If like me, history, art and architecture excite you when travelling, you’ll love the city of Newport in Rhode Island. The city is steeped in interesting history, with well-preserved colonial architecture and arguably more interesting architecture from the Gilded Age. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, wealthy families from the south built summer cottages on Bellevue Avenue to escape the heat. Over time the area attracted more and more wealthy families and so the houses became larger and more extravagant. The mansions were often used solely as summer and party houses, and each host competed to outdo each other which led to palatial interiors, teams of staff and incredibly high cost.
The literal translation of the world gilded means covered thinly with gold, the term ‘Gilded Age’ was originally coined as an insult to describe the wealthy ‘new money’ families of the moment by American Writer Mark Twain. Over time the term lost its irony and eventually, the period of unprecedented wealth and ostentation came to an end with the reforms of the Progressive era. This saw tax implications on high incomes and lavish homes which made the mansions unaffordable.
Today, Newport is still an incredibly affluent area. On a walk down Bellevue Avenue, you’ll see endless supercars, designer shops and galleries with ‘price on request’ next to the artwork. There are also many museums dedicated to showcasing the wealth of now. I visited the Audrain Automobile Museum which houses over 200 cars dating from pre-war to the supercars of today; all privately-owned by three Newport residents.
You can walk along the three and a half mile Cliff Walk along the eastern shore which offers a glimpse of many of the mansions – some of which are still privately-owned. Most of the more extravagant mansions have since been donated to the Preservation Society of Newport County as house museums allowing visitors an insight into the lifestyle of the wealthy during the Gilded Age.
I visited two of the mansions (which are still also referred to as cottages). You can get a five-house ticket which I would recommend doing. The first one I saw was Rosecliff which was commissioned by Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs in 1899. The house features the largest ballroom in Newport and a heart-shaped staircase. It recently featured in Hollywood films The Great Gatsby and 27 Dresses. Theresa – known as ‘Tessie’ – reportedly ‘lost her mind’ when the Gilded age came to an end, she was known to seat and entertain imaginary guests. She was described by her daughter as “strongly addicted to Society as a business.”
The other mansion I visited was the Marble House which was built by one of the wealthiest families of the time; the Vanderbilts. It was the social and architectural landmark of the time which changed the tone from a quiet summer colony to the home of lavish stone palaces. 500,000 cubic feet of the house is made of pure marble and it features a room entirely gilded – perhaps a reaction to the unfavourable term Gilded Age. Alva Vanderbilt competed with the royals and aristocrats of Europe at the time and would buy entire medieval collections to catch-up with their generations of collecting.
For me, Marble House was the most beautiful of the two houses, but due to the dark red marble throughout it was incredibly dark to photograph. I have tried to brighten a few of them but it blows the chandelier photos out. So most of the photos in this article are Rosecliff.
At the time another term was created; ‘dollar princesses’. This was used to describe the daughters of America’s super-rich who were married off to European (mainly British) aristocrats who were struggling to afford their own estates. They got the titles and high standing they craved and their husbands were able to maintain their status. Alva’s daughter Consuelo was to become the most prominent dollar princess, marrying Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, they lived at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.
Alva Vanderbilt actually divorced her husband and remarried – which was unheard of in high society at the time. After the death of her second husband, she devoted herself to women’s rights founding the Political Equality Association and using Marble House as their headquarters and a place to host equality events. The union later became known as the National Women’s Party.
There is so much more on offer for travellers to discover in Newport, but the Gilded Age mansions were what I found most fascinating.