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Ralph Emerson Carpenter Jr. (October 6, 1909 – February 2, 2009) was a conservationist and Colonial furniture expert.


Carpenter was born on October 6, 1909, in Woonsocket, Rhode Islandmarker and was a descendant of William Carpenter who founded Providence, Rhode Islandmarker in 1636 along with Roger Williams. He spent his summers in his youth at the family's home in Matunuckmarker, across Narragansett Baymarker from Newportmarker. He attended Cornell Universitymarker, graduating in 1931 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Business career

After an offer of employment from Alcoa was retracted during the Great Depression, he took employment selling life insurance in Toledo, Ohiomarker before moving to New York Citymarker. There he would go from building to building trying to sell insurance, but there was little interest.

Carpenter became a pension plan consultant, obtaining Bristol-Myers as a customer and later becoming partner at Reynolds and Company, an investment bank.


Carpenter developed an interest in antiques that began as a way to acquire inexpensive furniture to fill his Scarsdale, New Yorkmarker apartment. He would visit dealers in Manhattanmarker, purchasing items crafted by George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton.

His 1954 book, The Arts and Crafts of Newport, Rhode Island, 1640-1820, helped bring attention to American Colonial-era cabinetmakers to public attention.

He continued his search for antiques, first keeping them in a warehouse and then constructing a custom-built house in Scarsdale in the 1950s to accommodate the collection. He sold the house and moved to Newport in the 1970s.

Historic renovations

In the 1940s, while antiques-hunting in New England, he revisited the city and was dismayed by the rundown appearance of many of its buildings. After the Hunter Housemarker was purchased in 1945 to forestall its destruction, Carpenter was appointed to oversee the restoration of the building by the nascent Preservation Society of Newport County. As part of the restoration effort, Carpenter acquired furniture from Goddard and Townsend, two of the great cabinetmaking families of the area. Morrison Heckscher called the house "a brilliant restoration that gets better with age, and that book of his, written with great intelligence, simplicity and clarity, is one I still turn to 50 years later."

He was asked to reconstruct the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusettsmarker following a destructive fire in 1955. He also renovated other Newport structures, including the 1673 White Horse Tavernmarker, the 1726 Trinity Churchmarker, the Redwood Library and Athenaeummarker built from 1748-1750 and the 1762 Brick Market, later home to the Museum of Newport Historymarker.


He was hired by Christie's in 1978, serving as a consultant on decorative arts and antiques. He played a pivotal role in the acquisition of the Nicholas Brown desk-case, which sold for a $12.1 million in 1989 to Harold Sack, a record for a piece of American furniture that stood at the time of Carpenter's death.

Carpenter established the Newport Symposium in 1992, so that art experts could gather on an annual basis to discuss issues of interest.

To the end of his life, he was an active collector, historian and preservationist, purchasing items that would be appropriate for the many Newport buildings he restored.


Carpenter died at age 99 on February 2, 2009 in Newportmarker. He was survived by his second wife, the former Roberta Lowy; a daughter; a grandchild; and three great-grandchildren. His 1932 marriage to Cynthia Ramsey ended in divorce.


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