Recently, we visited the Gilded Age Mansions in Newport Rhode Island. What an eye opener!
Or, how the other .0001% lives… The Newport Mansions, if you are unfamiliar, were built primarily in the mid to late 1900s and were the summer homes (usually 6 to 8 weeks a year) of the most wealthy wheelers and dealers of the era, like the Vanderbilts and Astors, whose primary residences were in New York City. Newport was not too far away by private train or yacht, as the case may be, and was much cooler in the summer than the big city. Ironically, because they were summer residences, they were often referred to as cottages. Okay!
Newport is on the ocean and has a long and interesting maritime history. A lot of property was still available in the mid 17th century along the ocean and whole opulent and ultra exclusive neighborhoods were built up there. Each community was a microcosm where each estate attempted to outdo all the others in the extravagant summer entertainment showdown. Elaborate balls and dinner parties were legendary.
The mansions are unbelievable architectural creations. They don’t call it the Gilded Age for nothing! Many of the dwellings were built of marble, often imported from Europe. The architects strove to reproduce Renaissance palaces in France and Italy when designing many of the mansions. They exhibit gorgeous wood work, carved by masters, handmade tiles, hand painted frescoes, gilded ceilings and moldings, inlaid marble floors, Flemish tapestries, silk wall coverings, oil paintings by famous artists and furniture from European castles. Sometimes fireplaces were removed from palaces being destroyed or redesigned in Europe and were installed in Newport. It is certainly worth spending a day touring these elegant beauties, just to see how this group of people once lived. If you have never experienced it, you just couldn’t believe it.
All the mansions had immaculate grounds and gardens. A few of these have been preserved to enjoy today, lucky for us.
Of course, each ‘house’ had it’s own army of servants that traveled from New York with the families when they summered in Newport. Most of the servants were expected to do their jobs while remaining essentially invisible. A entire code of expected behaviors and proper ethics had to be strictly adhered to when residing at or even when visiting these retreats. Meals were served exactly at certain times. Specific foods could only be served at certain times and meals. It seems like every minute of the day was predetermined, the code was rigid. It was not unusual for a woman to change outfits seven or more times a day. One could not wear a tea outfit in the morning, or a morning outfit for tennis or a riding outfit for sailing and the list just goes on and on… While the thought of spending a modern relaxing vacation at one of these residences, is certainly appealing, to spend a summer there while living in the manner the ethics of the day demanded, not to mention maintaining the rigorous entertaining schedule, sounds anything but relaxing to me.
Sadly, many of these architectural treasures were abandoned and destroyed when the Gilded Age came to a close in the early teens and 1920s. The lifestyle had burned itself out and other modes of transportation created more vacation options for the wealthy. Income tax and other political concerns made the mansions difficult to keep and many just fell to ruin. Many others were sold for a pittance to developers who tore them down (!!!) and replaced them with shopping centers and parking lots. Yes, really.
Fortunately, for Newport, and the rest of us history, art and architecture maniacs, The Preservation Society of Newport County was formed in 1945 and was able to salvage and preserve a handful of these places for us to experience today. And what a wonderful job they have done of it! Some grand homes offer live tour guides and one at least has a reenactment staff, complete with costumes. Many have audio tours, which offer each guest the choice of the basic tour or an extended, more in-depth version. The society has done a wonderful job of making a variety of residences and grounds available and a ticket for 5 to 6 residences is only $31, real value in today’s market. We began our tour about 11am the day we arrived in Newport, and went steadily from one place to another (you can mix up the order any way you like), and ended about 6 pm. The first tour in most houses begins at 9am and the last tour begins at 5 pm. We were able to see 4 mansions in some depth, but the reality is, you could probably spend a day at each place if you were to take advantage of all the extended information available and explore the grounds in detail at each stop. After four mansions, in one day, we were a little over whelmed honestly. The opulence is difficult to comprehend. The lifestyle, impossible. But it is a bit of a fair-talish way to spend a day or more. You will be thinking about what you have seen for weeks and be constantly astounded as you recall bits and pieces.
- Children’s Playhouse at The Breakers, Newport RI
One of my favorite aspects was the children’s playhouse on the grounds of The Breakers estate. The children had their own play cottage, complete with many of the appointments, in child size, of the full sized mansions, including its own entire china set. Wow! I would highly recommend a visit to the Newport Mansions. It is an education of a very interesting and unusual variety. It’s a bit of a magic carpet ride into another time and place, which I sincerely doubt will be ever seen again.