If you’re familiar with Newport, Rhode Island, you probably think of its famous collection of summer “cottages” where America’s wealthiest families spent their summers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Newport mansions are more palatial than most of us could ever dream of, but for the barons who built them, they were merely an escape to cooler climes from the hot summers farther down the east coast.
I’m a Newport novice and knew little of the city or its historical influence before I went on a Christmas tour with my family over the holidays. Honestly, I thought our day was going to consist of driving around a rich enclave and looking at holiday decorations from the car window (I clearly didn’t do my research ahead of time, a recurring theme with me).
My family has visited Newport in the past and assured me it would be worth the trip. They’ve toured the mansions in the summer when the gardens and grounds are in full bloom, but this was everyone’s first time seeing the famous estates decked out in their festive holiday decor.
The Newport Mansions
For those like me who don’t know Newport from Neverland, let me bring you up to speed.
Unless you’ve visited other magnificent estates in the U.S. (few are open to the public), you may not realize that such opulence exists on our shores. I certainly didn’t. My experience with historic American homes consisted of creaky colonials in Boston, residences of former Presidents, and surviving pioneer homesteads in the Midwest.
I had only seen the likes of the Newport mansions in Europe. Given that the inspiration for these homes included Versaille’s Grand and Petit Trianons and 16th-century Italian palaces – and that money was not an object when building them – it isn’t surprising that they were so lavish.
Besides being a summer retreat, Newport was a place to show off one’s wealth on the social circuit. Wives were impeccable hostesses and typically managed the day to day affairs of the estates. If you’ve seen the early seasons of Downton Abbey, this is the time period and society culture we’re talking about – but across the pond. (In the show, Cora Crawley’s mother, Martha Levinson, had a home in Newport.)
Of everyone who summered in Newport, the Vanderbilt family most epitomized the wealth, elegance, and extravagance of the Gilded Age elites. Two heirs of the Vanderbilt family railroad business and fortune, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William K. Vanderbilt (brothers), built two of Newport’s most magnificent estates: The Breakers and Marble House.
Those homes, along with The Elms – built by coal baron Edward Julius Berwind – are open for Christmas tours from November through January.
Here’s what you can expect to see on the tour.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II took over as Chairman and President of the New York Central Railroad System in 1885, and bought The Breakers property that same year. He inherited the greatest fortune in America and owned (or built) properties that showed off his family’s immense wealth.
The Breakers is hands-down the most magnificent “cottage” in Newport, both in scale and decoration. The morning room (second photo below) even has platinum-paneled walls, because only the little people should have to deal with tarnished silver.
The benefit of visiting the Newport Mansions during the holidays was all of the festive decor, which brought a warmth to the homes that I expect doesn’t exist any other time of year. Without the holiday decorations, many of the rooms would have felt cold and empty. But with the soft light, garlands and poinsettias, I felt as if I caught a glimpse of these families’ traditions… even though they no longer own the homes (the decorations are handled by the Preservation Society of Newport County).
I was also left with a newfound interest in classical architecture and design. I always thought I preferred simple, clean style, but I can confidently say I’ve changed my mind. Give me a coffered ceiling, plaster engravings, bronze sconces and gaudy floral prints all day. I want it all.
I left with new ideas for just about every room of my future home. Inspiration was absolutely everywhere. The ceilings at The Breakers and the solid marble tub (!) were two of my favorite features of the home. No detail was overlooked.
Designed after Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles, Marble House is the definition of extra. Though not as expansive as The Breakers, the fact that the walls and floors throughout the house are all made of marble puts it over the top. Just the way Alva Vanderbilt wanted it.
William Kissam Vanderbilt, husband of Alva Vanderbilt (who later shocked society by divorcing him and successfully coming out the other side during a time when divorce was absolutely scandalous) was Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s younger brother and another heir to the family fortune. Alva Vanderbilt, later Alva Belmont upon her remarriage, is known for being a leading figure in the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s. And also for her affinity for marble.
The house is decked out top to bottom in marble. It’s spectacular, though sometimes dark and a little too opulent to feel like a home.
Take the dining room for instance. It’s saturated in red, from cabernet-colored marble walls to rich red fabrics on the chairs and gilded accents all around. The chairs themselves weigh something like 75 pounds apiece… because it’s important to burn off some of the multi-course French meal you’ve just finished. (I kid, I kid – of course the staff will lift your chair for you, darling.)
Marble House didn’t leave me feeling as awed as The Breakers had, because it seemed to lack some of the details and personal touches that made The Breakers unique. That said, two rooms really stood out: the expansive green room on the main floor, and Alva Vanderbilt’s luscious lavender bedroom on the second floor. Even her fireplace was made from lavender-colored marble.
It’s amazing what happens when you get to the third Newport mansion of the day. You become desensitized to their extravagance.
This dining room isn’t nearly as impressive as the last one. These guys definitely went the cheap route by not purchasing 75-pound chairs.
That aside, The Elms was spectacular in its own right. It had many of the artful touches of The Breakers with the opulence of Marble House. It had less of an impact on me overall, though the holiday decorations were some of the best of any home we saw.
The rooms on the main floor were lovely, light, and airy. I could imagine myself lounging in the conservatory during a warm summer day, gazing out on the gardens with the breeze coming in through the open curtains. The ballroom was quite grand and was once host to a ball for Prince Wilhelm of Sweden in 1907.
Conclusion: I think I belong in the Gilded Age.
As a society hostess, that is. Not everything else that went along with being a woman during that time. Maybe the Preservation Society of Newport County will indulge me in hosting a grand ball in one of the mansions someday, for old time’s sake?
One benefit of being unimaginably wealthy in that day was having private French chefs who would cook you fine meals morning, noon and night. As someone who takes little time to cook (though I enjoy cooking when I have the time), this is highly appealing.
(Quick aside – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a large percentage of the square footage of each home was dedicated to servant’s quarters and hidden walkways and rooms where staff could do their work without mixing with the family. Their lives revolved around the family, and were not comfortable by any means. However, many of the staff that were interviewed and featured on the audio tours appeared to take great pride in their work. Some of the mansions offer tours of the servant’s quarters, where visitors can learn about their living arrangements and get a glimpse into their lives.)
The topic of chefs leads me to an important question: out of the three kitchens below, which one would you choose for your home today?
My opinion is largely based on how well the copper cookware is displayed. I love the symmetry of Marble House’s kitchen, so that gets my vote. Though, no surprise, The Breakers definitely had the largest and most impressive kitchen of the bunch.
I hope to return to the Newport mansions sometime in the summer to see the properties in full bloom. Who knows, maybe my favorites will change. But one thing’s for sure: Newport is definitely worth a visit for anyone who is interested in architecture or the lifestyles of America’s wealthiest families in the Gilded Age.
The eleven homes that constitute the Newport mansions are open year-round for tours. More information can be found on the Preservation Society’s website here.