Newport, Rhode Island was the summer playground of the rich and powerful during America’s Gilded Age around the turn of the 20th century. During that time, American commerce experienced an unprecedented boom. Railroad, banking, oil, steel, and mining tycoons earned massive fortunes and spent lavishly on their image and lifestyles. They wanted to show off on their way to becoming American royalty—and nowhere was showier than at their Newport mansions.
The Magnificent “Cottages” of Newport
Known as “cottages,” these large, glamorous estates were some of the most beautiful status symbols in the world. Designed by leading architects of the time, the Newport Mansions are mostly located on a cliff in the Bellevue Avenue Historic District. These cottages represent a high point in design and bygone elegance.
Over a century later, they are no longer just the playground of the super-rich. Many of the homeowners donated or leased their cottages to The Preservation Society of Newport County or other community organizations that have opened them up to the public. Guided and self-guided tours are now available to many of the finest mansions in Newport. Here are 6 mansions to visit that we think are the best in Newport.
The cottage known as The Breakers is the most famous mansion in Newport. It is an opulent show-piece and was built by the Vanderbilt’s using a not-insignificant chunk of their railroad fortune. Designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, the Vanderbilt compound was commissioned in 1893 by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. For the Chairman and President of the New York Central Railroad, the summer escape was built to be enjoyed, but more importantly – envied. The 70-room Italian Renaissance-style manor was inspired by 16th century European palaces. The home was full of priceless art and luxurious furnishings. The 14-acre grounds include stunning gardens, a forest of mature oak and maple trees, and a large horse facility. Best of all are the dramatic ocean views you can enjoy from the very edge of the property’s private cliff.
Rough Point is another Vanderbilt mansion, this one commissioned by Frederick W. Vanderbilt. Built in 1887 by architecture firm Peabody and Stearns, Rough Point was designed to look and feel like an elegant English manor. It features red sandstone and granite, wonderful gardens and lawns, and of course a spectacular view right from the property’s rocky cliff.
Rough Point’s claim to fame that sets it apart from the other Newport cottages is the clear imprint of its most recent resident, Doris Duke. The heiress adored Rough Point, and filled it with lovingly curated artifacts she wanted to share with the public upon her death in 1993. Except for the more formal art gallery on the second floor, the home still feels lived in. Rough Point is a museum that, while grand, is also quite intimate. It gives visitors an insight into what living in one of these American palaces would actually feel like.
The Elms was the pride and joy of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind, who made their fortune in coal. They paid a reported $1.4 million for this lavish summer home designed by Horace Trumbauer. The Elms was inspired by the mid-18th century Château d'Asnieres, a gorgeous, classically French property outside of Paris. The Elms’ sprawling grounds reflected the European elegance of the interior, and had multiple gardens, numerous mature trees, and a museum’s worth of stunning sculptures.
The Elms was also famous for its inner workings. The gentleman of the house had a strong interest in technology, so the Elms was cutting-edge for its time. It was one of the first homes in the country to be wired for electricity, and they even had an electric ice maker, a very advanced gadget for the time.
Another Vanderbilt Mansion, the elegant Marble House was a 39th birthday present from William to Alva Vanderbilt. They saw it as an American “temple to the arts.” Inspired by Versailles, the Beaux Arts-style cottage was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt. It cost a reported $11 million to build—over a quarter of a billion dollars in today’s money. A few years after Marble House’s completion, Alva Vanderbilt left her husband but kept the cottage. She went on to become a prominent community organizer, using Marble House’s cliffside Chinese Tea House to host rallies for women’s suffrage.
In 1899, architect Stanford White modeled Rosecliff after the Grand Trianon chateau at Versailles. The owner and mistress of Rosecliff was the enormously wealthy silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs. The house was completed in 1902 and was the scene of some of the most legendarily fabulous parties in all of Newport. These soirees included a lavish fairy tale dinner and a party with entertainment by Harry Houdini, the most famous magician in history.
The elegant Chateau-sur-Mer is a stunning example of High Victorian architecture. Completed in 1852, it was Newport’s biggest residence until the Vanderbilt’s began building in the 1890s. It was famous for its over-the-top parties, including the "Fete Champetre" country picnic for thousands of guests held in 1857, and the elaborate debutante ball for Miss Edith Wetmore in 1889. Its massive scale and grand parties ushered in Newport’s Gilded Age.
Visit the Newport Mansions with YMT Vacations
If the elegance and grandeur of the Newport mansions calls out to you, why not visit on a tour with YMT Vacations? Pack your bags and see the Breakers on our Autumn Leaves Tour or New England & Canadian Maritimes Cruise and Tour. For information, or to make your reservation, call your travel agent or YMT Vacations at 888-978-7406.