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Champ Soleil

Newport, Rhode Island

Completed in 1929, for the divorcée Mrs Lucy Wharton (Drexel) Dahlgren (1867-1944) who divided her time between France and America. Champ Soleil (French for "Field of Sun") was built in the overall style of a 17th century Norman manor. It was one of the last great houses to be put up in Newport, somewhat ironically, as the sun was setting on the Gilded Age. Situated behind the trees opposite Marble House, it is one of only a handful of Newport's grand summer "cottages" that is not only still in private hands, but is also available to hire out for the summer and winter seasons.
Lucy's grandfather, Francis Drexel, escaped Austria during the Napoleonic Wars and founded the merchant bank Drexel & Co., at Philadelphia, better known today as JP Morgan. Her father, Joseph, was sent to manage its affairs in New York, but he is best remembered for the extraordinary work he did to alleviate suffering and improve the lives of the poor. Lucy was both a devout Catholic and socially ambitious, marrying Eric B. Dahlgren, a stockbroker whose father had made a fortune through inventing the Dahlgren Gun. In 1912, she filed for divorce on the grounds of her husband's 2-day "misconduct".

Lucy was left $20 million by her father and a further $5 million when her mother died in 1912. It was Lucy's husband who was hardest hit by the divorce: She had taken custody of their children and except for his bedroom, she had stripped every room of their Madison Avenue mansion bare of all its art, furnishings etc. Eric was left with an empty house, the upkeep of which he could not afford without her, and it was foreclosed on in 1914.

After her divorce, Lucy had spent much of her time in France. In 1927, she sold her Manhattan townhouse at 15 East 96th Street to the famous jeweller, Pierre Cartier (1878-1964). She then hired the architects Polhemus & Coffin of New York to build her a new home at Newport inspired by La Lanterne, a royal hunting lodge at Versailles which is today the official country seat of the Prime Ministers and Presidents of France.

House & Gardens

The estate is entered through a pair of early 18th century gilt-edged, wrought-iron gates that came from a Queen Anne townhouse in London. The manor is surrounded by 5.5 acres of gardens laid out by Umberto Innocenti (1883-1969). The idyllic grounds include a formal parterre, grand terraces flanked by garden walls, two dovecote gazebos, several outbuildings and a croquet lawn considered to be one of the finest in the country. The gardens overflow with a profusion of azaleas, roses, rhododendrons, boxwoods, dogwoods and magnolias, while lindens and huge copper beech trees give shade to the lawns.

Covering 13,000 square feet, the 22-room house was designed for entertainment with an elegant ballroom and a dining room wing for 62 guests. The dining room has ivory-painted panelling and gilt-framed mirrors to reflect the light from the chandeliers and windows. This wing also includes three kitchen areas that face the garden for use during the summer season. Wrought-iron balconies on the upper floors overlook the gardens and the drawing room with its 12.5-feet ceilings opens up onto its own private terrace.

The most written-about room is the library with its soft Louis XV pine panelling taken from a house in Paris. Laid out symmetrically, there are mirrored alcoves directly opposite the windows and a mantelpiece with bookcases either side opposite the central door. The house has six marble fireplaces and throughout the floors are of either marble or parquet. There are six bedrooms, including the master bedroom that has its own sitting room. Today, it features many mod-cons such as the media room and swimming pool.

Robert & Roberta Goelet

Lucy had spent much of her time in France before the War, but when the Nazis approached Paris in 1940 she returned to Newport, living the rest of her life there.

In 1947, Lucy's heirs sold the manor to a well-known local resident, Robert Wilson Goelet (1880-1966), who had wished to downsize from the vast chateau he'd inherited from his parents, Ochre Court. That same year, Goelet and his third wife, Roberta Willard (1893-1949), carried out an extensive restoration project on their new home. They hired the firm of Jansen of Paris & New York, the well-known interior decorators who are best remembered for their work on the White House during the Kennedy administration.

Robert was a passionate yachtsman and member of the New York Yacht Club. In 1964, he hosted his last dinner-dance at Champ Soleil to celebrate the end of the America's Cup Race. He died two years later and having outlived his wife, the house went up for sale.

Gordon & Mary Douglas

The new owners of Champ Soleil were J. Gordon Douglas Jr., who had spent his early summers at Stonor Lodge, and his fourth - and final - wife, Mary Lummis (1917-2015), the jewellery designer best associated with Charleston and former fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue magazines. Gordon's first wife, Peggy Phipps, is best remembered for opening her family home Old Westbury Gardens to the public.

The Aitkens

In about 1970, Champ Soleil was purchased by Annie-Laurie Aitken (1900-1984) and her second husband, Russell Barnett Aitken (1910-2002), who had rented the house from the Douglas' for the two previous seasons. By her first husband, Annie was the mother of Sunny von Bulow whose tragic last days were lived out at nearby Clarendon Court.

Russ Aitken was something of a Renaissance Man. He trained pursuit pilots in World War Two and in 1949 he won the "High Gun" as the best shot in the nation. But, he was also an artist, sculptor, photo-journalist, writer, conservationist, bon vivant, former big-game hunter and croquet champion who laid out the lawn at Champ Soleil. Both he and Annie were serious, knowledgeable collectors of art: Her passion was for English antiques - the British period rooms at the Met Museum are named the "Annie Laurie Aitken Galleries" - while his was for French antiques, notably anything to do with the Napoleons I and III.

Annie died in 1984, but Russ Aitken remained in the house and afterwards lived there with his second wife, Irene Elder Boyd (b.1931), the widow of John Aspinwall Roosevelt (1916-1981). Russ died in 2002 and Champ Soleil was put on the market by his widow the following year for $5.9 million. She also put its contents - a collection of 522 antiques - up for auction which included much of Russ and Annie's collection: a mix of 18th-century Georgian chairs; Louis XV and XVI furniture by Cresson, Tilliard, Gordin etc.; carved German 18th-century hunting trophies; a nearly life-size sculpture of a stag with real antlers; Chinese Export porcelain; china, carpets, paintings, sculpture etc.

Barneys, Zarrillis & Champ Soleil Today

In 2003, Champ Soleil was purchased as one of the four homes of New Yorkers Laura Jane "Bootsy" Belmont (b.1927) and her husband William Barney of the Smith-Barney banking family. Sometime later, certainly before 2012, it became the property of Messrs Kenneth Zarrilli and Joshua L. McKinney-Zarrilli. While they own it, they also lease it out and Champ Soleil is available for hire both during the summer and winter seasons.