An October 2004 trip
to Newport by smmmarti guide
Quote: Visitors to Newport can view gilded-age mansions lining Bellevue and Harrison Avenues or stroll the famed cliff walk. The mansions are Newport’s primary attraction; although, there is much more to Newport than "cottages." The history of the former homeowners is as compelling as the beauty of the residences themselves.
Fortunately, the Narragansett Indians took favor with Williams when the local Massachusetts magistrate did not. With a little help from friends, Rhode Island was off and running--rum-running, that is. The ports of the new settlements were rife with the Triangle Trade, ships sailing from Africa loaded with rum to trade for slaves to take to the West Indies and back to Rhode Island for raw goods and materials. Times were good and Rhode Island declared its independence from Britain even before the Declaration of Independence was written.
The Rich and Powerful Arrive
Builders of the magnificent estates, quaintly referred to as "cottages" by their owners, were affluent members of high society at the turn of the century. Their wealth came as a result of the country’s booming opportunity, starting with the gold rush in California, proceeding through the mercantile/military needs of the Civil War, and fueled by the post-war economy when the nation set its track with massive expansion into the industrial age. Speculation, railroads, utilities, banking, and communications--there seemed no limit to the opportunity for resourceful entrepreneurs in turn of the century United States.
Many of the wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs came from New York to Newport, an obvious departure from the stress of the city, to build vacation homes. Likewise, wealthy Southerners headed to the coast to avoid the heat of summer. The lavish homes they built were used strictly during the summer and almost exclusively for entertaining. No wonder Newport hosts the America Cup and the Tennis Hall of Fame. Oscar Wilde observed in Newport that "idleness ranks among the virtues."
The Rich are Different From You and Me
As with monarchs and celebrities, Newport’s elite began life the same as the rest of us--until someone slayed a few dragons, overcame insurmountable odds, restored peace to the kingdom, or dished up the goods we desperately want and need.
Once they'd accomplished their respective amazing feats, they found fame and riches beyond our dreams and passed them on to their heirs. Now we study the lifestyles of such fortunate personages through binoculars--one lens ground with envy and the other with admiration.
. . . Except, That Is, When They Are The Same
Whether robber, baron, or international banker, inventor or speculator, everyone is human. Nothing confers mere mortals with more delight than observing reminders of such equality. We admire the über-rich for their dash, but love them even more when they graciously step down to our level.
Speaking of the Vanderbilt’s--Alva Is In the Building
If we are honest, we admit wicked delight in learning that Alva Vanderbilt, in spite of her husband’s immense fortune, was not invited into the New York 400, Mary Astor’s exclusive society club. Was it this loss of prestige that drove Alva to build the biggest, the grandest, and the most opulent "cottage" in all of Newport? Was her plan to divorce her husband already in motion when she complained to him that without full ownership of the property, she could not invest her heart and soul into its décor? (Subsequently, he bequeathed it to her, and she owned it outright in the divorce.)
Could it have been sheer insecurity that prompted the elaborate birthday parties for friend’s dogs or inspired her to invite the who’s who over to dig through a sand pile where precious gems had been hidden as party favors? By today’s standards, it would be suspicious behavior, but in those days it was simply called keeping up with the Astor’s. Or Belmont’s. Or Hunt’s.
Start of the Trend
What we learn for certain during our traipse through Marble House, the most expensive home built in America at the time, was that Alva Vanderbilt was equal parts creative and ambitious. The home cost $11 million in 1892--$7 million alone in custom-mined pink marble (more marble than was used in the Empire State Building). Setting the standard for modern day castles, it boasts elaborate fittings, furnishings, and artwork to suit a king!
Not surprisingly, strolling through the house with self-guided audio tour, we learn that Alva, born in Mobile, Alabama, spent her childhood in France and had become enamored with Louis XIV. Paying homage, Marble House was designed to mimic the Petit Trianon in Versailles.
Mrs. Vanderbilt also obviously shared the king’s love for symbolism and muse, decorating Marble House extensively using references to Roman and Greek mythology. A portrait of Alva's hero, King Louis, hangs over the fireplace in the enormous dining room, where eight-course meals served a la Russe were de rigeur and French was spoken at meals.
The Vanderbilts had power, money, fame, and status, but there was an important notch Alva didn’t have on her jewel-encrusted belt--a title. Alva had a plan for that, too. She coerced her daughter, Consuelo, into marrying the Duke of Marlborough; although, the girl was in love with another and secretly engaged. But Consuelo, who had endured years of "grooming" for the high position her mother envisioned for her, who complacently weathered being strapped into an iron rod during her lessons to improve her posture, acquiesced. She obligingly brought her mother along with her into European "nobility." Years later Alva admitted she had forced this dirty deed upon her offspring and supported her daughter’s request to divorce the duke.
By then, Alva had remarried an associate of her first husband’s and became a widow following his untimely death. Was it a sense of restitution or noblesse oblige that then propelled Alva into the Suffragette movement? Or was it the wisdom that comes with age and looking back at a life that was overly dependent upon men for money, power, and freedom?
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont moved back into Marble House after her second husband’s passing and built a beautiful Chinese Tea House near the shore. She held organizational rallies, luncheons, and meetings and had a special china service created proclaiming "The Vote for Women!" (The popular service is still sold in the Marble House gift shop.)
Some accounts of Alva’s life suggest she was an early day Leona Helmsley--a vigorous shrew who delighted in making her underlings miserable, who railed when upstaged, and who demanded and cajoled, but always got her way. Other reports hold her in high esteem as a trained designer, architect, and staunch supporter of the women’s movement. An independent and talented woman in the days when women were little more than arm candy or work horses, she was instrumental in using her money, power, and influence to secure women the vote. She is hailed as champion for the cause in most biographies.
Marble House Today
As a result of the work of The Preservation Society of Newport County, made possible by generous donations to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, significant fundraising by Gladys Vanderbilt, the Loeb’s Family Foundation, and Save America's Treasures campaign, visitors can learn much about the American society of the gilded age by touring the fabulous homes they safeguard.
We learn, for instance, that architect, Richard Morris Hunt
and his work for the Vanderbilt family elevated the status of architect from mere craftsman to respected artist. The Breakers, a 70-room extravaganza built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II and down the road from his brother’s Marble House, was modeled after 16th-century Italian palaces while neighboring Rosecliff, built by Theresa "Tessie" Fair Oelrichs, was funded by her father’s mother lode cash-in in Nevada Comstock’s silver mines.
Oh, what at time it must have been for the elite of the gilded ag --idle summers spent frolicking in the cold Newport surf; yacht racing; wining and dining; and searching for their place on the historical, international, and social continuum.
Their ancestors created fortunes with speculative ventures, ground-breaking discoveries, and risk-taking. They were true pioneers. Yet their offspring, with no real roadmap in the New World and New Age, modeled their living quarters after the kings of former centuries.*
Today, tourists wander through the halls of their magnificent homes marveling, snickering, scoffing, and praising. Wondering.
The Newport Preservation Society operates tours through nine mansions and the Green Animals topiary garden. Photos of mansion interiors are not allowed. There are many more mansions and exteriors to observe on a walking tour of the area, however.
Costumed actors invite you into an interactive experience during visits to Astors Beechwood Mansion, and The Newport Restoration Foundation offers tours of Rough Point, Doris Duke’s fabulous oceanfront estate; Whitehorne, where her collection of Federal furnishings is housed; and the Prescott Farm site.
*The Isaac Bell House was, however, innovative for its time.