I recently had the great good fortune to spend several balmy days in Newport, Rhode Island, once the summer playground of the magnates and robber barons of America’s Gilded Age. The “cottages” were built in an era when no expense was spared, and the nation’s top architects (including Stanford White) and craftsmen from Europe created a heritage that spans some two centuries of architectural and social development.
Thanks to the Newport Preservation Society, which has preserved that heritage, the 11 magnificent homes known as The Newport Mansions are as fresh and beautiful today as they were so many years ago. I had last visited the mansions during the winter holiday season, when they were spectacularly decorated with thousands of poinsettias, fresh flowers, evergreens, Christmas trees and wreaths, and 19th century ornaments.
Now they were dressed for summer, recalling the days when Vanderbilts and Astors gave dazzling parties that made Newport the epicenter of the Gilded Age. The grandest of all the mansions is The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, built by architect Richard Morris Hunt in 1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President and Chairman of the New York Central Railroad. Behind its sweeping open-air terraces with stunning ocean views are interiors rich with marble and gilt, mosaic tile floors and ceilings and a 50-foot high Great Hall.
In 1899, architect Stanford White designed Rosecliff, modeling it after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of French kings at Versailles. The cost to Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs: $2.5 million. Scenes from The Great Gatsby were shot here. Today, Rosecliff is a popular wedding venue.
The Elms is an elegant French-style chateau built in 1901 for Philadelphia coal magnate Edward J. Berwind. Standing in a 10-acre park with an elaborate sunken garden, it houses a collection of monumental artworks, including wall-sized 18th century Venetian paintings and Chinese lacquer panels.
But perhaps the most interesting is Marble House, the summer home of Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt. Built and furnished at a reported cost of $11 million, it was the most lavish house in America when it opened in 1892. It served as the stage for Alva Vanderbilt’s climb to social and political power, first as a leading society hostess and later as a leader of the “Votes for Women” campaign. The opulence of this home is breathtaking, with its gold room and exotic marbles; to say that the décor is over-the-top is an understatement.
What is wonderful about these and the other mansions is that they are still “alive”—not just stuffy museums, but also venues for events year round. This fall, from September 24-26, the fifth annual Newport Mansions Wine and Food Festival takes place at Marble House and Rosecliff. The weekend features wines from around the world, cooking demonstrations by renowned chefs, live and silent auctions and a gala celebration. Now through October, Marble House is home once again to Alva’s wonderful collection of some 300 medieval and Renaissance treasures, in an exhibition titled “Gothic Art in the Gilded Age.”
And from November 20, 2010, to January 2, 2011, it’s Christmas at the Newport Mansions, featuring The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House in full holiday dress. In addition to a regular schedule of tours, there will be evening events, Santa visits and a holiday dinner dance.
Though the mansions are a prime Newport attraction, there is more to see and do. If weather permits, the Cliff Walk is a must, a scenic 3.5-mile oceanfront journey that takes you past the legendary mansions along Bellevue Avenue.
As home to the America’s Cup for many years, Newport is the ideal place for the Museum of Yachting, which houses the two-time winner, Courageous, along with a collection of yachting artifacts and exhibits.
Tennis fans will enjoy the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum, site of the first U.S. Tennis Championship in 1881. Even if you’re not a champion, you can play on the six-acre facility’s 13 grass courts or three indoor courts.
Among Newport’s historic sites, one of the most important is the stately Georgian-style Touro Synagogue, which dates back to 1763 and was visited by George Washington. In 1790, Washington wrote a letter to the synagogue’s congregation, stating that the new nation would “…give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” This important letter guaranteed that citizens of the new republic would have freedom of religion.
While in Newport, Washington worshipped at the pre-Revolutionary Trinity Church. And while he probably did not borrow a book from the Redwood Library, he could have, for it is the oldest lending library in the United States.
Newport History Tours offer a variety of walking tours to appeal to different interests, for example: Pirates & Scoundrels; Discover Colonial Newport; Jewish History, and Old House ABCs.
There are accommodations to suit most budgets in Newport, ranging from simple B&Bs to historic inns to larger, modern hotels. (The Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, listed below, has comprehensive lists of accommodations.)
I stayed at the 257-room Hyatt Regency Newport on Goat Island. I just loved this hotel, which has had a recent $35 million renovation and a relaxed, casual resort atmosphere, as well as luxuries and amenities to satisfy even the pickiest guest. For onsite dining, the Windward Restaurant has a fine menu that includes fresh seafood and prime cuts of beef, poultry and pork. Meals here come with picture-postcard views of Newport Harbor and Narraganset Bay. During the warm-weather months, the seasonal Pineapples on the Bay, located poolside, serves a fine selection of beers and tropical drinks along with raw-bar offerings (shrimp, clams, oysters) and good lunch-type dishes. Here, too, meals come with a view—of the Newport Bridge.
The hotel is connected to the mainland by a causeway, making for a very pleasant walk on a nice day. For non-walkers, the hotel provides guests with an eco-friendly all-electric water shuttle that travels to and from downtown Newport.
Arrangements can be made for fishing or yachting excursions, as well as for land tours. At the hotel, there are such relaxing options as swimming in the indoor and outdoor pools, watercolor painting, yoga and—I’ve saved my favorite for last—the Stillwater Spa. The spa has expanded since my visit a few years ago, but the serene ambiance and caring treatment is the same. Marine-based products are used, and there is an extensive menu of body wraps, massage therapies, facials and nail and hair-care services. A spa treatment can be expanded into a spa getaway with use of the dry eucalyptus sauna and the StayFit facility or one of the pools.
It’s a place to relax and linger—just like Newport.
If You Go…
For more information and tickets to all events at the Mansions, contact the Preservation Society of Newport Country at 401-847-1000 or visit www.NewportMansions.org.
Hyatt Regency Newport, Goat Island, 800-323-7249, www.newport.hyatt.com.
Newport & Bristol County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau for a full list of accommodations, restaurants, as well as special deals and packages. Call 800-976-5122 or visit www.gonewport.com