I’ve enjoyed meeting readers through various interviews and book events these past two weeks. Having the opportunity to discuss NEWPORT is a real perk. Often, readers point out aspects of the novel that I’d never considered, and it’s fun to realize that they’re absolutely right.
I’ve been asked one particular question several times now, and it’s one I never anticipated: “Is Liriodendron real?” The answer is a resounding “Sort of.”
For those who haven’t read NEWPORT, Liriodendron is the Chapman family’s “summer cottage,” the mansion where most of the novel takes place. It occupies a prime spot of oceanfront real estate, but you’ll never find it on a map. Its location is deliberately blurry because, no, Liriodendron does not exist in Newport, Rhode Island.
It does, however, exist in Bel Air, Maryland.
Although Bel Air’s Liriodendron has been described as “belonging on the cliffs of Newport…,” the real and fictitious mansions only superficially resemble each other. Both were designed and constructed around the same time (1897-1898), but by different sorts of people for different reasons. Bel Air’s Liriodendron was the summer residence of Dr. Howard A. Kelly, one of the “Big Four” founding physicians of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Born in New Jersey and educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Kelly specialized in gynecology and obstetrics. During most of the year he, his wife Laetitia, and their nine children lived at 1406 Eutaw Place in Baltimore City. As the heat of summer descended, however, they decamped for Bel Air, where the temperatures were cooler. Unlike a gilded Newport summer, a grand season of over-indulgence and society did not await. For the Kelly family, Liriodendron was more of a family getaway than a place to “be seen.”
Designed by Baltimore architects Wyatt and Nolting, Liriodendron is a two-and-a-half story, stuccoed brick Palladian mansion currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I became aware of it during my band days when I played weddings there. I thought it was beautiful with its grand staircase, fireplaces, and graceful terrace. Places like this can’t help but inspire. The house – along with its name – stuck with me.
Let’s talk about that tongue-twisting name for a moment. “Liriodendron” is the botanical term for the tulip poplar tree. With all due respect to Dr. Kelly, who named his summer home, “poplar” would have been much easier to say. (Apparently, “The Poplars” was in early contention for the name of the estate.) When I needed a name for my fictional Newport cottage, Liriodendron came to mind for several reasons. One of those reasons was that for Bennett Chapman, my new-money magnate, “more” equaled “best,” and I suspected that he’d approve of a five-syllable name for the summer home he intended as his calling card to the upper echelon of Newport society.
Fortunately for the Kelly family, the real Liriodendron was less of a status symbol and more of a home. It stayed in the Kelly family until 1980, when ownership passed through agreement to Harford County, and the estate became part of Heavenly Waters Park. It’s now managed by the Liriodendron Foundation. You can visit if you’d like; there’s a weekly open house on Wednesdays between noon and 7 p.m.
As a postscript, here’s an interesting fact I turned up while researching this post: Howard and Laetitia Kelly, married for fifty-three years, both died on January 12, 1943, he of heart disease and she in a coma six hours later, in the hospital room next to his.
There’s a book in that.