Rhode Island

Newport Mansions | Experiencing the Gilded Age

Visiting the lavish Newport Mansions (or “summer cottages”) in Newport, Rhode Island offers an opulent peek into the “Gilded Age” of American history.

By Bethany Bourgault

Jun 10 2022

Newport Mansions | Experiencing the Gilded Age

Front facade of Rosecliff mansion

Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Newport, Rhode Island. A breathtaking city on the water, a worldwide destination for vacationers, students, athletes, and historians alike. America’s wealthiest residents of the late 19th century reveled in the area’s natural coastal beauty too, and built their summer “cottages” there to escape the hustle and bustle of New York City life. These “cottages” however, are anything but quaint. You may know them better as “the Newport Mansions.” The enormous facades and even more lavish interiors housed a unique and selective class of business moguls and heirs. No expense was spared in their decoration or in the jaw-droppingly decadent parties their residents threw.
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Waves crash on the shore below the Newport Mansions, where America’s wealthiest built summer homes during the Gilded Age.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
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Coastal wildflowers add a taste of natural charm to the city that residents fell in love with years ago.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
As the Gilded Age drew to a close, many fortunes were lost and some mansions faced unclear futures. Some even faced futures as parking lots. However, thanks to the Preservation Society of Newport County, many of Newport’s most fascinating mansions have been preserved, protected, and opened to the public. Guests can mosey around the different rooms, learn about what life was like in that era, and wistfully imagine days gone by.
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Rough Point, originally built for a Vanderbilt family member before changing hands in the early 1900s.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
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Newport’s Harbor at sunset is a beautiful place to wonder about life in the Gilded Age.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
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A far-off sail boat glides past the cliff walk.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” back in 1873, but he wasn’t praising the glitz and gold trim we think of today. He was instead satirizing the divide between the lavish spending of a few and the harsh, bitter reality of the rest. The Elms, one of Newport’s most popular mansions, offers a Servant’s Life Tour to show guests this less-known side of Newport mansions life. Edward and Herminie (pronounced like “Hermione” from Harry Potter) Berwind went to great lengths to ensure their house appeared to run on magic, and the Servant’s Tour shows guests some of the living quarters, working rooms, rooftop facilities and appliances that helped create the illusion.
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The back facade of The Elms, home of Herminie and Edward Berwind.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
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Ornate front entrance to The Elms
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
A mythical creature adorns a fountain outside of The Elms.
A mythical creature adorns a fountain outside of The Elms.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
I stuck to the main tour on my Newport Mansions visit, and was certainly not disappointed. The Berwinds’ “magic” summer cottage captures the elegance it was renowned for with its intricate ceiling and wall detailing and vast collection of cultural art. How does one fund such extravagance? Edward Berwind made his money from the coal industry. He founded the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company, which powered, among other things, the New York Central Railroad. Ironically, he ensured that coal wasn’t a fixture in his own home — there is a secret underground tunnel that was used to ferry coal and ash both into and out of the house.
The Elms Dining Room, which houses the largest collection of Venitian paintings outside Venice
The Elms Dining Room, which houses the largest collection of Venitian paintings outside Venice
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
The Elms Conservatory, a French-inspired garden room
The Elms Conservatory, a French-inspired garden room
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
The Elms Ballroom
The Elms Ballroom
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
The Elms Grand Staircase
The Elms Grand Staircase
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
Next I ventured to Rosecliff, a sweeping capital-H-shaped French pavilion designed specifically for entertaining. Tessie Oelrichs, an heiress of the Comstock Lode (the first major discovery of silver in the United States) and her husband Hermann Oelrichs, a steamship/shipping tycoon, commissioned the home to be built in 1902. It changed hands a few times, but was always used for lavish parties. (It still is today. Rosecliff is one of Newport’s most popular venues for weddings and events.)
Front facade of beautiful Rosecliff
Front facade of beautiful Rosecliff, perhaps the most popular of the Newport Mansions for weddings.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
The rose garden outside of Rosecliff, after which it was named.
The rose garden outside of Rosecliff, after which it was named
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
The famous 80×40-foot ballroom has been featured in The Great Gatsby, 27 Dresses, Amistad, and True Lies. It was the site of one of Gilded-Age Newport’s most famous parties — the “Bal Blanc” in 1904. “Bal Blanc” is French for “White Ball,” and Mrs. Oelrichs certainly made sure that the event lived up to its name. Ladies wore white gowns, hair was powdered to be blonde or white, white lights and flowers decorated every dark surface, and even the ocean was turned white with boat sails. Two white swans floated around a fountain all night long.
Rosecliff's ballroom has been featured in several films and television shows.
Rosecliff’s ballroom has been featured in several films and television shows
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Ira Kearns
Rosecliff's heart-shaped grand staircase. Guests are greeted by marble statues of Diana and Dante before being whisked up these romantic steps.
Rosecliff’s heart-shaped grand staircase. Guests are greeted by marble statues of Diana and Dante before being whisked up these romantic steps.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County
Just five minutes down the street at Marblehouse, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s brother, William, and his wife Alva, built the image of extravagance — complete with 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Glittering stained glass, gold and crystal welcome visitors in the main entrance, just like it would have when hundreds of ladies showed up to the estate for Alva Vanderbilt’s “Votes For Women” parties. That’s not where Marblehouse’s story starts though — it was first given to Alva by her then-husband William as a gift for her 39th birthday.
West-facing front facade of Marblehouse
West-facing front facade of Marblehouse
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Beautiful flowers adorn the path to Marblehouse
