I had long heard about Newport, Rhode Island, and its reputation as a summering (yes, I said summering) destination of the East Coast elite of yore. But hearing about it doesn’t do it justice. You have to see it for yourself to truly understand the wealth and ambition that went into creating the mansions that dot its rugged shoreline.
Perhaps rather than ‘creating’ I should say ‘recreating’ because the Newport mansions, while they may be unique in the landscape of America’s historic architecture, were clearly inspired by the grandest European examples.
In the second half of the 19th century, as the fortunes of America’s railroad, banking, shipping, and hotel magnates were made, their families acquired finer tastes. Luxurious Manhattan or Philadelphia apartments were no longer enough, especially on stifling and smelly summer days. That’s how Newport – with its ocean vistas and cool breezes – became a desirable destination.
But Newport holidays for the rich of the Gilded Age had to happen in style. No beach shacks and rickety lounge chairs for them. Familiar with Europe’s castle and palace architecture from their extensive tours abroad, the Vanderbilts, the Astors, and the Berwinds set out to recreate on a (slightly) smaller scale some of that splendor.
There are ten or so of those grand houses, but the one that captivated me the most was Marble House, built by William K. Vanderbilt between 1888-1892. Its name comes from the enormous quantities of marble that line the mansion’s floors, walls, and staircases. Half of the total cost of the house ($11 million, or $300 million in today’s terms) was spent on the marble alone. However, it only served as the family’s summer “cottage.”
Many of the interiors – with floor-to-ceiling windows, large mirrors, gilded ceilings, paintings and sculptures lining the hallways – look like something one might find at any number of French chateaus or, dare I say, maybe even at Versailles. The grounds, too, with their expansive views of the Atlantic and immaculate landscaping are a beauty in themselves.
Today, these mansions are historic monuments and no longer in private hands. The city of Newport operates a trolley line that can take visitors along the route, where you can hop on and off and purchase tickets to enter individual mansions, or a combination of several at a slightly higher price.
If a ticket to France and a tour of the Loire valley is not in the budget for this year, this is definitely a great alternative.