During my freshman year at Salve we took an introduction to historical preservation course for our major, and the principle project that we worked on was on the library of one of our dorms called Watts-Sherman. The home is named after the man William Watts Sherman for whom the house was built.
Our project was to examine and apply modern techniques and research in which to prepare a restoration/ preservation plan to the university. This room was a rather small but grand space with its deep hunter green walls and gold glint paint highlighting the architectural details. As the project went on we came to debate the original paint colors and how the room had been changed and altered from its original vision. We also wondered about the furnishings (rumored to be original Louis XVI).
Well we went on and on for weeks debating and debating when one day during our research we discovered that the woman living across the street at 459 Bellevue ave, Mrs. Eileen G. Slocum was the granddaughter of the original owner William Watts Sherman and his second wife Sophia August Brown, and that Mrs. Slocum had visited her grandparents during her family's summer trips to Newport. (to have a living relative that experienced one of these spaces in their original condition was a BIG deal to us we were beyond elation.)
HOWEVER, what many of our peers did not realize was that this was THE Mrs. John Slocum one of, in not THE Grand Dame of Newport High Society and that you DO NOT simply walk across the street and knock on her front door and say "Well excuse me Mrs. S but would you mind telling us about your visits with granny?" No, no, no this matter was to be handled with the utmost decorum, to even grant the possibility of a visit with Mrs.S.
So after much work we contacted her personal secretary and after much waiting were told that Mrs. S would be willing to come speak with us. Now much of our class could not appreciate the enormity of this event but my BFF Linnie and I were beyond excitement. We dressed for the occasion and waited with baited breath as the 80 something year old Dame to slowly made her way up the driveway in her vintage mercedes (I mean what do you expect for her to hop over the bushes?) As she entered the port cochere we all waited to greet her. She was the most adorable thing in her Chanel suit with Ferragamo Varinas and Prada Purse (also completely lost on everyone expect Linnie and I)
So, she sits down and we all gather round and she speaks in a very soft voice and we gingerly ask her about 5 questions regarding the interior paints (it was more of a tiffany blue then the dark green of its current state) and the big kicker is yes all of the original furniture was Louis XVI and ohh by the way she has all of it in her sitting room across the street... and why not have us over for tea tomorrow and she would show it to us... (OMFG!!!) Linnie and I looked at each other and our jaws dropped, did she just invite us to her private home for tea? Umm yes she did! This was amazing we could barely contain our excitement. For one of the Dames in the upper echelons of Newport High Society to invite us to her home for a private tour was a VERY BIG DEAL.
The next day we went for the tour and it was absolutely amazing, she was the most gracious host. Her home was filled with the most magnificent family heirlooms from everything to busts of their relatives to original paintings by John Singer Sargent, and personal christmas cards from George and Laura (Bush that is... Mrs. S was the former Rhode Island Republican Chairwoman...I knew I liked her!) From the perspective of a student of history the experience in itself was beyond what we normally do which is either go into spaces that are in a sever state of disrepair or have already been restored but are on exhibition and do not have that "lived in feel." However we were in the Slocum home where she and her husband had raised their children and grandchildren and the home had that distinct warmth of family. You could tell how proud she was of her heritage and her family's place in history and that she loved being the doyenne and sheparding us through their story. It was such a wonderful day and in the years prior to her passing in 2008, when I would see her in town (still driving around in that old mercedes) I would always wave and she would smile back with a little sparkle in her eye. She was a true Grande Dame, a woman that had lived a life of extreme privilege but was wholly human, and they just don't make them like that anymore.