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Thread: Newport's historic seaside mansions speak of the days when "summer" was a verb

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    Elite Member Novice's Avatar
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    Default Newport's historic seaside mansions speak of the days when "summer" was a verb

    Green Animals Topiary Garden has 80 "species" of sculpted shrubs, including 21 animals and birds, overlooking Narragansett Bay.

    Newport's historic seaside mansions speak of the days when "summer" was a verb as well as a noun

    With rocky cliffs abutting the Atlantic coastline, charming sun- and salt-blasted clapboard Colonials, and famous outdoor jazz and folk music festivals, Newport, Rhode Island, fairly epitomizes summer. So it has for more than two centuries as the destination of choice for generations of America's most prominent families, who erected some of the stateliest mansions on the Eastern Seaboard in the Hamptons or Palm Beach of their day.

    These colonial and Gilded Age landmarks range from elaborate marble manses meant to evoke Versailles to picturesque, asymmetrically designed abodes, and even the nation's oldest topiary garden. By the turn of the twentieth century, writes Deborah Davis in the recently published history Gilded: How Newport Became America's Richest Resort (Wiley, 2009), each family attempted to outdo the last by building elaborate summer homes quaintly referred to as "cottages." Today, thanks to the Preservation Society of Newport County, the public can tour eleven of the lavish homes and catch a glimpse of a bygone way of life.

    Architect Stanford White built Rosecliff for Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs in 1902. The house was modeled after the royal garden retreat at Versailles.

    Always worldly on account of its bustling harbor, Newport has drawn a critical mass of vacationers since the 1700s, when Southern families began renting homes in town to escape the summer heat. Over the next century, the warm-weather crowds mingled with artists and writers from Winslow Homer to Henry James and Edith Wharton, and many decided to build their own homes along the shore. According to John Tschirch, Architectural Historian and Director of Academic Programs at the Preservation Society, this flurry of construction helped make the town a "laboratory" for "the very best in American domestic architecture" through the turn of the twentieth century.

    One of the first was Kingscote, the Gothic Revival cottage commissioned by plantation owner George Noble Jones in 1839 that Newport native William Henry King purchased in 1864. Although medicine ran in the King family (his father, David King, was the first doctor in the state to administer the smallpox vaccine), William, his brother and nephew made their fortunes as merchants in the China trade (as did many Newporters). As they traveled to far-flung locales throughout Asia, the Kings collected exotic wares, which they brought back to their Newport home. Look for the bold-colored wool pile rug showing four running foxes against a floral background—one of more than thirty examples of rare Oriental rugs—and the exquisite twelfth-century Song Dynasty bowl.

    Built in 1839, Kingscote is one of the first summer homes in Newport. The dining room displays the house's ornamental Gothic Revival style.

    But the showstopper is surely the dining room, redesigned in the 1870s by top firm McKim, Mead & White. Its daring features include opalescent glass bricks by Louis Comfort Tiffany, a cork ceiling, and a screen blending both European and Near Eastern detail. To this day, says Tschirch, the Kingscote dining hall is "one of the most remarkable rooms in Newport and in American design."

    By the last years of the nineteenth century, Newport had reached its apogee as an exclusive retreat. Among the last to build a grand estate there was coal magnate Edward Julius Berwind, who in 1898 spared no expense—a reported $1.4 million, no small sum in the late nineteenth century—when he commissioned Horace Trumbauer to design his summer house, The Elms. Tschirch describes the mansion, modeled on the Château d'Asnières in France, as an "eighteenth-century fantasy world" where the Berwinds received guests ranging from Crown Prince Wilhelm of Sweden to the commander of the Atlantic fleet in a grand hall filled with roses against a backdrop of paintings by the likes of Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini. The estate's Classical Revival gardens, which featured elaborate landscaping, marble pavilions, and bronze and marble sculpture, could accommodate some four hundred guests; there, trained monkeys mingled with partygoers, an exotic entertainment cribbed from the historic courts of Europe. Despite their affection for the past, however, the Berwinds were among the first in the nation to wire their home with electricity, and they hosted parties in the refined gardens, where trees were strung with lights.

    The gold room in the Vanderbilts' Marble House displays the over-the-top opulence of Newport's summer "cottages."

    The Breakers, on nearby Ochre Point, is named for the sound of the surf pounding against the cliffs, which can be heard from within the grounds' Richard Morris Hunt—designed Italianate palazzo. Commissioned by the Vanderbilt family and built from Indiana limestone, the thirteen-acre estate, which opened in 1895, was the lauded architect's last completed building. Inside, the house features grandiose details like onyx pillars, bronze carvings, and original mosaics. The dramatic dining room, featuring a ceiling fresco and double-height windows that open onto terraces with dramatic ocean views, would have been the stage for see-and-be-seen events during "the season."

