By Laura Beach
NEWPORT, R.I. – “A mahogany writing desk made by John Goddard and owned by Liza B. Weaver, widow of George A. Weaver, has been offered for sale,” the inscription begins. “…The price asked was considered too high.”
This tantalizing note is one of many contained in what Newport authority Ralph Carpenter has dubbed the Bergner Codex. A recent gift to the historic Redwood Library on Newport’s regal Bellevue Avenue, Jonas Bergner’s day book contains measured drawings of Eighteenth Century Newport furniture; notations on local collectors, dealers, old Newport families, their furnishings, and prices asked on pieces for sale; recipes for furniture polish; transcribed labels; and sketches for rdf_Descriptions crafted or repaired in workshop of Bergner’s employer, the Vernon Company.
For fans of the prized and pricey block-and-shell carved furniture made by the Townsend and Goddard families of Newport, as well as for students of Colonial Revival cabinetmakers, the day book, with entries from the heyday of Americana collecting, the 1920s, supplies intriguing details about the restoration of well-known works as well as clues to the whereabouts of objects long lost.
Enclosed in a leather spine and marbled covers, the day book appears to be the recycled volume of an earlier professional, perhaps a doctor. The book had been known to the Redwood Library for some time. Ralph Carpenter, author of the seminal volume The Arts and Crafts of Newport Rhode Island 1640-1820 (The Preservation Society of Newport County, Newport, R.I., 1954) and a long-time advocate for city’s preservation movement who took up the Redwood Library’s cause half a century ago, tried to buy the book decades ago but was rebuffed. He lost track of the work until it resurfaced just weeks ago.
It is in large part thanks to the generosity of the donor, a Bergner descendant who lives in Nevada, and Donald Magee, an antiquarian book dealer who is the proprietor of the Newport Book Store, that Jonas Bergner’s day book is now at the Redwood Library for good. The donor, who was given the document by her mother, approached Magee with an eye toward selling it. “The book just overwhelmed me. I looked through it and saw the drawings and the names of the families associated with the objects. I knew that something like this, on a good day at auction, could bring up to $10,000. There is a small cadre of collectors who would be willing to pay a large amount,” the dealer said.
Magee wasn’t sure the family fully understood the significance of the work. “They also had rdf_Descriptions of a genealogical nature and pieces relating to the Lutheran Church, where Bergner was a member. I told them that belonged at the Newport Historical Society. Of the day book, I said that I would make them and offer to buy it but that it really wasn’t something that should be in a private collection.”
Instead, said Magee, the day book should go to the Redwood Library. “Between the Cynthia Carey Collection and the Carpenter Collection, the Redwood is one of the area’s best sources for the decorative arts. Boston and Providence may have more volumes, but Newport is unsurpassed in quality. I knew this would be a welcome addition,” said the bookseller.
The Carey Collection, a private library donated to the Redwood in 1990, features over 200 books, many of them Fifteenth to Nineteenth Century Continental and English pattern books. The Carpenter Collection, donated by Mr and Mrs Ralph Carpenter, includes his personal library of art reference books, catalogs, letters and autographs, gathered over 70 years.
Magee called library director Cheryl Helms, who summoned Maris Humphreys, the specialist in charge of special collections at the Redwood. Familiar with the day book, Humphreys recalled another Bergner volume, plus a child’s chair and a mantel. All had entered the Redwood’s collection through other members of the family. Magee believes that a third day book may still be at large.
The cabinet shop of George E. Vernon (1822-1889) was in business from 1878 to 1967, said Newport Historical Society librarian Bert Lippincott. Located in various sites in and around John Street, the company produced a general line of household furnishings, special commissions, and even furnishings for the Fall River Steam Ship lines.
Bergner, a Swedish immigrant who worked for Vernon as a carver and cabinetmaker, took an avid interest in Newport’s past, said Joan Youngkin, associate director of the Newport Historical Society. The museum is home to the Jonas Bergner Collection, containing more than 450 glass plates and film negatives, snapshots and prints of historic Newport buildings photographed by Bergner between 1895 to 1935. Accompanying the images are notes documenting the construction details of many Newport residences that no longer survive. More recently, the Newport Historical Society received a gift of Newport images collected by Bergner and detailed drawings of furniture and decorative arts relevant to Bergner’s work as a woodcarver and cabinetmaker in the Vernon shop.
“Bergner was a carver by vocation but an architectural historian by avocation,” noted Youngkin. “He was very much involved in the restoration of the Wanton Lyman Hazard House. If a building was demolished, he was there making notes on the details. Much of the information we have on Newport houses taken down in his lifetime comes from him. If you look through The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island: 1640-1915 by Antoinette F. Downing and Vincent J. Scully, Jr., you’ll see lots of references to Bergner.”
Designed by architect Peter Harrison in 1748, Redwood Library is the oldest lending library in the United States and the first example of public Palladian architecture in this country. The original structure was expanded in 1858, 1875, 1912 and 1986, but its handsome Classical facade appears much as it did in the mid-Eighteenth Century.
There is no record of the appearance of the interior of the Harrison Room, in the original part of the building. All that survives is a shelving list created by librarian Ezra Stiles (1727-1795), minister at Newport’s Congregational Church from 1755 and the Redwood Library’s Fifth Librarian. In 1932, restoration architect Norman Isham returned the Harrison room to what he surmised was its accurate Eighteenth Century appearance.
The erudite men who founded the library chose 751 volumes, purchased in England through the generosity of Abraham Redwood. The Newport merchant donated £500, or about $52,000 in today’s currency, for the initial acquisition. The library has since grown to 155,000 volumes. “We are talking about a library with a 250-year history and a phenomenal decorative arts collection that researchers and scholars can use,” noted Helms.
The Redwood Library is also home to paintings by Gilbert Stuart, Robert Feke, John Smibert, Thomas Sully, Emmanuel Leutze and Jane Stuart; the complete works and catalogs of Charles Bird King; silver by Rhode Island silversmiths Samuel Vernon and Samuel Casey; furniture and time pieces by John Townsend and William Claggett; and the earliest documented New England Windsor armchair, from a set purchased for the library in 1764.
Earlier this year, selections from the collection were exhibited at Christie’s, which published a color catalog in its honor. Carpenter has been a consultant to Christie’s since it opened a New York auction house 23 years ago.
A major fundraising drive is underway to refurbish the Redwood Library, which remains charmingly, if alarmingly, old-fashioned. Without climate controls, the antique structure and its fragile contents are at risk. Funds will be used to preserve the building and its contents, add 9,000 square feet of storage space, and build the Redwood’s endowment.
According to Carpenter, who is co-chairman of the library’s 250th anniversary Restoration and Renewal Campaign, the institution has met about half of its $13 million goal. Major contributions include a $1 million gift from Newport resident Candace A. Van Alen in memory of her husband, James H. Van Alen. The Henry Luce Foundation authorized a grant of $300,000 for the preservation and protection of the Redwood’s collection.
From her cramped quarters just off the majestic Harrison Room, Helms notes, “Every time I get really frustrated with my office I remember that it was good enough for Ezra Stiles.” What was good enough for Ezra Stiles certainly deserves the public’s wholehearted support.