The mansions of the gilded age along Bellevue Avenue and the surrounding area in Newport, Rhode Island offer a glimpse of a life from another time. If you love historic architecture this is for you.The gilded age is a period of approximately 30 years in the late 1800’s when America was booming with enterprise, expansion and immigration. Wealthy industrialists expressed their success by living a lavish lifestyle, often building a palatial palace in each seasonal location. Life was good.
The architectural bar was raised, architects designed it and a boom in building trades fulfilled it. The great shingle style Victorian summer cottages were replaced with a modern Beaux Arts style of architecture. This new style was an amalgamation of French and Italian Baroque, Rococo and Classic architecture of the ages. The age of the American Architect had begun.
- Richard Morris Hunt : Chateau Sur-Mer, Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House, Ochre Court for Ogden Goelet, and most famously The Breakers for Cornelius Vanderbilt II.
- Stanford White was commissioned by Theresa Fair Oelrichs to build Rosecliff among others
- The firm of Peabody & Stearns: Vinland for Catherine Lorillard Wolfe and Rough Point for Frederick William Vanderbilt
- Horace Trumbauer: The Elms for the Berwinds and renovations on Rough Point for James Buchanan Duke (Doris Duke’s father)
Visiting these grand old architectural gems is like walking into a fantasy. It is hard to imagine what must it been like to live back then when one had up to six changes of clothing a day, dinners were eight courses, seasons meant a change of home as much as a change in the weather and almost every action was lived with a rule book. Ton on upon ton of imported marble and other stone, fine antiques, craftsman, and the best architects and premiere landscape architects were used to make the homeowner’s dream a reality. In this era the homeowner studied the great homes and castles of Europe, their architects understood proportion, scale and balance. Alva Vanderbilt knew exactly what she was talking about when she wanted the authentic Chinese Tea House (below). Design was purposeful not merely indulgent.
This was also at the height of the Victorian era of stuff and the right rooms to hold or exhibit one’s treasures be they art or the daily tableware (this would be fine porcelain). If a man’s home was his castle the mansions of the gilded age were also a testament to a person’s success and position. Some of these gilded age mansions were certainly over the top, The Breakers and Marble House being two of the grandest, but this was an era of display and only the best was worthy of display. These homes had a room for everything: a room of glass fronted cabinets filled with set upon set of china and crystal often with an enormous steel door on a lone wall… the silver safe, butler’s pantries larger than today’s kitchen, a flower room, two laundry rooms one for the homeowner and one for the staff, a men’s game room, a ladies salon, a dressing room, a ball room, music room, library, grand entrance hall and more. There are hidden doors, back passage and stairways so the help could attend to every duty without intrusion. Every detail was attended to in the construction, design and decoration. Fortunately many of these gilded age mansions have been saved, restored or kept intact. Doris Duke’s Rough Point is in the care of Newport Preservation Foundation, created and funded by Doris Duke for the purpose of caring for and restoring numerous Newport structures.
The Preservation Society of Newport is caretaker for the larger number of gilded age mansions open to the public. As you may notice none of the mansions allow interior photography and while there are books on the topic, a visit is the only way to truly experience their glory. However one of the best books we found, full of interesting details and charming tidbits on many of the Newport mansions is, A Guide To Newport’s Cliff Walk by Ed Morris (one of the tour guides at The Breakers.)
If you love architecture, homes, and history a visit to the gilded age mansions of Newport is one of those must do bucket list items. Check, but I’ll be going back.