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 of 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 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.
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.