Travelers to Newport, Rhode Island, won't be able to hob-nob with the likes of the Vanderbilts and the Astors, but they can see where and how the upper echelon spent their summers in the opulent historic mansions that dot the city's coastline.
Tours of the mansions, some of which can be seen from Newport's famous Cliff Walk, evoke the splendor of the Gilded Age when wealthy families of the mid-to-late-19th century escaped the cities for seaside luxury, and Newport was the place to be.
There are officially 11 revered mansions in the collection, but some are not open for public tours for various reasons, such as renovations or repairs underway. But several are available for tours, and all are overseen by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Most of the tours are self-guided with audio downloaded from the Newport Mansions app, and all tickets are sold through the society and should be bought in advance on its website. Hours of operation for touring vary widely from week to week and season to season, so visitors should visit the site for the most updated tour schedules for each mansion.
In 2022, a one-house self-guided tour costs $25 per adult, two-house tours, $38, and three-house tours, $46. Themed tours also are offered, including an upstairs-downstairs-style one that lets visitors explore the servants' areas, including the kitchens. That tour costs $8. A Gilded Age guided tour also is offered.
Visit The Breakers For A Taste Of Opulent Living
The Breakers is the best-known of the Newport mansions. Located at 44 Ochre Point Avenue, the iconic mansion is typically open daily. It is surely the grandest of these so-called summer cottages and was owned by the famous Vanderbilt family. Its design was based on a classic Italian palazzo, and construction was completed in 1895.
Classical Roman elements include columns and arches, a Great Hall with a 50-foot-high ceiling, tile mosaics, crystal chandeliers, and 27 fireplaces. The mansion has 70 rooms in all and sits on 13 oceanfront acres. It was built with electricity installed, which was unusual even for the ultra-wealthy of the Gilded Age. The Breakers was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II.
Mansions Sport Marble, Gold Gilt, Ocean Views
Other mansions open for touring include The Elms, at 367 Bellevue Avenue. It was the home of Edward Julius Berwind, a coal magnate who built the mansion in 1901. Its design was modeled on the 18th-century French Chateau d'Asnieres. The interior was designed by a Paris firm with an eye to displaying the owner's collection of French and Venetian paintings and other works of art. The Elms also features vast gardens designed in the Classical Revival style, and dining terraces with views of the gardens feature marble pavilions and fountains.
William K. Vanderbilt also constructed a cottage in Newport called Marble House in 1892. (His old brother had built The Breakers.) The younger Vanderbilt designed his home, at 596 Bellevue Avenue, after the Petit Trianon at Versailles. According to the preservation society, he spent $7 million on marble alone. The 50-room mansion has high-end materials like wrought iron and gilt bronze stair railings, marble friezes and statues, and carved wood with gold gilt panels.
Vanderbilt wasn't the only mansion owner who was inspired by Versailles. Rosecliff, a mansion at 548 Bellevue Avenue, was modeled after the Versailles Grand Trianon. Built between 1898 and 1902, Rosecliff was said to have the largest grand ballroom of all the Newport mansions. Some 80 feet long, its french doors opened to an ocean view.
Silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs built the mansion and was known for hosting grand dinners and parties, including one in which Harry Houdini performed.
Chateau-Sur-Mer, at 474 Bellevue Avenue, is an example of High Victorian architecture and was built in 1852. It was considered the most opulent mansion until the Vanderbilts started building their summer homes years later. Chateau-Sur-Mer was built by China trade merchant William Shepard Wetmore, who designed the home in the Italianate villa style. The focal point of the interior is its three-story great hall.
Special Tours Offer Insights Into Newport's Mansions
Tourists looking for some behind-the-scenes insight into the Newport mansions have a few tours to choose from. One is called the Servant Life Tour at The Elms, and it focuses on the people who staffed the mansions during the Gilded Age. Visitors will learn about the butler of The Elms, Ernest Birch, and his wife, Grace, who was the cook, as well as one of the maids.
Expect to do a lot of walking and climbing. It's 82 steps from the mansion's back staircase, where the servants entered the house, to the third-floor sleeping quarters. Exhibits and photos in the former staff quarters are available to view. The tour includes the basement kitchens, the coal cellar, and boiler and laundry rooms, and it costs $8.
At the other end of the spectrum, visitors can book a private, guided tour called the Gilded Age Tour. This tour, based largely on the HBO series “The Gilded Age,” visits The Breakers, Marble House, Chateau-Sur-Mer, and The Elms. Visitors will see various ballrooms and bedrooms where the series was filmed and have refreshments on one of the chateau's porches. Private roundtrip transportation is provided for this tour, which costs $250 per person.