Volume 20, Issue 2 | Summer 2021

Kingscote’s Dining Room and the Multisensorial Interior in the Late Nineteenth Century: Project Narrative

by Lea C. Stephenson

Scholarly Essay|Project Narrative

This project examines Kingscote, a cottage in Newport, Rhode Island, and its dining room (1881) as a case study for multisensorial spaces associated with the late nineteenth century Aesthetic movement in the United States. My initial research on Kingscote’s dining room as an exemplary, ambient space began during my Decorative Arts Research Fellowship at the Preservation Society of Newport County. Thereafter, the project developed as part of a larger study of late nineteenth-century ambient interiors of the United States during a workshop organized by Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide in the winter of 2019.

Although previous research had been completed on the dining room in relation to McKim, Mead & White’s early work and the overall design details, the artistic room as an ambient interior had not been previously considered.‍[1] My study grounds the dining room in the Aesthetic movement and unpacks the space through the various objects that could stimulate different senses. By exploring Kingscote’s aesthetic interior, this project separates the residence and late nineteenth-century Newport interiors from the negative connotations of a superficial Gilded Age and, instead, highlights the pivotal role of ambient spaces and the deliberate arrangement of materials. Furthermore, my examination of Kingscote and its design as a multisensorial experience points to a larger scholarly need to address senses other than sight when considering nineteenth-century interiors.

This project and its accompanying digital components is intended to draw out the ambient nature of this interior through key objects and decorative treatments related to the senses. The digital features introduce this Newport interior to an audience perhaps unfamiliar with Kingscote itself, including detailed components for the reader to understand textures, surfaces, and the physicality of a three-dimensional decorative object.

Completing such a project on an intact interior also entailed recognizing the limitations of fully understanding a sensorial experience in Kingscote—one that was deeply personal to the King family and internalized by a late nineteenth-century beholder. For example, lighting technology has changed in the dining room and the furnishings have been moved over the years, raising questions about the authenticity of a historic house as a time capsule. Initially, I gathered research from provenance and archival records at the Preservation Society of Newport County, King family inventories, Newport City Hall probate records (objects related to the original commission), and Newport Historical Society records of the Kings; I also studied existing photographs of the dining room dating from the turn of the century. Since the King family continued to reside in the cottage until 1972, I had to track down particular objects that were original to the dining room’s creation and Stanford White’s design, rather than family additions pulled from different estate properties. Finally, compiling evidence on the dining room would not have been possible without spending long amounts of time looking closely at and experiencing the interior myself, especially tracking the ambient light. Ultimately, I hope that singling out Kingscote’s interior as a case study will open up further inquiry into other multisensorial spaces of the late nineteenth century—ones that provoked a variety of sensorial effects upon the beholder.

The “lightscape” digital component focuses upon a specific, dynamic feature of the dining room: the Tiffany & Co. opalescent tiles. Photographs capture the room’s walls covered by Tiffany & Co. tiles alongside the marble fireplace. This feature also centers on the summer light, which would have been most familiar to the family who spent their summers in Newport. After observing the dining room over the course of a day, I noticed that the glass bricks produced subtle light changes in the room. The Tiffany walls would warm up during the afternoon or produce a heightened contrast upon entering the interior, especially with the different opacities of each tile in blue and cream tints.

The lightscape is arranged in a grid of nine images, and readers can click on each image of the tile wall to examine each in detail. This lightscape is discussed in the article in conjunction with the section on ambient light in the dining room and reflective surfaces, showcasing how sunlight is either absorbed across the Tiffany & Co. tiles or projected upon the walls and nearby objects. Moreover, the tiles suggest how nineteenth-century designers and audiences considered the effects of shifting, natural light, as opalescent glass produced constant variations in warm to cool tones. The digital component and inclusion of nine images emphasize how these tiles contribute to the multisensorial interior and to the creation of an enclosed environment. Three images indicate when the King family used the room at different meal times or when entertaining guests, and the remaining grid presents a different hour over the course of a day. The time-lapse style of this grid also suggests the shifting nature of the eclectic ensemble over a single day rather than a fixed image. Above all, the digital component demonstrates how the designers of Kingscote, as an Aesthetic movement interior, took into account the perception of light in a space and how surfaces stimulate sight.

To highlight the various multisensorial components within Kingscote, the second digital component consists of “annotated” images of different views of the dining room. After unpacking the senses (hearing, smell, taste, touch), I “read” images of the dining room using overlay features to consider the relationship between the acts of looking around the dining room, touching objects, and aromatic moments. The digital component presents different sides of the dining room to give readers a better understanding of the three-dimensional space and location of objects. Clicking through the carousel of images provides different views of the room, allowing the reader to move around the space. Links to the annotated image in the article text direct readers to the materials and surfaces of specific objects original to the space and associate them with particular senses. An accompanying floor plan of the dining room also enables readers to navigate the space and understand the specific angle of the interior, whether facing east or west.

Using OpenSeadragon (OSD) as an interactive platform, the images include annotations for readers to click on and explore the different objects based on their previously introduced sensorial qualities. OSD was the best solution to showcase these objects and navigate a single space. Specifically, the program enables users to explore views of the ambient interior arranged in a carousel, while directing them to specific objects that are highlighted with color coded boxes, each corresponding to a different sense. When a box is selected, a panel appears with details of the object(s) and tombstone information, including the designer, materials, and additional notes on whether McKim, Mead & White or the King family acquired the object(s). In addition, this selected panel includes an annotation that provides information on the object(s) and notes how the detail relates to a specific sensorial effect.

These annotated images allow the reader to explore object combinations in the overall room, that underscore the mixture of objects. A prime example is the west side of the dining room and the overlay of objects prompting different sensations, with its brass Chinese temple bell, sterling silver tea service, and cellaret. Including the senses together in this single annotated image also emphasizes the multisensorial nature of the dining room, such as “touch” or “hearing” working in tandem. In particular, this component with annotated images affirms Kingscote as an exemplary case study for ambient spaces by triggering a multitude of senses.


[1] Literature on the Kingscote dining room includes Marilynn Johnson, “The Artful Interior,” in In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement, ed. Doreen Bolger Burke et al. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Rizzoli, 1987), 127; Holly Collins, “Kingscote’s Coming of Age: A Sentimental Journey,” Research Fellow Report, The Preservation Society of Newport County (February 24, 2003), https://www.newportmansions.org/; J. Walton Ferguson, Kingscote: Newport Cottage Orné (Newport, RI: The Preservation Society of Newport County, 1977); Ellen E. Roberts, “Japanism and the American Aesthetic Interior, 1867–1892: Case Studies by James McNeill Whistler, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White, and Frank Lloyd White” (PhD diss., Boston University, 2010). One of the few texts to briefly mention the sensorial components in Kingscote is Samuel White’s survey of McKim, Mead & White’s residences. White remarks on the different lighting techniques and decorative devices in the dining room: “the cramped interior of the older structure explodes in an orgy of sensuous materials, colored light, and decorated surfaces.” Samuel G. White, The Houses of McKim, Mead & White (New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 1998), 34. See also Ellen E. Roberts, “Japanism in Stanford White’s Dining Room for Kingscote,” in Inventing Asia: American Perspectives around 1900, ed. Noriko Murai and Alan Chong (Boston: Gardner Museum, 2014), 139; and Hannah Sigur, The Influence of Japanese Art on Design (Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2008), 110–11.