Men of wealth, women of society, and a summer social scene in luxury homes. Today’s visitor can tour the mansions for a glimpse of the Gilded Age. When fortunes were made and spent in the days before income taxes, the rich and famous built luxurious summer “cottages” along the Rhode Island coastline.
Rhode Island Homes
The list of names is impressive: Aster, Vanderbilt,Duke. The fortunes came from: railroads, coal, silver mines, tobacco. The architectural styles astound: Gothic Revival, Colonial, European High Renaissance, Victorian, French,Italian. Hugh verandas to catch the sea breezes; acres of lawn; stables for horses; carriage houses of vast dimensions. Built with imported marble, exquisitely carved wood, palatial staircases, wide halls, furnished in extravagant, spare-no-expense style. These homes built in the late 1800’s through the early years of the twentieth century, used only for the summer season, speak of a past when money was no object and no expense was spared.
The Breakers, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt
Newport features many mansions open for tours, and multiple house tickets are available at the Visitor’s Center. However, the showpiece of Gilded Age Society is The Breakers, and a “must-see” choice.
Built in 1895 by Cornelius Vanderbilt (grandson of “The Commodore” of railroad fame), the high Renaissance style mansion with imported French and Italian stone, marble, alabaster, bronze and plenty of gilt is a well-preserved example of wealth and elegance.
Using individual headsets, an audio tour takes the visitor through the main rooms while providing a commentary on them. Every turn offers a sense of awe. The great hall features a fifty-foot high ceiling; the dining room is palatial featuring lush draperies, frescos, chandeliers and massive furniture. There are fifteen bedrooms, marble tubs in the bathrooms – that needed to filled several times with very hot water in order to heat the marble for use – and activity areas for all tastes: a library, music room, and a billiard room.
Along the seaside, beyond the lawns of the stately homes, is a 3½ mile path. Landscaped hedges, rock walls covered in ivy or flowering plants, and carved fences enclose the properties but the mansions can be seen at a distance across the back gardens.
The path does narrow and become rocky at times but the views of the sea on one side and the glimpses of the summer residences on the other make it worth the effort.
The Town of Newport
When entering Newport, there is a well-positioned Visitor’s Center featuring excellent exhibits on the homes and the area. Volunteer ambassadors assist visitors in choosing among the many options available.The town contains numerous shops, restaurants, lodging establishments, and service facilities.
Maps are available for a self-drive ten-mile scenic drive featuring the historic elements of the town. The harbor now contains many yachts and charter tours are offered. The old Fort Adams, built in 1824-57 as harbor protection includes a museum and the home used by Eisenhower as a summer retreat.
A visit to Newport brings to mind times of opulence and affluence. Its preservation provides enjoyment for the visitor of today.