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The Gilded Age Houses of the Newport Mansions
Come take a glimpse of the opulent cottages of Newport, Rhode Island and experience an era when America's wealthiest and most influential families built fabulous mansions along Newport's Bellevue Avenue. The drive to out-do their peers was intense during the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s and some of America's wealthiest families, sometimes in competition with members of their own kin competed to create the most lavish "cottages" in the world right here in America.
This hub will focus on three "cottages" which are known as the Gilded Age Houses of the Newport Mansions- the Marble House, the Breakers, and the Elms. Each cottage has been restored and preserved by the ongoing efforts of the Preservation Society of Newport County, a private non-profit educational organization founded in 1945, which maintains a total of 10 historic house museums that display an extraordinary cross-section of American architectures and interiors.
Tickets for the mansions pictured in this hub can be purchased as a group or individually and include an audio tour (also available in French, German and Spanish translations) allowing you to listen to the voices, memories and experiences of generations of people who lived and worked in these mansions. Specific ticket and touring information can be viewed online at The Preservation Society of Newport County website which is listed below.
After completing the tour(s) you will be awe-struck at the monumental buildings, and social activities of the wealthy and powerful families of the era as well as the stories of what it was like to work for these families and of the changing role of women that defined that age.
Photo Tour of The Breakers
The Breakers is on Ochre Point, a half-mile from the Bellevue Avenue mansions and is the largest and most frequently visited Newport "cottage". It is a Renaissance Revival structure that was built as a summer estate for New York Central Railroad President Cornelius Vanderbilt II without limitations of scale or expense. Architect Richard Morris Hunt drew his inspiration from 16th century palaces built for the merchant-princes of Genoa and Turin.
The Breakers' main entrance is approached through 30-foot high gateways which are part of a limestone and iron fence that borders the property on all but the ocean side. Pin oaks and red maples line the front drive.
The grounds of The Breakers cover approximately a dozen acres and include a formally landscaped terrace that is surrounded by Japanese yew, Chinese juniper and dwarf hemlock.
The Breakers' opulent interior features rare marble, alabaster, and gilded woods throughout. Rooms of the first and second floors open onto a 45-foot high central space known as the Great Hall which was used for elaborate balls and parties that the Vanderbilts hosted. Guests included international dignitaries as well as some of America's wealthiest and most elite families.
But even the wealthiest of families have their share of tragedy and Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife, Alice, had theirs. The couple had seven children and one, Alice Gwynne, died of scarlet fever at the age of five. Their oldest son, William Henry II, died of typhoid fever at age 22 while attending Yale.
Cornelius himself suffered a paralytic stroke at age 53 which ended his active participation in business. He spent his last 3 years at The Breakers.
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Mrs. Vanderbilt died at age 89 and left The Breakers to her daughter Gladys (then Countess Laszlo Szechenyi). The Countess leased the property to The Preservation Society of Newport County for a symbolic fee of $1.00 per year and she continued to pay The Breakers' major expenses until her death in 1965. The Preservation Society continued to lease the house from her heirs and also took on the expense of maintenance and taxes until they finally purchased the house and grounds in 1973.
The Marble House & Chinese Tea House
The Marble House
The Marble House was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt and has a neoclassical design derived from that of the Petit Trianon at Versailles. William K. Vanderbilt and his wife, Alva, wanted their new summer house to make a dramatic debut that would leave visitors awe-struck and spent a reported $11,000,000 in 1892 to create what Alva Vanderbilt called a "temple to the arts." Though the house was William's birthday gift to Alva, she was involved with its creation from the beginning and demanded authentically reproduced period buildings and interiors.
The Marble House lives up to its name and between the exterior, which is all marble, and the interior, which contains a large amount of marble, has a total of 500,000 cubic feet of marble.
The most impressive room in the house is the Gold Ballroom which epitomizes the lavish opulence of the Gilded Age. It has a Louis XIV motif and gilt surfaces, gilt mirrors and gilt chandeliers that make visitors feel as though they've stepped into a massive jewel box.
In later life, Alva Vanderbilt became an outspoken proponent of equality between the sexes and women's rights. In 1912 she inaugurated the Newport County Women's Suffrage League and two years later she presided over a conference of women reformers on the back lawn of the Marble House. She also championed the rights of women industrial workers and hosted "Votes for Women" rallies.
