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Newport Mansion Stories: Afternoons with Mrs. Firestone

Posted by Leslie Mathieu Hogan on Monday, June 11th, 2012 at 8:17pm.

I married into a family of native Newporters descended from the European immigrants who worked in Newport's mansions.  As I result, I have heard many amazing stories about Newport's gilded age families.  Among my favorites are my husband Paul's recollections of Elizabeth Parke Firestone and his visits to her Newport, RI Firestone Estate, Ocean Lawn. 

After her husband died, Mrs. Firestone (a.k.a Betty) summered alone at Ocean Lawn, a sprawling 1888 Peabody & Stearns mansion overlooking the water on the corner of Narragansett Avenue and Cliff Walk. She was the widow of the late Harvey Firestone, Jr., son of the founder of Firestone Tire. 

In those days, Mrs. Firestone didn't get out much, but she enjoyed a little sherry and conversation with occasional afternoon visitors. Somehow, my husband, Paul, and his pal, Matt, became part of this tradition. (I must admit, I cannot imagine a more unlikely trio.) She enjoyed their company and told them what it was like when Henry Ford's auto business took off, and the money started flooding into Firestone Tire.

According to Mrs. Firestone, her father-in-law was reluctant to make tires for Henry Ford.  But as he ramped up his tire business, the auto industry took off and so did the Firestone fortune.  According to Mrs. Firestone, "Each day we had no idea what the postman was bringing, where it was from and whether the amounts were correct."  They had no idea how much money was coming in, how much was was outstanding or how to account for it all.  "So, of course," Mrs. Firestone said, "we had to start a bank."  The Harvey J. Firestone Bank of Akron, Ohio is still in business today.

Ocean Lawn

On another visit the conversation turned to more domestic matters.  Mrs. Firestone told Paul she was looking for a cleaner and asked him who he used.  Paul told her that Plaza Cleaners on Aquidneck Avenue was the best.  Mrs. Firestone replied, "I'm still sending my linens to France, and I'm just not happy with the way they're coming back." (Apparently she was unaware of Madame Bonnetat who ran a French laundry right off Van Zandt Ave.)

On another afternoon, Mrs. Firestone took her gentleman callers to see her couture dress collection.  She had hundreds of custom made dresses in her closet each with two diminutive pairs of hand made shoes on the floor underneath.  In the 1950s Mrs. Firestone was regarded as one of America's best-dressed women, and she liked her shoes. She was a size 4 and a half.

When Mrs. Firestone needed a place to store her Jamaica furniture, she bought the mansion next door.  She said it was good for the furniture, and lIfe was more peaceful without neighbors. Both this house and a spectacular pool house she built for a favorite granddaughter are now grand private homes.

Mrs. Firestone died in 1990. Her home was sold, and the property was subdivided into several large lots between the Cliff Walk and Annandale Road.  Today the original mansion, the converted pool house and several new homes coexist behind the original iron gates.

If you have a Newport Mansion story of your own, don't keep it to yourself!  Please share it here.

Leslie Hogan, Broker / Owner, Hogan Associates, 129 Bellevue Ave., Newport, RI  02840 401-845-9513, f. 401-633-6447

14 Responses to "Newport Mansion Stories: Afternoons with Mrs. Firestone"

Gerry wrote: Wow, I sure wish I could buy my neighbours' lots, too! Not to mention, a mansion for my extra furniture. Geez.

Thanks for this piece of history!

Posted on Wednesday, June 13th, 2012 at 6:34pm.

wendy wrote: Hi what an interesting piece of history and an amazing story - how times have changed!. This is a long shot but I'm researching my husbands family history and his relative Mrs Mary Hamilton Busk (nee Laird) lived with her husband in Newport. She died in 1911 at Pine Lodge and was connected to Trinity Church. She had been born in Liverpool, England to the Laird family of shipbuilders. I wondered if anyone knew of this family or had any connections with them. It would be great if you could contact me with any information as we would love to know more about this line of the family.

Posted on Thursday, June 14th, 2012 at 9:04am.

Leslie Hogan wrote: HI Wendy, Thanks for the nice comments. I just found an article that appeared in The New York Times on November 5, 1891 that mentions Mary Hamilton Busk. It says: "Mrs. Mary Hamilton Busk to-day purchased the A.A Low Estate on Rocky Farm containing 5.964 acres. It is magnificently situated on Ocean Drive, and embraces the famous old Indian well. Mrs. Busk will build a cottage at once." Anyone else know more???

Posted on Thursday, June 14th, 2012 at 9:28am.

Leslie Hogan wrote: Hmmm, Maybe it was Wrentham House? Read this: http://wikimapia.org/5074382/Wrentham-House-Indian-Spring-the-Dorsheimer-Busk-House
Nice pedigree - those were the rock star architect and landscape architect of the day!

