Many of these glorious mansions were built during America’s Gilded Age by captains of industry, billionaires whose fortunes were made in steamships, railroads, and coal.
The most popular mansion on the tour is The Breakers, the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” that belonged to Cornelius Vanderbilt II. In 1893, Vanderbilt commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt and an international team of craftsmen and artisans to create a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo.
Cornelius’ brother, William, also build a summer house in Newport, but his “cottage,” Marble House, was a social and architectural landmark. Marble House also was designed by Richard Morris Hunt and set the pace for Newport’s transformation from a quiet summer colony of wooden houses to the legendary resort of opulent stone palaces. It cost $11 million, of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble.
The Elms, another popular mansion, was the summer residence of Edward Julius Berwind, who made his fortune in the Pennsylvania coal industry. In 1898, the Berwinds engaged architect Horace Trumbauer to design a house modeled after the mid-18th century French chateau d’Asnieres. Construction of The Elms was completed in 1901 at a cost reported at approximately $1.4 million.
Another popular mansion, Rosecliff, was commissioned by Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs in 1899 and designed by architect Stanford White after the Grand Trianon, the garden.
Only a few of the mansions are open year-round, but many are decorated for Christmas. More information and a schedule are available online at www.NewportMansions.org.
Although many of the specialty shops in town are closed for the season, a few are open and two spots that preserve the ambiance of Newport are the Armchair Sailor Books and Charts at 543 Thames Street and the Red Parrot Restaurant at 348 Thames Street.
The Armchair Sailor bookstore is operated by Bluewater Books and Charts, and is accessible on foot or by dinghy, not that many “yachties” are visiting in winter. Operated by a staff of lifelong boaters, it is America’s largest nautical bookstore and chart agency, specializing n serving yacht owners and crew. For landlubbers, the shop is a wonderful introduction to sailing and adventures at sea.