A Nymphaeum in Newport
September 8, 2021
A new garden folly in a noted Newport home conceals a grand library atop an otherworldly nymphaeum.
Text by Jill Connors Photography by Warren Jagger
When bathers swim under the waterfall that splashes into the marble spa in Bellevue House’s library-slash-nymphaeum,they enter a shallow-water chamber perfectly sized for two nymphlike swimmers to recline, illuminated by an aquatic-themed plexiglass artwork. Climb through folding glass doors above the waterline, and you’re in a steam shower. It’s a little like being let in on a fantastic secret, as if a nymphaeum in the newest garden building on the grounds of a historic, privately owned 1910 Colonial Revival in Newport, Rhode Island, isn’t already fantastical enough.
Architect JP Couture, builder Glenn Parker, and numerous artisans collaborated to realize homeowner Ron Fleming’s vision: a library of 6,000 books arranged on hand-waxed pine shelves nestled within the same Adamesque garden building as a marble nymphaeum, a type of room, historically featuring a fountain and used for relaxation, that dates back to Roman times.
“Nymphaeums are the most compelling and eccentric places, an old idea from ancient Rome and Greece that I have known about since I was a boy,” says Fleming, a town planner, preservationist, and author. “I built this library/nymphaeum as a retreat. I could actually live there!”
Indeed, the 1,500-square-foot library includes not only two levels of books—the upper level graced by a custom-made bronze handrail—but also a closet, kitchen niche, bathroom, and shower room; a leather sofa converts into a bed. “Imagine building all that for a Kindle,” Couture wryly notes.
If the library inspires solitude and soulful contemplation, the nymphaeum below embraces creative expression and aquatic delights. Vaulted plaster ceilings give the underground space a sense of volume, while marble floors and walls evoke luxury. Off to one side, Fleming’s three grandchildren give performances on a built-in stage. A grotto that artist Christa Wilm covered with thousands of seashells cradles the spa, which is big enough for six bathers, and waterfall.
For all the ancient and natural themes, the library/nymphaeum’s HVAC system is pure modern technology. “It’s unique to have a humid environment like the nymphaeum in the same structure as thousands of books,” says builder Glenn Parker. To ensure the right climate for both, the HVAC is a mix of hydronic and radiant systems working off geothermal heat pumps.
“It was an amazing project,” says Parker. “I’m fairly certain I will never do another like it.”