If these walls could talk: A trip through the Gilded Age in Newport
Maybe you're obsessed with home shows like "House Hunters" and "Million Dollar Listing." Maybe you binge-watch period dramas like Netflix’s “Bridgerton” or are one of the 3 million viewers who are eagerly awaiting HBO's second season of "The Gilded Age." Or, closer to home, maybe you're a little more active on Zillow than you care to admit. We're not judging—it's human nature to be curious about what's behind closed doors—especially when those doors belonged to famous families with lots of drama.
This, in part, explains why people love to tour the Newport Mansions, a collection of 10 opulent properties that were built as "summer cottages" and served as playgrounds for the wealthy elite of the late 19th century. The Mansions should be at the top of your list when arriving in Newport, Rhode Island, a seaside city with equal parts coastal views, creative cuisine and cultural activities situated just 90 minutes from Boston and three hours from New York. Here's what you'll find when you visit:
A chance to walk in famous footsteps
What's the number one rule in real estate? Location, location, location. For the titans of the Gilded Age, the place to be in the summer was not Fifth Avenue in New York or the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Instead, the coveted summer address was along Bellevue Avenue in Newport. The City by the Sea had gained favor as a popular summer getaway, due to its mild climate and million-dollar ocean views. It was along this stretch that the who's-who of high society—including coal magnate Edward Julius Berwind, Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs, the Astors, and, of course, the Vanderbilts—built summer homes modeled after European palaces.
Over time, wooden cottages were replaced by stone mansions and the building boom peaked between 1892 and 1902, when four American castles were completed just blocks from each other: Marble House (1892), The Breakers (1895), The Elms (1901) and Rosecliff (1902). This architectural one-upmanship included manicured gardens and ornate ballrooms for hosting lavish parties, extensive collections of art and the latest in modern technology (including electric lights). Modern-day visitors can see the homes much as they were then, thanks to the efforts of The Preservation Society of Newport County, which maintains the properties and offers admission to 10 homes and gardens.
When you visit, some parts may look familiar—especially if you watched HBO's "The Gilded Age", the popular period drama created by Julian Fellowes of "Downton Abbey" fame. Scenes for the first and second seasons were filmed at The Breakers, Marble House, The Elms, Rosecliff, Chateau-sur-Mer, Kingscote and Hunter House. Fans of the show should make sure to snag tickets to the Inside "The Gilded Age" Tour, which is only offered on Friday afternoons through July 14.
There's drama around every corner
The Newport Mansions were built to make a statement about wealth and status, and no expense was spared in constructing the palatial properties.
Marble House, built for Alva Vanderbilt, used 500,000 cubic feet of marble and was inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. When Cornelius Vanderbilt II built The Breakers, his status as one of America's richest men was on full display with 50-foot ceilings in The Great Hall, Baccarat crystal chandeliers, platinum leaf on the walls and a Music Room that was built in France, disassembled and shipped to the States to be reassembled.
The Elms may have been modeled after an 18th-century French chateau, but it was decidedly modern as one of the first houses in America wired for electricity. With the largest ballroom in Newport, Rosecliff was built for entertaining and was home to some of the summer social season's swankiest soirees.
When visiting, you'll find myriad envy-inducing snaps for your Instagram. At The Breakers, go to the second floor for a view overlooking the Great Hall (and a closer look at the ornate ceiling), then go out to the upper loggia for a stunning ocean view framed by Palladian arches.
When visiting Marble House, look for the spiral staircase just past Alva Vanderbilt's second-floor bedroom or take a photo by the Chinese Tea House overlooking the seaside cliffs. After touring inside The Elms, take a stroll through the Sunken Garden that evokes a Parisian demesne.
While the grand estates were dramatic in their own right, the people inside the homes were intriguing as well. It's one thing to build a fortune; it's another to maintain that status amid juicy scandals, extramarital affairs and social climbing. The Breakers, home of the Vanderbilts, was the scene of much of this drama—which you can relive here.
