Sunday, November 13, 2016

My Gilded Pleasure: Newport Mansions and Vanderbilding

Indulging in my "gilded pleasure" at the Viking Hotel on Bellevue Ave.

As a Gilded Age enthusiast, a visit to Newport -  where America's very rich and famous of the late 19th century built "cottages" along the Atlantic Ocean - was a must. Last month, I indulged my "gilded pleasure" and traveled to the east coast resort town and toured the five historic mansions that are still open this time of year:  The Breakers, Marble House, Rosecliff, The Elms and Chateau-sur-Mer.

One side of the great foyer inside The Breakers

During our visit, we stayed at the Viking Hotel, on the famed Bellmont Avenue, home to many of the Newport Mansions. In fact, the hotel was built as a joint effort among some of the upper crust families to be a place for the overflow of guests to stay. Many of the cottages, although large by any scale, typically had bedrooms for members of the family only and maybe one guest room. It's hard to keep in mind, these were summer homes and used just for a few months out of the year.

First on my list were the Newport of homes of the Vanderbilts:   The Breakers and Marble House. They were built by the grandsons of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who created the family fortune with shipping and railroads. The competitiveness of the wealthy families to outdo each other with extravagant domiciles gave way to the term "Vanderbuilding" according to Gilded by Deborah Davis (see November 8, Tuesday Tea and Tomes: Gilded). And, no question, there was a lot of  Vanderbilding going on in Newport!

 The Breakers, the biggest cottage in Newport

The Breakers is the largest of all Newport mansions, built in 1893, to replace an earlier wood frame house of the same name that was destroyed by fire. The 70-room cottage was designed by architect William Morris Hunt and inspired by 16th century palaces of Italy.

Chris strolls through The Breakers second floor hallway

Around the corner and down Bellevue Avenue sits Marble House, also designed by William Morris Hunt, but with much direction from owner, Alva Vanderbilt, spouse of William K. Vanderbilt. William K. gave Alva the house as a 39th birthday present.

Happy Birthday, Alva! Marble House, aptly named,  has 500,000 cubic ft of imported marble 

Built to resemble a chateau at Versailles, the cost of the home in modern-day currency amounts to $11 million with over half that amount going to 500,000 cubic feet of marble.

Marble walls, staircases in Marble House

Alva Vanderbilt's ambition was a double-edged sword. Her strong-will rebelled against the social convention of staying with a philandering husband and she  risked ostracism from her friends for insisting upon, and obtaining, a divorce. She was also a great supporter of the 19th amendment and held suffragette meetings at the Tea House she had erected on the grounds of Marble House.

Cosuelo's bedroom at Marble House, designed entirely by Alva

However, that same drive  had a downside. Alva groomed her daughter, Conseulo, to be the bride of an English lord.  Consuelo had fallen in love with an American gentleman and wanted to marry him instead of a British aristocrat. Domineering and manipulative, Alva insisted her daughter marry the Duke of Marlborough, which sent Conseulo to Blenheim Castle in England and trapped her in an unhappy, loveless marriage.

Gothic Room where the Duke proposed to Consuelo 

Mother and daughter reconciled and eventually Conseulo left the Duke and married the second time for love - so there are some happy endings!

We visited  three more Newport mansions over the next few days of our stay: Rosecliff, Chateau-sur-Mer, and The Elms, the latter of which we took part in the  "Servant's Life" tour, which showed the equally fascinating "downstairs" life of cottage living.  More of those in Newport Mansions: Part II.

Marble House lawn overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, spectacular views inside and out

We had been to Newport over ten years ago, but only had time to tour The Breakers. This trip was amazing - time to visit five mansions, partake in afternoon tea and get our fresh seafood fix. But, most importantly, I indulged in my gilded pleasure in Newport, learning more about this fascinating era in such a beautiful setting.

More Gilded Pleasures coming to the blog. Stay tuned.

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