Mrs. Hanan's Village Ball -- 09/26/04

Saturday night was Mrs. Hanan's Village Ball at The Towers in Narragansett.

Nancy and I (briefly) considered attending, but tickets were $125 a person (this is a fund-raising event to support on-going maintenance and restoration of The Towers) and that made it a bit pricey coming so close upon college tuition bills, etc. It's fortunate that we did not purchase tickets because that sore throat that was bothering Nancy at midweek resulted in her being really sick with severe laryngitis that has left her unable to talk above a whisper (she was too sick to go to work on Thursday and Friday -- and I'm not sure what she is going to do on Monday -- it's difficult to teach when you can only whisper). We were then asked to be attendants for the event -- but, obviously, I was the only one of us who could do that.

Who (you might well ask) was Mrs. Hanan?

Mrs. Hanan was an extremely wealthy woman who lived in Narragansett (among other places) during the Gilded Age, that time at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century when those who had wealth were expected to flaunt it.

She was born Edith Evelyn Briggs in 1867 to an old Rhode Island family (she could count Roger Williams himself as one of her ancestors ... and she also could count two ancestors who had arrived on the Mayflower). Her mother was considered a beauty and her father was described as "exceptionally handsome" (and when Edith became a woman, she was frequently described as one of the most beautiful women in the nation.) He was originally a farmer in neighboring South Kingstown, but in 1865 he opened one of the first resort hotels in Narragansett. In 1890 she married Charles Talbot Smith, from a wealthy Newport family. We forget, I think, in our obsession with ills of our time, just how much our lives have been improved by a century of medical advances: Just a few days before their sixth anniversary, her husband died of typhoid fever.

She was a wealthy young widow. She bought a mansion in (then fashionable) Brooklyn and a second mansion in Narragasett. In 1902 she had a brief and disastrous marriage to James H. Thompson, a prominent Newport lawyer; they divorced almost immediately.

She had known John Hanan socially for several years. His family had immigrated from Ireland shortly after his birth in 1847. He expanded his father's shoemaking business into an industrial empire, manufacturing the machinery that was used in shoe factories. He also founded a bank, Brooklyn Manufacturer's Trust. Hanan had married in 1869, still short of his 20th birthday.

He and his wife divorced in January of 1903 and he married Edith that April in a society wedding at her Narragansett mansion (she also had a "palatial" villa in Newport). Two chartered cars were added to a passenger train to bring the New York City guests.

Hanon loved motorcars and yachts -- he owned several of both. When I say yachts, I mean large ocean-going vessels. For example, in 1904, he had the Edithia built; a 115-foot vessel with a crew of ten (possibly the largest yacht powered by a gasoline engine ever built). It would appear that Mr. Hanon was not pleased with the performance of the gasoline engine because later that year he had the Edithia converted to a steam-powered yacht -- and increased to 138 feet in length in the process.

The Naragansett Towers were originally part of the Narragansett Casino -- don't think Las Vegas here -- it meant a building devoted to recreation such as tennis along with areas for dining and dancing. (Technically, I believe the word casino comes from the Italian word cascina or "little house" -- but this casino was quite large, wrapping itself around a group of tennis courts.)

Narragansett was a popular summer resort destination with a number of large hotels, many of them in what was called "shingle style" architecture, large buildings that echoed colonial Puritan architecture. On September 12, 1900 -- fortunately after the summer season had ended so the hotels were mostly empty -- a fire broke out in the kitchen of one of the hotels. It spread rapidly through the wooden structure. We often get strong winds along the coast -- the flames were whipped by 40 to 50 mile an hour winds. The local fire brigade was helpless. Fire brigades -- with their horse-drawn equipment came from the neighboring towns to no avail. Building after building was destroyed, the entire center of Narragansett, including all of the casino except the towers.
The Towers (and here's the other side)
Dinner was served in a huge tent on the lawn (where the main part of the casino had been in the 1890's)
In the west tower -- some of the silent auction items.
Also in the west tower, Mrs. Hanan's gown.
A beautifully restored 1910 White touring car (which attracted a lot of notice from passersby)
The west tower at night -- sort of a Halloween feel.
Dancing in the east tower.

The town was devastated. However, a new casino was built -- a block away from the original. Edith Hanon was the principal investor and owner. The ruined towers were considered to be picturesque reminders of the turn-of-the-century glories of Narragansett, but then Mrs. Hanan took over and had them restored, to be used for parties and dances and dinners.

Edith Hanan was renowned for her parties and dinners. She would dispatch the Edithia to Providence to pick up the governor and his wife to bring them down for a dinner dance. When they had a house warming party for their new mansion in Brooklyn, they brought Narragansett friends down on their private railroad car. (They later also build yet another mansion, this one in Miami Beach.) She held charity fund-raising balls in New York and in Narragansett. In 1905 the U.S. Navy's North Atlantic Squadron (including many of the ships that would sail around the world in "The Great White Fleet" of 1907-09) took a detour from maneuvers to anchor in Narragansett Bay while Admiral Evans and the squadron's officers dined with Mr. and Mrs. Hanon and then attended a gala ball at the newly constructed casino.

Mrs. Hanan raised vast sums for charity (as well as making her own donations) and was very active in the life of the community. During World War I she served as chairwoman of the American National Defense Society of Rhode Island, donated exclusive use of The Towers to the Red Cross for recreation for uniformed forces in Rhode Island (Newport was a major naval base and there were many artillery stations set up guarding the entrance to Narragansett Bay), and also chaired the Welcome the Boys Home Committee of Narragansett Pier. She was known to have remarked on more than one occasion that she might be interested in running for governor of Rhode Island once women received the right to vote. The 19th Amendment was ratified in August of 1920, but Edith Hanan did not live to see it. She was stricken during a New Year's party (most likely a stroke) and died on January 11th. Her husband died of an apparent heart attack that August.

Why Mrs. Hanan's Village Ball? Not only did she sponsor numerous balls to raise money for charity, she remembered when she was a girl and was fascinated by the elegant Naragansett Casino but her mother, being a very practical woman -- their hotel business was very profitable during the summer but was closed the rest of the year, meaning that those summer profits had to last through all those other months and supply the funds to open up again for the next summer -- and she could see no reason to waste good money to pay to enter. Mrs. Hanan remembered that childhood longing and so she always set aside one day each year for free admission for the townspeople, especially for the children.

Thus, the annual Mrs. Hanan's Village Ball to raise money to support the The Towers.

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