COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

American aristocrats gilded their lives with vacation homes

Far from the clutter of urban New York is a retreat made famous by the rich and famous of the late 19th century. Nestled at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, R.I., is a charming colonial-era village called Newport. What makes this idyllic hideaway famous are the ornate mansion-museums that border the scenic shoreline.

American “royalty” emerged from the Industrial Age as the nation developed from an agrarian society after the Civil War into a global powerhouse of commerce. The early tycoons were names that still evoke admiration, envy and sometimes anger over their robber-baron style of getting rich.

Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Astor, Morgan and Carnegie are still recognized today primarily because of the legacies they left as monuments to their power and wealth. During the Gilded Age — from about 1878 to 1910 — the princes of American industry built sumptuous homes, usually two or more, to display their wealth and to entertain lavishly. The largest cluster is in Newport, where most prominent New Yorkers had a summer “cottage” to escape the summer heat of the city.

Lined up like royal palaces along the shore, each mansion was designed by prominent architects and artisans to one-up its neighbor. There was no limit on how big and luxurious each structure could be. The several branches of Vanderbilts set the bar high; even family members would compete to outshine the other.

Newport became the national social center during the summer months when lavish entertaining was the daily routine. Household servants and gourmet caterers were kept busy providing the amenities of the era.

As the Gilded Age waned after World War I, the mansions remained with the help of the Preservation Society of Newport County, which owns and operates 10 of the Newport palaces, fully furnished and open to public tours by reservation.

I picked one of the best-known for my first tour. The Breakers was built by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1895 for his family of seven children. The Italian Renaissance palazzo provided 70 rooms for lavish entertainment during the summer season. It is truly a palace equal to any in Europe.

Before signing up, I recommend a walk-by tour, especially the Cliff Walk. There is a public path along the water that allows close-up viewing of The Breakers, Marble House and The Elms that only have limited glimpses from the street. Most of the other mansions are along or near Bellevue Avenue and easily visible.

The three above are the most popular if your time is limited. The Vanderbilts used one-upmanship within the family circle to be the social lions of the Newport season by building and furnishing the most elaborate homes. The Breakers (1895) set a benchmark, but another Vanderbilt palace, Marble House (1892), had already started the competition with Mrs. William Astor whose ballroom held 400 guests, creating The Four Hundred social register.

Later entries were The Elms (1901), a chateau-style home of Edward Berwind, and Rosecliff (1902) that became a popular site for social soirées with celebrities of the day.

Another worthy mansion still in private ownership is Doris Duke’s waterfront showplace called Rough Point operated by the Newport Restoration Foundation and open to tour groups limited to 12 by reservation. Duke, a tobacco heiress, was internationally renowned for her Islamic art collection liberally displayed in Newport and in her other showplace home, Shangri-la, in Hawaii.

The reason I liked Rough Point the most was its feeling of personal attention with a homey environment in spite of its size and ambiance. You could imagine that the owner had just left the room (she died in 1993.). The other grand mansions, built of marble and furnished in monumental antiques and aristocratic décor suggest a museum rather than a home.

A visit to Newport is not all about elaborate homes of the Gilded Age wealthy. The seaside village and yacht marina offer historic inns from the lively Colonial period when the port was infamous for pirates and the slave trade. Free from British restrictions on 17th-century trade as a private chartered colony, local merchants commissioned famous pirates to take prizes from the Spanish ships in the Caribbean to enrich their fortunes.

While waiting for a programmed tour of the houses, fine restaurants and high-end shops line the embarcadero and in the village historic center to entertain visitors.

The season for touring Newport is from late spring to October when all facilities are open. There are special tours during the Christmas holidays of the decorated mansions. Advance planning for the tours is recommended and reservations can be booked upon arrival. A broad selection of historic inns is available online.

Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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