The Saga of Harbour Court 30 Years Later

Thirteen of us put our names on a deed when we bought Harbour Court from the John Nicholas Brown family exactly 30 years ago. It was a bold move paying the highest price ever for a Newport property in hopes that it would become a window on the water for the New York Yacht Club. We believed other members would see this opportunity the way we did. There were problems, of course, not the least of which was that the (then) commodore didn’t agree! So the partnership went at it alone from July 1987 until the NYYC board voted to accept the purchase in April 1988. Momentum for Harbour Court gathered along the way and the membership contributed generously, exceeding all expectations. It was a thrilling period of sailors coming together.

The NYYC had lost the America’s Cup to Australia in 1983 after 132 years, the longest winning streak in sporting history. In many ways, the Club had lost its main gig and needed to reinvent itself—or possibly perish. The straw hats of the old guard had become passé. Looking back, having a window on the water seems logical, but the club existed just fine in the middle of Manhattan for over a century. Change doesn’t come easily. Carter Brown told me at the inaugural commissioning ceremony that his late father had always said, “It’d make a great yacht club.” Thus, this bold undertaking was birthed decades prior by Commodore Brown himself!

That said, the wheels had been set in motion to create perhaps the greatest waterfront facility in the world, save a historic structure, and reinvigorate Newport’s waterfront that was rapidly turning into condos and timeshares with traditional maritime trades disappearing fast. Newport’s 400-year history as a port was in trouble. In addition to being a port, as Carter Brown (former head of the National Gallery, son of John Nicholas Brown) said, Newport was perhaps the finest wooden city in America, home to the Tennis Hall of Fame, the America’s Cup Hall of Fame (Bristol), the oldest synagogue in America, and the first public library. At one point Newport had the likes of George Washington and Count Rochambeau working tirelessly for the 13 colonies to gain independence in the American Revolution.

The partnership group included NYYC members Brad Boss, Dort Cameron, Llwyd Ecclestone, Charlie Leighton, Lee Loomis, Don McGraw, Elizabeth Meyer, David Ray, Charlie Robertson, Frank Snyder, Bob Stone, Bill Woodward, and me. It was a most congenial group! The incoming commodore in December 1987 was one of us, Frank Snyder. I was the head of the partnership and the man with the clipboard orchestrating the makeover, but could not have been successful without Snyder’s support and willingness to run interference. It permitted us to move ahead quickly on a myriad of issues that confronted opening a club facility—and all that went with it—in a residential historic district. We had to get 32 permits! In an old house, few things are the way you need them to meet fire codes, and suddenly you are operating overnight rooms, a bar, and waterfront upgrades capable of serving a membership.

Newport opened its arms to us, which was one of the most rewarding aspects of what we did. Somewhat unexpectedly, Newporters were quick to see we played to their strengths instead of just being another developer coming to town, wanting to chop the historic houses into condominiums. It was their harbor, too, and they wanted it saved. We saw this consistently at City Hall as I procured permit after permit. We tried to reciprocate in joining the community as best we could. The NYYC was not only reinventing itself after losing the Cup; to a degree, it was reinventing Newport’s waterfront. The Museum of Yachting thrived even more than it had in the past, the International Yacht Restoration School was founded, Newport Shipyard went from bankruptcy to a floutishing mega-yacht hub, waterfront jobs grew plentiful, and sub-contractors statewide streamed in. The rule of thumb for a mega-yacht facility is a dollar spent there turns over seven times in the community: restaurants, bed and breakfasts, car rentals, etc. Newport Harbor was again coming alive and, you might say, a big part of the catalyst happened 30 years ago with the purchase of Harbour Court. I have to admit, as a group we saw it right away as a good project, but what has happened ever since has exceeded our wildest dreams!