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McAuley Hall was originally named "Vinland" in a romantic reference to legendary Vikings. This rambling, red sandstone, seaside estate was the summer home of tobacco heiress Catherine Lorillard Wolfe. Longfellow's poem about Vikings, "The Skeleton in Armor," inspired the architecture and decor. Built in the Romanesque revival style and characterized by heavy rustication and rounded arches, the building features carved belt courses and window casings with decorative motifs derived from 1,000 year old Celtic manuscripts. The founding members of the British Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, including poet and designer William Morris, supplied the interior decor. Other decorative elements included a suite of stained-glass windows depicting Norse Gods and Goddesses designed by Edward Burne-Jones, and a mural frieze representing Longfellow's story created by painter and designer Walter Crane. While the university no longer owns these items, their significance to the history and study of the building is duly noted through archival literature.
Ernest Bowditch of Boston landscaped Vinland's inviting grounds. A pair of 90 foot, century-old Fernleaf Beech trees (Fagus sylvatica asplenifolia) were shipped to Newport from the Lorillard estate in Yonkers, NY and transported by oxen to Ochre Point. Located in front of the main house, these splendid trees, a variety of European Beach, have narrow, often oblong leaves which are deeply lobed and incised. The Roman Dolium (200 B.C.) near the main entrance was excavated from a rectory garden in Rome and presented to Miss Wolfe in 1884. Similar to storage vessels unearthed at Pompeii, this precious artifact probably once held olives, grain, or wine. For generations of students, the relic, affectionately called "the Bean Pot," has served as a beloved campus landmark. The rose garden near the southern wing was planted by the university to serve as a place of quiet reflection.
In 1896, the property was acquired by railroad tycoon Hamilton McKown Twombly and Florence Vanderilt Twombly, whose brother Cornelius Vanderbilt II owned The Breakers next door. Grand dame Florence became the reigning hostess of Vinland, a lavish and elegant center of social aspiration during the late Gilded Age and first half of the 20th century. As an extended member of Newport's prominent Vanderbilt family, Mrs. Twombly's highly formal, aristocratic entertainments were as well-known as her maroon-liveried servants and ever-present entourage of Rolls Royces. The Twomblys enlarged the house considerably between 1907 and 1910. The interior at this time was recreated by Ogden Codman. In 1955, Mrs. Twombly's daughter, Mrs. William A.M. Burden, donated the estate to the University. The main house was renamed in memory of the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley.