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The main building was, and remains, three stories high, brick-faced at the street level, fish-scale shingles above. A paneled entryway on Bellevue Avenue led to the wonders within—the neatly kept tennis courts, trees, shrubs and pathways, the semicircular Horseshoe Piazza and a yellow-faced clock on a bulbous tower that struck one viewer as a copy of a London bobby's helmet. Actually the tower is shaped after a form common to the Loire Valley of France, a region much favored by White. The cost of the entire layout was said to be close to $200,000.
The grand opening was held on July 28, 1880, and the Newport News proclaimed: "There is nothing like it in the old world or new." The first-class tenants, most of them from New York, were installed in the shops. The 16-piece orchestra of J. M. Lander, the Meyer Davis of his time, was brought up from New York, and the cottagers all turned out to make the inaugural a dazzling success.
"It is doubtful," the Newport News said just three days after the opening. "if a more lively place can be found." Within a week the Casino held a gigantic housewarming attended by more than 3,000 persons, an occasion the Providence Journal decreed as "the greatest event of its kind ever known here." Mrs. Van Rensselaer, in her account of Newport life, was moved to note that whatever the attraction provided by the Casino—horse show, dog show, tennis tourney, anything—"the fashionable folk" on the grounds made "a dazzling sight" and "a picture not easily forgotten."
In short, Bennett's place was the place, and in record time it became the "must" place to be seen at around noon for gossiping and for lunch. Then would come tennis or whatever for the afternoon, then a play, a concert or a gala on the grounds during the evening.
Bennett himself, oddly enough, was far from the best patron the Casino had, primarily because he had expatriated himself to France and was an increasingly infrequent visitor to the U.S. But even when he was in residence at Stone Villa, Bennett did not often walk across the street to patronize his own creation; indeed there is a strong belief that he never once played tennis on the premises. Just having the Casino there and a success, apparently, was his reward.
After socializing, tennis quickly became the Casino's leading sport. The game had been growing in popularity among the American elite since it first appeared in this country from England, by way of Bermuda, around 1874. When, in 1881, the newly formed United States Lawn Tennis Association decided to hold its first national championship, the honor of serving as host for the event went to Newport and, of course, the Casino was the choice.
"The grounds were picturesque and the courts well kept," a frequent Newport participant, Henry Slocum Jr., national champion in 1888-89, noted later, "and Newport being then as now, a very fashionable resort, the most beautiful women of the country graced the tournament with their presence." Or as another player chose to put it, "The ladies bestowed sweet smiles upon the players."
Most of the sweet smiles, undoubtedly, were initially directed at Richard Dudley Sears, Harvard '83. Sears won the singles title in the 1881 tourney, went on to defend the title for the next six years and then retired undefeated from national competition.
The national championships, singles and doubles, continued to be contested at Newport every summer until 1915, when the event was moved to the West Side Tennis Club's new quarters at Forest Hills, N.Y. New porters protested this move, but the New York group was able to convince the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association that tennis at the Casino was a social event to which even championship tournaments came second. It was an argument not without fact. Newport's reply, once the switch was done, was to put on its own invitational tournament for amateurs each August. That continued, except for war years, until this summer, when the Casino elected to follow a growing tennis trend by replacing the traditional event with a tournament for professionals.
During World War II the upper floor of the Casino's main building was taken over as a club for officers at Newport's several Navy bases, but the Casino was otherwise dormant. After the war, it reopened quickly and bravely. But in terms of patronage and, more so, ambiance, it somehow wasn't the same, and times became relatively hard. A corner of the Casino's property was sold off to a realtor and later became the site of a supermarket—and at the time it was thought that any good offer could have bought the rest of it for commercial uses.