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Ralph E. Carpenter, Jr., papers

Biographical note

Ralph Emerson Carpenter, Jr., (1910-2009) was born on October 6, 1906, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and was a descendant of William Carpenter (1610-1685) who, with Roger Williams and others, founded Providence in 1636. Carpenter attended Cornell University and graduated in 1931 with a degree in mechanical engineering, after which he moved to New York City where he worked in insurance and investment banking from 1931 to 1958. In 1958, he became partner of Reynolds Securities, retiring as a senior vice president in 1978. Following his retirement, Carpenter joined Christie’s auction house as a senior American decorative arts consultant, a position he held for thirty years.

Throughout his entire business career, Carpenter was passionate about antiques and preserving historical buildings. He was particularly interested in American colonial furniture, decorative arts, English silver, and Dutch paintings. One of his earliest projects was the construction of his home, Mowbra Hall, in Scarsdale, New York, which was built by assembling eighteenth-century materials and furnishings. Following this endeavor and his first visit to Newport at the end of World War II, Carpenter began his avocation in architectural and historic preservation when he directed the refurbishing and furnishing of Hunter House, one of American’s colonial treasures, for the newly formed Preservation Society of Newport County. The success of this project led to others, allowing Carpenter to be actively involved in the restoration of some of Newport’s defining structures such as the White Horse Tavern, Trinity Church, the Colony House, the Brick Market, and the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. He also directed the preservation and furnishings of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

The work Carpenter accomplished during the restoration of the Hunter House and his appreciation for furniture made by Newport’s Townsend and Goddard families inspired the 1953 publication of his book, The Arts and Crafts of Newport, Rhode Island, 1640-1820. This volume was one of the first books to focus on America’s colonial cabinetmakers as equals of their European counterparts. It also asserted that Newport was home to some of the most sophisticated and refined furniture due to the works of the Townsend and Goddard families. Carpenter also wrote articles for various magazines on antiques-related subjects and served as a lecturer at various organizations.

Ralph E. Carpenter, Jr., participated in various clubs and associations. He was a member of the American Antiquarian Society, Walpole Society, Society of the Cincinnati, Newport Country Club, and the Abraham Redwood Society among others. He also served on a number of boards and committees including the National Trust for Historic Preservation Society, Preservation Society of Newport County, Hunter House, Trinity Church Landmark Preservation Fund, and the Foundation for Newport. In 1992, he founded the Newport Symposium, a yearly gathering of experts in many fields of art and decoration. Carpenter also established the Society of Philosophes in 1997, which was a financial support group for the Preservation Society of Newport Country. One of his last projects was his effort to organize the John Clarke Society with the primary mission of collecting and disseminating information relating to John Clarke (1609-1676), one of the founders of Newport and the author of the 1663 Rhode Island Charter.

Carpenter was a major supporter of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum for a number of years, serving as both a board and committee member. He helped raise funds for the Library’s restoration, renovation, and expansion project (1997-2005) and was also instrumental in the publishing of Newport: A Lively Experiment 1630-1969. In recognition of his outstanding contributions to the Redwood as well as historic preservation in Newport, the second floor meeting room in the Library was named in his honor. The Carpenter Room also houses the Ralph and Roberta Carpenter collection, the Carpenters’ personal library of more than 900 titles on preservation, decorative and fine arts, architecture, and American history.

Ralph E. Carpenter, Jr., married Cynthia Ramsey in 1932, and the couple had one daughter, Cynthia Linton, before their marriage ended in divorce. Carpenter married Roberta Lowy in 1978, and the couple enjoyed many years in Newport before Mr. Carpenter died on February 2, 2009, at the age of ninety-nine.