Forty steps carved in granite lead down from the winding path of Newport’s Cliff Walk to the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Above, past wildflowers and thick brush is a pathway through a formal hedge that seems perfect for a child’s entrance to a secret garden. Beyond, rising high on a formal lawn is one of the towering “Gilded Age” mansions. The windows are empty now, but the whisper of festive frivolity can still be heard in the wind.
Even before the turn of the century, Newport, Rhode Island, was the summer playground for America’s aristocracy. Founded in 1639, this famous seaside city was home to many of the country’s most prominent families. Hailed as the “Queen of Resorts” during the early 1800s, Newport’s illustrious Bellevue Avenue sparkled even then with significant architecture and high-society gatherings. Today, Newport’s palatial palaces still sprawl along its cliffs offering a rare glimpse into an era of grandeur.
Located a pleasant drive south of Boston, Newport seems, upon first approaching its welcome sign, like most New England seafront villages. Neat colonial farms and quaint markets line the road as it curves over a bridge spanning Narragansett Bay, connecting the mainland to the island. The vista that unfolds here, as the steeple tops of Newport appear in the distance, is indeed quaint. The rich and religious purpose of this setting begins to reveal its past through its architectural icons.
The island of Rhode Island is only about 15 miles long and is known by its citizens as Adquidneck, an American Indian name meaning “Isle of Peace.” Founded on the principles of religious freedom, Newport became a haven for those seeking a right to worship in the New World. The symbols of this spirit remain throughout its community with historic churches and graveyards worthy of visits for their inspirational settings.
The sandy Easton’s Beach that greets vacation-goers today is the same setting that well-heeled 19th-century visitors flocked to in escape of the city’s heat. Looming out to the west along her shores is the three-and-a-half-mile, cragged white etched edge of Newport’s famous Cliff Walk. Here, above the protected public path for lovers and strollers, lie the architectural marvels of this rare American city. Nowhere in North America can there be found such a display of European-influenced grandeur than here amidst these castles by the sea.
If not for the dedication of the local preservationists over the past 100 years, Newport’s historic architecture would have seen the fate of the wrecking ball that so many other important East Coast structures have seen. Local preservationists are to credit for their steadfast devotion to protecting this historic city’s treasures.
The largest number of pre-Revolutionary buildings in North America still adorns the bustling streets of downtown Newport. From its rise to a destination for the elite in the 1880s, Newport’s Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive are still a showcase for its glorious architecture styles of Greek, Roman, Italian, French, and English designs. Palatial mansions of the mid-19th century that can be found here are the finest collection of architectural styles to be found on this side of the Atlantic. With Newport’s “Gilded Age” came palaces of Greek Revival, French Second Empire, Gothic, Italianate, Baroque, Renaissance, and Beaux-Arts forms of construction.
The list of impressive and powerful residents of Newport is long. Some of the richest families in our country such as the Vanderbilts and Astors built their summer palaces here. Important political figures such as Eisenhower and John Kennedy chose the shores of this exclusive island as the site for their summer White House. The grand homes on Bellevue Avenue are predominately museums now, as the cost of residential operations during the first part of the 20th century became too great even for the very wealthy.
Much to the public’s fortune, these American castles on the cliff are available for tours throughout the year. Each mansion seems grander than the next as the opulent interiors of many rival the palaces of Versailles. The winter months are a quiet time to enjoy the beauty of the homes with a variety of special concerts and events hosted throughout this snowy season. During the summer, however, visitors can tour the gardens and walk along the cliffs, imagining the way the rich and famous used to live.
There are 10 mansions available for visiting on the Preservation Society of Newport County’s official Newport mansion tours. A variety of tour packages are offered ranging from a ticket to see only one home (which could take the better part of a day if you want to linger in its regal halls) or more. Three homes are about the limit one can plan to visit in a day’s time. Visitors can tour the grounds on their own or opt for a guided tour, where fascinating historical lectures are given on the details of not only the mansions, but also the residents who once lived there. Tour prices for adults range from around $16 to $25 and for children $4 to $9.
The grandest summer “cottage” of Bellevue Avenue is the Breakers (44 Ochre Point Avenue). If you have time for just one mansion, this is the one to visit. This 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo was owned by the Vanderbilt family and was a symbol of their social preeminence at the turn of the century. The expansive interior is filled with furnishings and fixtures designed by Allard and Sons of Paris and relief sculptures by Austrian American sculptor Karl Bitter. Boston architect Ogden Codman decorated the vast and intricate details of the family private living quarters. The Vanderbilt’s children’s rooms are an inspiration for designers seeking grandeur for their clients. Each room is exquisitely arranged seemingly awaiting the return of the seven young Vanderbilt merrymakers. The views from the enormous open terrace overlooking the Atlantic are breathtaking. One can easily imagine the grand galas that took place here across the marble floors.