By the beginning of World War I the way of life associated with the Newport cottages was being replaced by a less formal style and Alva made a very visible architectural statement that unofficially proclaimed the Gilded Age of ostentatious entertaining was over. She built a Chinese Tea House, and set it on the cliffs behind Marble House. The tea house was inspired by buildings of southern China and the interior decoration includes wooden panels painted in the style of the Ming Dynasty. The tea house was built for small receptions and tea parties and had to be moved in 1977 when the seawall it was on became dangerously deteriorated. It's now perched on the back of the Marble House lawn and provides a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Elms Photo Tour
The Elms was built as a magnificent summer retreat for coal magnate, Edward Julius Berwind and his wife, Herminie, in 1901. It is an elegant French chateau inspired by the 18th-century Chateau d' Asnieres and has an elaborate sunken garden on its grounds. Architect Horace Trumbauer created a simple classical design of balanced proportions by giving The Elms a rounded central section flanked by wings of equal size.
The interior of The Elms has fine parquet floors, ceiling paintings and elaborate moldings that duplicate 18th century period detailing but it also contains a number of other decorative styles that were typical of turn of the century interior decorating, giving it an eclectic flare.
The Elms has spectacular grounds even though the original elm trees have disappeared. New trees are planted periodically in an effort to replace the lost elms and the grounds have carefully clipped and shaped ginkgo, maple, and linden trees plus masses of rhododendron.
The estate is also enhanced by a large number of stone, marble, and bronze statues and fountains. Marble sphinxes flank the front entrance and sculpture groups top the parapet and are arranged on the back terrace. Near the western edge of the grounds are two small marble garden pavilions with copper roofs in the 18th-century French style which mark the entrance to a formal sunken garden that blooms with hundreds of pink and white begonias during the summer season.
In 1962 The Elms was about to be demolished to make way for new development when friends of The Preservation Society of Newport County raised money to buy it. Though the original furnishings, which contained a large collection of art and antiques from sources all over Europe, had already been auctioned off some have since been restored to The Elms through gifts and loans and many similar furnishings have been procured by the society so that today The Elms and its park-like grounds are still an elegant example of the Gilded Era's impulse to bring the European past to life in America.
Special Events & Seasonal Activities at Newport Mansions
Experience Christmas at the Newport Mansions from mid-November to New Year's Day when the mansions are adorned with spectacular decorations including thousands of poinsettia plants, Christmas trees, 19th-century style ornaments, wreaths and floral arrangements. During the holiday season, with the exception of Christmas Day, The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House are open daily.
Seasonal activities for the warmer months include lunch and snacks on the terrace of the historic carriage house at The Elms which has bistro tables overlooking the estate's fountains and sunken garden, or at the Tea House on The Marble House grounds which has a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean.
Marble House and another Newport Mansion, Rosecliff, host the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival in September.
Any time of year is a good time to enjoy a free, self-guided walking tour along Bellevue Avenue which has old-fashioned streetlights and a series of 11 markers that provide historic information about the mansions that you'll be able to see from the sidewalk as you take a leisurely stroll.
Bellevue Avenue is also home to over 50 exciting shops, museums, hotels and restaurants.
For complete information about mansion tours, year-round operating schedules, and other special events and to purchase tickets or plan your visit in advance go to the Preservation Society of Newport County website link listed below.
The Preservation Society of Newport County Website (www.NewportMansions.org)
- Explore the Mansions | Newport Mansions
Explore 250 years of American history at our 11 historic properties, located on 80 acres of gardens and parks.
Romantic Getaways to Newport, Rhode Island
Turn your visit to the Newport Mansions into a memorable romantic weekend getaway or full vacation by staying at one of the unique Bed & Breakfast Inns that are in historic downtown Newport. For your convenience, I've listed several of the inns and their websites below but there are other inns and many types of lodging available in Newport which can be accessed through the Go Newport website at http://www.gonewport.com/. The Go Newport website also includes comprehensive information about where to eat and shop as well as all Newport events and activities.
The Hotel Viking is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and has 209 beautifully appointed guest rooms and suites, a full-service spa and a restaurant. See more information at www.HotelViking.com.
The Almondy Bed & Breakfast Inn is a Victorian Bed & Breakfast Inn that has five elegant guestrooms each uniquely decorated with fine antiques. The rooms have private baths with jacuzzis and fireplaces. See more information at www.almondyinn.com.
The Admiral Fitzroy Inn is a European-style hotel in the heart of Newport that was built in 1854. The inn has 18 unique rooms plus a charming breakfast room. See more information at www.admiralfitzroy.com.
Link to Official Site for Newport, Rhode Island
- GoNewport | Official Site for Newport, Rhode Island | NCCVB
The official site for Newport, Rhode Island offers all the information you need to plan your visit, meeting, wedding or corporate event.
Map of Newport Rhode Island
Newport Mansions Poll
© 2011 Gail Sobotkin