Jay Leno’s Lavish Newport Mansion Had a Brush With Disaster
Before Jay Leno and his wife Mavis bought the Seafair mansion on Ocean Drive in Newport, Rhode Island, the historic home had a brush with a disaster that almost saw the 15,851-square foot estate reduced to rubble.
My friend and colleague Maddie Levine wrote a piece in April 2021 about how Jay and Mavis were cruising Ocean Drive in 2017 and spotted the lavish mansion and bought it lock, stock and barrel on the spot – over the telephone – for $17.5 million.
It's an incredible tale.
What you don't know – and I'm not sure if Jay, who grew up in Massachusetts, and Mavis know – is how close the 12 bedroom, 13.5 bathroom Seafair came to obliteration.
Seafair, known as Terra Mare, was built by James McKenzie, Jr. for Verner Zevola Reed in 1936. Reed, a Denver mining heir, would later become U.S. ambassador to Morrocco under President Ronald Reagan.
On September 21, 1938, a day that will live in New England weather infamy, the estate's owners and their guests watched as the Great Hurricane of 1938 arrived unexpectedly on the Rhode Island shoreline.
Bettie Bearden Pardee, author of the book Private Newport writes for her website of the same name, "Of the Newporters present that night at Seafair, their memories are of gales racing at 121 miles an hour, a boiling cascading sea approaching 15 feet above mean high water, a 'cyclonic madness' of screeching, beating wind."
Pardee says Seafair's occupants attempted to escape the storm by "taking the grand staircase to the second floor," where they "excited the windows at the western end and were able to crawl along the leeward side of the roof, climb down to the ground and make their way to Ocean Drive...just in the nick of time," as the wind hurled portions of the granite block seawall over the roof of the house.
Seafair suffered interior damage and stood empty until the end of World War II.
From then forward, Seafair became known as Hurricane Hut.