N is for Newport mansions

Last week, my wife, one of her brothers, and their respective families were in Newport, Rhode Island, during the school break. Among our activities: visiting the mansions that were built primarily between the end of the US Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of the first World War in 1914. This was dubbed “The Gilded Age” by Mark Twain in 1873, and this was NOT meant as a compliment. By this, he was saying that the period was glittering on the surface but corrupt underneath. But those so dubbed took the term as positive, noting the rapid economic and population growth.

While each of the four mansions warrants its own narrative, there were some characteristics in common. Each was built with money from captains of industry, and most were considered summer homes or even cottages. They were inspired largely by the palaces of Europe, and often used Greek gods in the motif.

The families living there had many servants, who were supposed to be all but invisible, as they prepared lavish meals, most of which had several courses which went all but uneaten after a couple bites. The servants also helped the families change three, four, and in the case of the females, up to seven times a day; wearing a morning dress in the afternoon simply would NOT do!

The end of the Gilded Age, it is generally agreed, came about as a result of the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, enacted in 1913, allowing for federal income tax. Suddenly, the unfettered wealth was fettered. These buildings, along with other houses, are maintained by the The Preservation Society of Newport County. The four we visited each had an audio component for self-guided tours; it was the same machine in every location, so one could, accidentally or otherwise, catch the details of another building.

The Breakers (pictured above) was built as the Newport summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and is the largest of the properties. It has, among other things, a massive bathtub carved from a single piece of marble.

Rosecliff was built in 1898-1902 by Theresa Fair Oelrichs, a silver heiress from Nevada, whose father James Graham Fair was one of the four partners in the Comstock Lode.

Marble House (right), built between 1888 and 1892 for Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, was a summer house, or “cottage”! “Mr. Vanderbilt was the grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who established the family’s fortune in steamships and the New York Central Railroad. His older brother was Cornelius II, who built The Breakers. Alva Vanderbilt was a leading hostess in Newport society, and envisioned Marble House as her ‘temple to the arts’ in America…The Vanderbilts divorced in 1895 and Alva married Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to Belcourt. After his death, she reopened Marble House, and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs, where she hosted rallies for women’s right to vote.” There were even dishes that stated messages supporting suffrage. I doubled back in this building to catch up on items I had passed by quickly while watching The Daughter, which evidently perplexed the staff, as I overheard on their walkie-talkies.

The Elms was designed for the coal baron Edward Julius Berwind, and was completed in 1901. Berwind coal fueled, among other things, Vanderbilt railroads. This circuit was somewhat marred by a hoard of bored high school students who poured in shortly after we had started our tour.

These locations are available for weddings and other private parties; I did NOT inquire as to the pricing.

ABC Wednesday- Round 10

The image of The Breakers was taken by Matt H. Wade (User:UpstateNYer) on 10 August 2009, and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The photograph of the Marble House dining room is from the Carol M. Highsmith Archive at the Library of Congress; Highsmith has released her photographs in the collection into the public domain.

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31 thoughts on “N is for Newport mansions

  1. Hm, this is a first: Just yesterday I saw photos of the Newport Mansions that a friend posted to Google+. And before I saw the posting from the two of you, I hadn’t heard of the them as the Newport Mansions. Weird. Anyway, interesting how taxes killed off the stately homes in Britain, too.

  2. The photo shows how rich these inhanitants of this house were! It reminds me of a tv series like ” Upstairs Downstairs”. Ridiculous that people live like that and worse to display the gap between employers and employees. I am glad that time is over and done with. Although…..?.?

  3. The Gilded Age is really the Gaudy Age to me. Too much money made those people greedy for more and quite boring.
    I thought of the TV series Upstairs/downstairs too.
    Really interesting post. Thanks.

  4. Well, I do think there are many wealthy people out there who still live this sort of lifestyle because they have found ways to unfetter their money. However, I do NOT think they are any happier on average than any of us average people. :))

  5. We were close once, but didn’t get a chance to take in the sights of the Newport mansions. Some day, maybe. They look magnificent!

    Leslie
    abcw team

  6. Annie mentioned how often these people changed clothes. Some of those customs held over for quite a number of years. My grandmother, who was born in 1902, wouldn’t be seen outside (except perhaps in her back yard) in a “house dress” and when she dressed to leave the house, even to go grocery shopping, she always wore a girdle. If she went out in the evening to visit friends, she would dress up even more. She was also quite fussy about how we dressed if she took us to visit her sisters, who were born in the 1890s.
    About the gilded age, I agree with Mark Twain. I agree with him about a lot of things.
    K

  7. I hadn’t heard of the mansions before and like other similar monuments to wealth, I have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, they represent wealth out of control at a time when many went hungry, but on the other they were great pieces of workmanship and artistry that it would certainly be a shame to lose.

  8. I, too, have ambivalent feelings about these magnificent houses, – to call them cottages seems almost obscene and to call them homes rather ignores the comfortable intimacy of what most of us call homes. But perhaps they all had their favourite little nook or cranny, opulent as they were.

  9. My grandparents were part of the ‘downstairs’ crew to a fairly large British mansion. And the ‘Downstairs’ class had their own class distinction awareness, as they considered themselves better than the ordinary villagers. They worked at the ‘Big House’…sniff! My father spent most of his life trying to prove that he was as good as those in the Big House even if he weren’t part of the aristocracy. I, in my turn, have a great aversion to anything that smacks of snobbery based on wealth. I wonder what hangups my boys will try to avoid, from their upbringing.(I say boys, sorry, they’re in their forties.)

  10. Well, the mansions would be beautiful to look at, but I don’t think I could live with servants going hungry. If you watch the evening news you can still see governments where the leaders live lavish lifestyles and there people are starving!
    Ann

  11. Hello.
    I love to watch British movies that are filmed in similarly large stately homes. It does look beautiful, but not too sure I would want to live in it though. I feel sorry for the ones having to do all that laundry! I’m glad I don’t have any rich relatives who could leave me a house like this. Maintenance costs must be astronomical! Enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing. I appreciate the visit too.

    No Meaning

  12. Wow! Wonder how it feels to live in a huge mansion like that. I bet they had to speak louder when at the dinner table so that they’d hear each other 😀

    ABC Wednesday hop 🙂

  13. These photos brought back memories! Of when Muffy and Chip and I used to play tennis on the back lawn, till Mummy called us in for tea.

    Oh wait. Those aren’t MY memories. LOL My memories are of the year I was 12 and we lived in Middletown, RI, right outside of Newport while my dad attended the Naval War College. We used to enjoy weekend drives along Ocean Ave past those “summer cottages,” and I got to tour The Marble House once. Preferring the comforts and joy of simplicity, it’s no lifestyle I aspire to, and I agree with Twain and several of your commenters (especially Carver – they do indeed!) that such an opulent, ostentatious, resource-guzzling and exploitative lifestyle is not one to emulate, then or now. But interesting to see the architecture and the incredible craftsmanship that went into such places.

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