Street and Fifth Avenue. Upjohn also designed the Gothic Revival-style Church of the Holy Cross (1845) in Middletown, close to where the Hoppin and Van Rensselaer houses would be constructed a decade later. In 1861, the architect Richard Morris Hunt (see Criterion C), who was a younger professional and personal friend of Upjohn, married the youngest of the sisters, Catherine Clinton Howland (1830–1909) (Ancestry.com n.d.e; Baker 1980:125–126; Downing and Scully 1967:137, Pl. 166; Wood and Woodward 1996).
Adolph Audrain Years
After Alexander Van Rensselaer’s death in 1878, Louisa Van Rensselaer continued to summer at the house and then sold the property to New York businessman Adolph Louis Audrain (1859–1930) in 1904. Audrain was born in Germany and emigrated to the U.S. with his parents at the age of 17, and lived in New York. He owned the house as his summer residence, with his wife Mary E., until 1919 (Ancestry.com n.d.f). During that time, he undertook exterior remodeling and interior decorating and renamed the house “Restmere.” Audrain was a successful art and antiques dealer specializing in French antiques with shops in New York, Paris, and Newport. His Newport shop was in the Audrain Building 220–230 Bellevue Avenue (in Bellevue Avenue-Casino Historic District, NR listed December 8, 1972; in Bellevue Avenue Historic District, NHL listed December 8, 1972) that he commissioned architect Bruce Price (1845–1903) to design in 1902–1903 (Hackett and Grosvenor 2017; Pitts 1976; Overby and Harrington 1972).
According to one account of Audrain’s ownership, in the Newport Daily News “The Van Rensselaer House, it was said, was furnished entirely in the French style with all the furniture and fittings made in France. It was shipped to the country in bulk and set up, even to the wallpaper and draperies. The only exception was the billiard room, which was strictly American and in mission style. The various rooms were furnished in Louis XVI or Chippendale. The dining room it was said, was one of the best examples of Gothic style in Newport” (Panaggio n.d.).
At the start of Prohibition (1919–1933) in 1919, Audrain sold the Van Rensselaer House to Rear Admiral William L. Howard. He divested of all his U.S. holdings and emigrated to France. On September 22, 1919, he was quoted in newspapers around the world for saying, “When the American people regain their common sense, which I think will be in about six years, I will come here to reside” (Newport Daily News 1920). However, he remained in France until his death and is buried in Paris (findagrave.com 2017).
Supplemental Historical Information
Rear Admiral William L. Howard, who acquired the Van Rensselaer House from Adolph Audrain in 1919, sold the property to Admiral Edward Clifford Kalbfus (1877–1954) about 1930. Admiral Kalbfus resided in the house with his wife Syria Kalbfus beginning when he served two terms as the President of the U.S. Naval War College at the Naval Training Station on Coaster’s Island in Newport from 1934 to 1936 and 1938 to 1941, and until his death. As president of the Naval War College, Kalbfus oversaw the nation’s oldest naval training and education institution, established in 1884 by Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce as “a place of original research on all questions relating to war and the statesmanship connected with war, or the prevention of war” (USNWC 2017). During World War II, Kalbfus successfully persuaded officials to retain enough staff and keep the Naval War College open (Hattendorf 1984:166–171). Admiral Kalbfus likely selected the Van Rensselaer House as his residence due in part to it being about 2 miles directly east of Coaster’s Island. His travel route, Admiral Kalbfus Road connecting the Naval Training Station/Naval War College in Newport and One Mile Corner (present-day intersection of Admiral Kalbfus Road, West Main Road, Miantonomi Avenue, and Broadway) in Middletown, was named in his honor (Cherpak 1993:1–2).
When the Van Rensselaer House was empty following the death in 1960 of Syria Kalbfus, George Wein (born 1925), founder and director of the Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival, rented the Van Rensselaer House to house some of the blues musicians invited to perform at the 1964 Folk Festival. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were among the performers who visited the Van Rensselaer House and jammed there with accomplished blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt. An album series recorded at that time features a photograph of the musicians gathered on the Van Rensselaer House’s front porch (That Blues Show.com n.d.).
In 1966, Lucille Meyers purchased the Van Rensselaer House from a developer who had acquired the property and planned to demolish the house and build nine ranch-style houses on the former estate grounds. Myers preserved the house and maintained it within the reduced immediately surrounding land parcel. In 2014, Myers sold the property to Shirley Schiff, who made minor improvements to the kitchen and bathrooms. Schiff sold the Van Rensselaer House to the current owners, whose restoration and rehabilitation plans are based in the fundamentals of historic preservation stewardship (Hackett and Grosvenor 2017).
 In 2014, the Audrain Building was restored, and it now houses the Audrain Automobile Museum (Hackett and Grosvenor 2017).