The Elms (367 Bellevue Avenue) was the summer residence of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind of Philadelphia and New York. The house was designed in 1898 to resemble the mid-18th-century French Chateau d’Asnieres (c. 1750) outside of Paris. Elaborate classical revival gardens include terraces where marble and bronze sculptures are displayed. There are marble pavilions, fountains, and a sunken garden that can be toured here. The Elms houses an exquisite collection of 18th-century French and Venetian paintings and Renaissance ceramics. There is an unusual rooftop and behind-the-scenes tour that is offered at the Elms mansion. Guests are taken into the kitchens, wine cellar, and to the third floor staff quarters for a peek at how the other half lived during the Gilded Age.
Marble House (596 Bellevue Avenue) was another summer cottage owned by the Vanderbilt family. Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, life at Marble House in the late 1800s set the pace for Newport’s escalation of construction of its grand estates and hosting of extravagant social events. Five hundred thousand cubic feet of marble embellish this estate that was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt. The owners, Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt and his wife Alva, divorced in 1885. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Vanderbilt moved back into the house and built a ruby red Chinese Tea House on the edge of the ocean cliffs. It was here that she hosted rallies for women’s right to vote at the turn of the century.
A landmark of Gothic Revival style in American architecture can be found at Kingscote (253 Bellevue Avenue). Medieval tournament tents inspired this romantic composition of towers, windows, Gothic arches, and porch roofs. Owned by southern planter George Noble Jones, this Newport landmark was built in 1839. The construction of this home on Bellevue Avenue marked the beginning of the cottage boom that would define this area for its magnificent architecture. The home includes an early installation of opalescent glass bricks by Louis Comfort Tiffany and an exotic collection of eastern and western ornamentation.
Chateau-Sur-Mer (474 Bellevue Avenue) was the grandest residence in Newport from 1852 until the construction of the Vanderbilt house in the1890s. It serves as a landmark of high Victorian architecture and furnishings. The mansion was the setting for the famed “Fete Champetre” where society gathered for elaborate picnics. Chateau-Sur-Mer’s glorious gatherings became legendary in Newport and paved the way for the Gilded Age of entertaining.
Rosewood (548 Bellevue Avenue) was the setting for fairy tale dinner parties where famous entertainers performed, including magician Harry Houdini. Owned by the Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs, the mansion was modeled after the Grand Trianon, a garden retreat of French kings at Versailles. Architect Stanford White began a construction renovation of the home in 1899 and did not complete the project until 1902 at the reported cost of $2.5 million. Its previous owner, historian and diplomat George Bancroft developed the ‘American Beauty’ rose in the gardens here. It was during the ownership of Mrs. Oelrichs that Rosewood became known as the setting for some of the most exclusive and decadent social events in Newport.
After a day or two of exploring the historic and fascinating mansions of Bellevue Avenue, there is a vivacious city to explore. It is a maritime city where its harbor is filled with grand power and pleasure sailing craft. Known as the sailing capital of the United States, many defenses of the America’s Cup yachting prize took place here. Colorful restaurants and boutiques are abundant along its harbor walk. Also home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport is the setting for many a championship tennis tournament. The Newport Country Club hosted the first U.S. Open and the first U.S. Amateur, both held in 1895.
The Newport Preservation Society offers historic walking tours of downtown, where early colonial architecture is still intact. Some of the most exclusive art and antique galleries can also be found in Newport. Of particular note is the William Vareika’s Fine Arts Gallery, which houses the largest collection of famous American artist John Lafarge’s paintings and stained glass. Mr. Vareika and his wife Allison are Newport preservationists, a warm and delightful couple to meet on a trip to Newport. Most certainly knowledgeable about Newport’s history, the Vareikas are happy to share their historical perspective on the city they love so dearly.
There are many hotels and bed and breakfast options available throughout the city, however, it would be wise during the peak summer season to make reservations in advance. The Newport Hyatt Regency is located on Goat Island overlooking the downtown Newport Harbor and the stately sailboats. Guests of this resort ferry back and forth to the mainland. The Newport Marriott is directly on the harbor and does not require a ferryboat ride for transport. A slightly dated but favorite motor lodge is the Cliffs, which overlooks the public beach and has access to the rambling Cliff Walk along Bellevue Avenue’s rolling seaside lawns.
To make the most of a trip to this section of the Northeast, take a flight into Boston and spend a day exploring Newbury Street and Beacon Hill. A stay at the Langley Hotel is worth the visit in itself. This five-star hotel with European service offers good prices, particularly for Boston, with every comfort and luxury possible. The hotel has a lovely indoor pool and a full service spa. On Saturdays, the Langley is famous for its Chocolate Brunch where tempting entrees and desserts dripped in chocolate are resplendent. Then rent a car and head south for a beautiful New England drive to the city by the sea. The Newport experience is a unique and one-of-a-kind destination that enlightens the imagination, leaving you with a lingering image of the glorious days of America’s 19th-century silver-spoon society.