While the men who financed the mansions often get the most attention, women like Alva and Alice Vanderbilt wielded immense influence. For example, Alva married into the Vanderbilt fortune, then bent New York high society (including The Mrs. Astor—Caroline Schermerhorn Astor) to her will, bringing the Vanderbilt family to the pinnacle of the social scene. After divorcing her husband (unheard of at the time), Alva married into the wealthy Belmont banking family and later became a fierce advocate for women's suffrage, holding symposiums at Marble House.
The mansions are also museums
Over the course of the last 78 years, The Preservation Society of Newport County has acquired these mansions to protect them for future generations. This work is ongoing—restoring roofs, protecting valuable art, conserving delicate fabrics — and is supported in part by visitor tickets and donations. Rosecliff is currently closed for restoration projects until the end of August 2023. These include replacing the roof and 600 feet of balustrade around its perimeter; restoring all exterior windows; sandblasting and painting the decorative wrought iron; and replacing the Ballroom's 3,200 square feet of parquet oak flooring.
The Newport Mansions include seven National Historic Landmarks, dating back as far as Hunter House, built in 1748. It was the first preservation project for the Society in 1945. Guide-led tours (timed entry, ticket needed) reveal aspects of colonial life in Newport, both for prosperous merchants and enslaved Africans.
Other landmarks include the Gothic Revival style of Kingscote, which helped kick off the "cottage boom" in 1841 and was a forerunner to other creative designs that would follow. One such mansion—Chateau-sur-Mer—was built in 1852 as an Italianate-style villa, and served as the most opulent of the Newport houses until the Vanderbilts came to town.
Lectures are also available throughout the year, covering everything from life for average Americans during the Gilded Age to the massive societal and technological transformations that occurred between the Civil War and the early 20th century.
It gets interesting behind closed doors
To dig deeper into what life was like at the mansions, act fast to get tickets to the aforementioned Inside "The Gilded Age" Tour, which visits four of the residences and includes details on how the HBO show was filmed. The 3-hour tour only runs on Friday afternoons through July 14, so tickets are limited.
Or, opt for one of two behind-the-scenes tours. The Beneath The Breakers Tour does exactly what it says—takes you underground to learn about the technological advances that made the magnificent mansion a modern marvel for its time. The Servant Life Tour at The Elms details the life of the butlers, cooks and maids who toiled day and night to keep their wealthy employers happy in the lap of luxury. (Pro tip: Weather permitting, you can also go on the roof for a stunning view of the Newport Harbor, as the servants' quarters were often on the higher floors.)
Things to know before you go
Tickets are available for The Breakers, another mansion (such as The Elms or Chateau-sur-Mer) or for multiple properties. Don't worry about packing them all into a single day—you can use the multi-property ticket across different days and the ticket doesn't expire. The free Newport Mansions app offers self-guided audio tours for The Breakers, Marble House and The Elms, and you'll find docents stationed throughout the homes to answer questions. You'll find smaller crowds if you visit during the week.
There is food available at The Breakers Cafe in the Welcome Center or The Chinese Tea House at Marble House, but if the weather is cooperating, pack a picnic basket and blanket to enjoy on the grounds at The Breakers, Marble House, The Elms or Green Animals Topiary Garden.
Kids will enjoy the chance to see Sean Kenney's Nature Connects Made with LEGO® Bricks, an award-winning exhibition on display from May 26 to September 10 at Green Animals Topiary Garden in nearby Portsmouth, R.I. (Of course, they'll also get a kick out of the 80-some bushes shaped like animals throughout the garden.)
While the mansions do not host nearly as many elaborate events as they did back in the day, they are still wonderful settings for a party now and then. The summer calendar includes perennial favorites such as the Newport Flower Show (June 23-25 at Marble House) and the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival at Rosecliff (Sept. 22-24). Keep an eye out for winter holiday events, as the estates get dressed up to celebrate the winter season.