NEWPORT, R.I. – In its heyday, The Bells was the carriage house and stable for The Reef, an architectural marvel of the Gilded Age. Now, nearly a century after the grand estate was abandoned, what’s left of The Bells is scheduled for demolition.
Despite fencing and “no trespassing’ signs, the ruins of The Bells always have attracted visitors and explorers. In May 2023, four teenage boys were seriously injured after part of the stable’s roof collapsed, securing the old landmark’s fate.
“The Bells is set to be demolished by the end of January, at the earliest,” once abatement is complete, said Michael J. Healey, chief public affairs officer for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM).
Built in 1876 for New York City lawyer and copper magnate Theodore Davis by Boston architects Sturgis and Brigham, The Reef was one of the first mansions to grace Ocean Drive, “which he believed to be the choicest spot in Newport,” according to the mansion’s original documents.
The Bells replaced The Reef’s original wooden stables, which burned down in 1906. It was modern for its time, with steel doors and enough room for 12 carriages and their horses. The second floor of The Bells could house 10 men and included a kitchen, dining, and resting facilities.
A stone observation tower was constructed behind the stables to hold water, just in case fire threatened the estate again. The tower had a clock with musical chimes, which gave The Bells its name.
The Reef was acquired by the Budlong family after Davis’s death in 1915. By 1928, the mansion and its carriage house were abandoned, victims of the Budlongs’ brutal divorce.
During World War II, the state took control of the property for use as a military outpost, with anti-aircraft guns placed on the estate. After the war, the property reverted back to the Budlongs, but they never returned to it.
A fire ravaged the mansion in 1961, and reduced it to ruins. The remains of The Reef were razed two years later.
Now, the estate’s former laundry building and servants’ quarters is used as the visitor center and rangers’ office for Brenton Point State Park. And what’s left of The Bells is going to be torn down.
The stone observation tower — festooned with decades’ worth of graffiti — will remain, Healey said. It’s a popular spot from which visitors can take in sweeping views, and RIDEM added a staircase to it years ago for ease of access.
“It is honestly the best place to go watch meteor showers … so I’m really glad that they’re going to keep that portion,” said John Begin Jr., caretaker for Rose Island Lighthouse and a Newport resident who’s been exploring The Bells since he was 10 years old. He has continued the tradition with his own boys, now ages 17 and 19.
“It’s kind of a rite of passage to go to The Bells by yourself without your parents or with your friends,” Begin, 42, explained. “It was one of those places where it was always dangerous, but it was always worth the danger.”
Begin remembered the feeling of awe when he first discovered The Bells’ ruins.
“It was like walking through ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” he said.
Begin said he will miss the historical significance of visiting the deteriorating landmark. He will also miss the graffiti that covered the walls of The Bells, he said.
“I wish they could save the artwork. I know some people don’t like graffiti. I happen to love graffiti,” he said. “There’s some really great pieces of artwork inside those walls.”
Barton Fiske, 48, a senior product and alliances manager at the tech company NVIDIA, grew up in Newport climbing the stone steps cemented into the tower before the more stable staircase was added.
“The dare was to be able to get up onto those stones and climb up to the top of the tower,” Fiske said. But when it came to the stables themselves, they knew to be careful.
“There was always a rule which was ‘just don’t ever go out on the roof’ because there was just no knowing whether it was safe or what parts might fall through,” Fiske said.
Other longtime visitors fondly recalled exploring the site.
“In the ‘80s, there was no fence. You could just walk right into the building. And of course, my parents would always caution us that we weren’t really allowed to go in, necessarily. But you know, you’d always peek into the doorway,” remembered Michael Martone, a special education teacher in Norton, Mass., who grew up exploring the site.
According to the RIDEM, the future of the site is still “to be determined.”
RIDEM has initiated a “master plan process” to “consider its future use,” with a historical preservation consultant working on a report to memorialize The Bells. That report will be submitted to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission to determine the next steps.
“Given the variety of funding sources to create the park, it will generally remain a passive-use facility that’s not much different than now,” Healey said.
Martone said he and his family feel bittersweet about the demolition of The Bells, but also accepts that it’s time.
“I think for everyone’s safety it probably was the right thing to do,” he said. “But it is sad that an old structure is going away and I’m not going to be able to visit it anymore.”
Veronica Bruno is a writer and photographer based in Newport, R.I. She can be reached at veronica2e5e.myportfolio.com.