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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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