Posted on Thursday, June 14th, 2012 at 9:43am.

wendy glover wrote: Hi Leslie, Thanks very much for the info about the Busk family I'm researching. I've now seen the photos of their house "Indian Springs" ( called Wrentham House today), looks a wonderful place to live - lucky them! If you (or anyone else) come across anything else about the Busks I would love to know about it. Newport looks such a nice place I am going to try and persuade my family we really ought to have a family holiday there sometime soon (hopefully!).

Posted on Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 at 9:37am.

wendy Glover wrote: Hi Leslie, Thanks for the info on the Busk family I am researching. I have now seen the photos of the Busk house "Indian Springs" (now called Wrentham House today) - wow what a lovely place - lucky them! I would be interested to learn if you (or anyone else) comes across anymore details about the Busk family and Indian Springs. Newport looks such a nice place I think I might have to persuade my family that we really do need to have a family holiday there sometime soon.

Posted on Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 at 9:51am.

Leslie Hogan wrote: That would be great! Hope to meet you at that time. In the meantime, I'll let you know if I hear any more about the Busks.

Posted on Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 at 10:50am.

Elizabeth wrote: Hi Wendy and Leslie,
You may want to look at the history of the New York Yacht Club and the fact that JRR Busk was one of the founding members...in fact his boat Mischief won the America's Cup in the late 1800's. I am also interested in the Busk family - Wendy, have you found additional material on the family?

Posted on Wednesday, December 4th, 2013 at 2:32pm.

Kenneth Shaw Safe IV wrote: Hello, would you by any chance be able to tell me where this part of the Ocean Lawn is? I've noticed that 11 Ocean Lawn is for sale as of 3/29/14, but it looks nothing like this picture. http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ryr/id/538 - Ocean Lawn was my 2nd great grandfathers estate before it was the Firestones - http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss509.HTM . Furthermore, having this connection (Thomas Shaw Safe being my 2nd great grand father) gives me direct connection to the William Gammell Cottage (3rd great I believe). Any information you have would be greatly appreciated!

Posted on Saturday, March 29th, 2014 at 9:26pm.

Leslie Mathieu Hogan wrote: Thank you for sharing the link with this photo of the old Firestone Estate. It was interesting to see the Cliff walk before fences went up between the Walk and the private homes. When I wrote that blog post I took a stroll on Cliff Walk hoping to take a photo of Ocean Lawn, but the hedges were so high and thick I couldn't do it.
The house you mentioned that's currently for sale - 11 Ocean Lawn - was built in 1998. It was one of the newer homes built after Mrs. Firestone died and her family sold the property. It's a lovely place - about 5,000 s.f. - located behind the estate closer to Annandale Rd. If you use Google earth you can get a better idea of how everything is divided up now.
That's quite an impressive family you have there. I have met Nicholas Brown who grew up in the mansion that is now the New York Yacht Club. He lives nearby. If my husband was still alive he would have many stories to tell you. He grew up here and met many of the estate families when he was an appraiser.
Thanks for commenting. I hope this was helpful.

Posted on Sunday, March 30th, 2014 at 12:44am.

Anthony Michael wrote: What a great article. I have been searching for a few days with no avail for a biography about Elizabeth Parke Firestone or The Firestone family. I have checked Rizzoli bookstore in Manhattan and the gift shops of the Newport mansions. Could anyone point me in the right direction? Thank you :-)

Posted on Monday, January 26th, 2015 at 2:58pm.

Leslie Mathieu Hogan wrote: Hi Anthony,
Thanks for the nice comments. I found quite a bit of information just by Googling Elizabeth Parke Firestone and Harvey Firestone.They were covered in a lot of society and business articles.
Best, Leslie

Posted on Monday, January 26th, 2015 at 3:35pm.

A Grandaughter wrote: This is wonderful to hear. My family owns the Firestone estate currently. It is beautiful. So many incredible memories have been made there. Originally bought by my grandparents the house is shared by four children, and ten grandchildren. It is our santuary. We grew up living there with our grandparents every summer of our childhood and we continue to come in the summers well into our 20s and 30s. I couldn't imagine a better house for such a close family. It is my absolute favorite place in the entire world. I'm hoping to get married there in the upcoming year

Posted on Sunday, January 31st, 2016 at 10:41am.

Leslie Mathieu Hogan wrote: Oh my! Thanks so much for sharing those wonderful thoughts. I often walk my dogs on Cliff walk and think of this story as I pass the estate. It's nice to know your family still loves it and uses it. I'm sure that would make your grandparents very happy. Best wishes for your upcoming marriage - can't think of a more beautiful place for a wedding!

Posted on Sunday, January 31st, 2016 at 5:21pm.

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