Beautiful flowers adorn the path to Marblehouse
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Red geraniums complement the colors of the Chinese Tea House perfectly.
Red geraniums complement the colors of the Chinese Tea House perfectly.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
The Chinese Tea House built by Alva Vanderbilt was often used to host "Votes for Women" rallies.
The Chinese Tea House built by Alva Vanderbilt was often used to host “Votes for Women” rallies.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Despite such extravagant gifts, Alva’s marriage was not a happy one, and after her three children had grown past their early childhoods, she sought a controversial divorce on the grounds of her husband’s adultery. She then married another wealthy Newport resident and moved into his house down the street. When he died, she moved back into Marblehouse, which still belonged to her, built a Chinese Tea House in the backyard for entertaining, and began hosting rallies for women’s rights.
The Gothic Room in Marblehouse was modeled after Alva's pre-existing collection of Gothic art.
The Gothic Room in Marblehouse was modeled after Alva’s collection of Gothic art.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
Marblehouse's Grand Salon was built to impress.
Marblehouse’s Grand Salon was built to impress.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
The dining room at Marblehouse was fit for kingly meals.
The dining room at Marblehouse was fit for kingly meals.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
Alva's bedroom charms in light shades of lilac.
Alva’s bedroom charms in light shades of lilac.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
The entrance to Marblehouse glitters in the sunlight.
The marble used in the entrance to Marblehouse glitters in the sunlight.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
One of the lesser-frequented Newport mansions, Kingscote, is not without its grandeur. It’s tucked into a woodsy yard on Bellevue Ave. and can sometimes be hard to see from the street. What awaits the persistent venturer, though, is a gothic style cottage, reminiscent of an enormous storybook setting.
Exterior of Kingscote, modeled after Gothic Revival architecture.
Exterior of Kingscote, modeled after Gothic Revival architecture.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
The stable outside of Kingscote offers a different look at life in the gilded age. Inside, guests can check out a carriage used by Kingscote's residents.
The stable outside of Kingscote offers a different look at life in the Gilded Age. Inside, guests can check out a carriage used by Kingscote’s residents.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Kingscote was among the earliest Newport mansions. It belonged to a man who made his money off of the southern plantation industry, and was painted in beige mixed with sand for a sandstone-esque look. It was sold after the civil war to the King family, who amassed their wealth in breakthrough medical work and later, the China trade. The Kings commissioned a renovation of the cottage, the additions of several bedrooms, and the famous dining room — with its Tiffany glass bricks and detailing.
The entrance hall of Kingscote
The entrance hall of Kingscote
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
The dining room at Kingscote is furnished with Tiffany glass.
The dining room at Kingscote is furnished with Tiffany glass.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
Last but certainly not least, is the fan-favorite of the Newport Mansions — the sprawling, 70-room, 13-acre Renaissance-inspired estate of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt II — The Breakers. Named after the waves that crash onto the rocks below the massive back lawn, The Breakers is commonly regarded as the grandest of all the preserved Newport mansions. Gold and platinum-covered walls, unmatched detailing, and a 2 ½-story Great Hall overlook an uninhibited view of the Atlantic Ocean. Though countless fabulous parties were held there (the Vanderbilts were extremely popular entertainers, whose guests included Theodore Roosevelt), visitors are assured that The Breakers, under the Vanderbilt’s care, was always a family house. Children founded and kept up the tradition of sliding down the grand staircase on serving trays, and a smaller (yet still a whole lot bigger and than any of our old treehouses) play-cottage sits in the yard.
Ornate gates welcome visitors just as they would have in the Vanderbilt's time.
Ornate gates welcome visitors just as they would have in the Vanderbilt’s time.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
This side of The Breakers is equipped for extravagant gardening.
This side of The Breakers is equipped for extravagant gardening.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
The children's playhouse even had a working fireplace.
The children’s playhouse even had a working fireplace.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Much of the beauty of The Breakers is in its detailing. Mythological beings glitter almost anywhere the eye can reach, and symbols like dolphins and acorns (the Vanderbilt’s family symbol, standing for strength and longevity) accompany them. A hidden grotto under the grand staircase, and the expert craftsmanship of the artwork demonstrate the Vanderbilt’s flare for European design. Almost all of the gilded mansions model some influence of European design, but The Breakers takes it to a whole new level.
The Breakers Music Room
The Breakers Music Room
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
The 2 1/2 story Great Hall at The Breakers
The 2 1/2 story Great Hall at The Breakers
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
The dining room at The Breakers
The dining room at The Breakers
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/John Corbett
The two-story butler's pantry held all of the dishware for the family.
The two-story butler’s pantry held all of the dishware for the family.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County/Gavin Ashworth
Newport, well before it was discovered by America’s most wealthy in the 1800s, was  a city of a booming, industrial economy. Historians have even speculated that if it had not been for the British occupancy back in 1776, the coastline of Newport might resemble the skyline of Manhattan. Fortunately, though, it has remained skyscraper-free, and the waters, cliffs, and islands remain for our enjoyment today. Gilded-Age residents with their new fortunes capitalized on the  natural beauty of the area, and now the Preservation Society of Newport County is conserving their legacies. I didn’t have the chance to check out the other locations under the society’s care (be sure to allow at least an hour to an hour and a half for each one!) but let me assure you — they are all worth the visit.  Don’t miss the Cliff Walk!
The sunset sky says goodnight to Newport's visitors.
The sunset sky says goodnight to Newport’s visitors.
Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
Have you ever visited the Newport Mansions? Do you have a favorite? Let us know! The Newport Mansions and The Preservation Society of Newport County. 401-847-1000; newportmansions.org

LEARN MORE:

Love Newport? Check out our Insider’s Guide to Newport, RI for more things to do. Love the Newport mansions? Experience the grandeur of Christmas at the Newport Mansions. This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.