There is rich… and then there is ultra-rich. The kind of rich associated with absurdly large diamonds, gold plated silverware, butlers and ladies’ maids. The kind of over-the-top ostentation found only in the homes of third-world country dictators. That’s the kind of rich you perceive in the Newport mansions that hosted the very wealthy in the time of the Gilded Age.
THE GILDED AGE
The Gilded Age is generally accepted as the period between 1870 and about 1900. It was an age of robust economic growth particularly in the utilities, transportation, and real estate sectors mainly in the northeast of the U.S. This growth in income, accompanied by a relative lack of significant taxes, resulted in some of the greatest accumulations of wealth ever known. “Old money” families like the Astors as well as the “New Money” entrants like the Vanderbilts competed to showcase their unprecedented wealth.
Nowhere was this competition more visible than in the elegant mansions of the super-rich in Newport, Rhode Island. These mansions, called “cottages” by their owners were used as summer retreats from the major urban centers of the northeast U.S.
THE NEWPORT MANSIONS
There are about 9 spectacular mansions dotting Bellevue Avenue and one on Ochre Point in Newport. These are maintained and operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County.
The most spectacular mansion, considered the jewel of the Vanderbilt fortune, is The Breakers on Ochre Point. This is a 70 room estate reminiscent of a European royal palace with platinum encrusted wallpaper and rare alabaster inlays throughout the rooms. The next most extravagant mansion is a toss-up between Marble House and Rosecliff, scene of some of the Gilded Age’s most fabulous parties and where The Great Gatsby was filmed.
MARBLE HOUSE AND THE VANDERBILTS
Marble House is constructed almost entirely of, you guessed it, marble, both inside and out. It was built by one of the wealthiest and controversial personalities of the age, Alva Vanderbilt, the southern-born wife of railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The mansion was modeled after the Petit Trianon in Paris created by Madame Pompadour, the mistress of French King Louis XV, and it really does look like a palace.
A PEEK INTO THE PAST
The Preservation Society does a very nice job giving regular tours throughout the year. The tours feature the history and architecture of the homes and go into interesting detail on the personalities and perspectives of the major players. Sprinkled throughout is a healthy dose of family gossip in the “Downton Abbey” style; why the heiress broke off her engagement to the man she loved, who squandered the family fortune or how the English duke made a marriage of convenience. Alva Vanderbilt’s daughter, Consuelo, was one heiress that married royalty. In her case the royal in question was the Duke of Marlborough, a relative of Winston Churchill. Theirs was called the society “wedding of the decade” and family pictures are scattered about the rooms. These marriages of American heiresses to impoverished but titled Europeans was a major preoccupation of the age.
The tours also touch on the lives of the servants and what is was like to maintain the mansions and cater to the inhabitants.
For those with an interest in royalty and the lives of the rich and famous, this is prime, fun territory. For history buffs with an interest in 19th century US cultural history, a visit to the Newport mansions will provide a thought-provoking peek into the lives of the characters that personified the Gilded Age.
To maximize the mansion visits, some visitors prefer to park their cars at the Visitors Center and take the trolley which visits all the mansions and runs continuously.
The Preservation Society of Newport County provides personal as well as audio tours. It also offers spectacular backdrops for events at the Rosecliff mansion as well as Christmas and other seasonal presentations at various mansions. For the Preservation Society full schedule, click here.
Would you have liked to live during the Gilded Age?