    Like Kingscote, The Breakers, which the Preservation Society bought in 1972, is almost "totally intact. One or two things were sold," says Tschirch, but otherwise the décor looks as it did when Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt lived there with their seven children. Visitors should be sure to duck inside Alice Vanderbilt's ladies' reception room—its antique gilded paneling imported from France was certain to impress her posh callers. And among the house's many sumptuous textiles, says Tschirch, be sure to examine the William Morris carpets.

    Marble House (left), which features 500,000 cubic feet of its namesake material, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt for William Kissam Vanderbilt in 1892; a year later, he built the Breakers (right), a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, for Cornelius Vanderbilt II.

    By the start of the First World War, the forces of history were conspiring to make the summering habits of Newport's mansions obsolete. Alva Vanderbilt—sister-in-law to Alice and Cornelius II—gave the final party of the last Gilded Age summer, in 1913, at Marble House, the $11 million estate ($260 million in today's dollars) built from some 500,000 cubic meters of its namesake material. Her new Chinese teahouse, perched on the edge of a nearby cliff, was the inspiration for the party's Eastern theme. In a detail that seems lifted from an E. L. Doctorow novel, one guest, Evalyn Walsh McLean, arrived wearing the Hope Diamond.

    In the coming decades, the Newport cottages would be left without heirs, torn down in favor of more modern domiciles, or left empty as their former inhabitants forsook Newport for the Gulf Coast or the French Riviera. A new group of prominent families would take their place—decorated Naval officers, celebrities, and politicians, including Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy (the latter's fairy-tale wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier took place in 1953 at Newport's St. Mary's Church). But on that evening in 1913, these changes would have been but a glimmer in the eyes of the guests at Alva Vanderbilt's party, as they mingled beneath trees strung with thousands of Chinese lanterns, little bursts of light rustling in the breeze.

    The Breakers was modeled after the 18th-century palaces of Genoa and Turin.

    SIDEBAR: In Bloom
    Rosecliff, the white-glazed terracotta mansion that architect Stanford White based on the Grand Trianon at Versailles, has been the site of any number of the world's most fabulous parties since it opened in 1903. During the heyday of the Gilded Age, Rosecliff owners Theresa and Hermann Oelrichs—she a Nevada silver heiress—hosted lavish dinner parties at the estate, where guests clamored to rub shoulders with magician Harry Houdini. They also threw themed dances as elaborate as they were exclusive, including the 1904 "White Ball," decades ahead of Truman Capote. Since the house's last private owners donated Rosecliff to the Preservation Society in 1971, most of the parties at Rosecliff have been staged and filmed for such movies as The Great Gatsby, True Lies, and Amistad.

    But from June 25—27, Rosecliff will host the fifteenth annual Newport Flower Show, beginning with a cocktail party to kick off the weekend's events. Throughout the show, whose theme this year is "Safari Flora and Fauna," guests can browse exotic plants, explore topiaries on the Rosecliff lawn, and attend workshops and lectures by plant experts, flower designers, and gardeners, including the internationally renowned floral designer Marie-Françoise Déprez.

    The Elms was the site of many a lavish party thrown by Mr. and Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind.

    Rosecliff took its name from the American Beauty rose, which diplomat George Bancroft developed there in the late nineteenth century. But the mansion isn't the only horticultural landmark in town. Some ten miles away in Portsmouth is Green Animals, the oldest topiary garden in the United States. Created in 1907 by Joseph Carreiro, an accomplished Portuguese gardener hired to develop the grounds for the Brayton family estate, the garden includes some eighty whimsical animals, such as a giraffe, a standing bear, a peacock, and a unicorn—among other species rarely spotted in Rhode Island.

    Rachel Somerstein is a New York—based editor and writer who covers topics ranging from art and politics to urban planning for ARTnews, ART + AUCTION, McSweeney's, PBS, n+1, and Next American City.
    1. Richard Cheek/Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County
    2. Ira Kerns/Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County
    3. John Corbett/Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County
    4. John Corbett/Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County
    5. Ira Kerns/Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County
    6. Patrick O'Connor/Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County
    7. Andrea Carneiro/Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County
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  2. #2
    Elite Member Brookie's Avatar
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    Museums. Couldn't see myself ever living in something like those. Too much junk and over-gilding.
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    Ridiculously overbearing and ostentatious.


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    Elite Member VenusInFauxFurs's Avatar
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    Sculpted shrubs make me think of Edward Scissorhands.
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    My inlaws live next to Doris Duke's house in Newport. The Duke house has really cool life sized topiary camels on the lawn. Miss Duke had live camels there at one point.

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    I love it!

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    Elite Member Beeyotch's Avatar
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    I love the topiaries. And all that luxurious, beautiful wood paneling, wood floors, built-ins. I'm a sucker for wood. (har, har)

    Everything else is just too much, way over the top, and not even appealing.

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    Elite Member Mel1973's Avatar
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    There is such a thing as "too much"... and these homes really prove that!
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