I have recently returned from an incredible 10 day trip touring the East Coast of North America where I celebrated my first Thanksgiving! During my time there, I had the privilege of being invited over to Newport, Rhode Island, to have a look around the Newport Mansions that had been decorated for Christmas. I would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to Carol from The Preservation Society of Newport for providing me with tickets.
What is the Preservation Society?
The Preservation Society of Newport County protects, preserves and presents the best of its architectural heritage, currently owning 11 historic properties and landscapes.
Newport County was established in 1703 and makes up one of the five counties in Rhode Island (the smallest state in the US). For me, it resembles a beautiful British seaside town, similar to those situated along the coast of Devon. We visited in November, so it was extremely quiet and peaceful, the harbour serene and calm –in contrast to the scenes at summer, when thousands of visitors flood in on their boats to enjoy the scenic coastline that Newport has to offer.
So what are the Mansions?
There is no doubt that Newport is an affluent town, and was once the paradise for New York billionaires. It has now become famous for its mansions, once the home of incredibly wealthy families.
There are eleven mansions in total that are open to the public, each holding a variety of events throughout the year, including the Newport Flower Show, the Wine and Food Festival, Newport Winter Festival, corporate events, and a variety of lectures and talks. If you can afford it –you can even host your wedding at one of them!
As mentioned, we visited in November, which meant three of the mansions were decorated for Christmas and open for the Winter Season. I chose to explore The Breakers and The Elms!
The Breakers is indisputably the grandest of the Newport Mansions and comes as no surprise, that it is one of the most visited house museums in America, with an impressive 400,000 annual visitors.
The Breakers was home to the Vanderbilt Family, who established their fortune in steamships and New York’s central railroads; a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation during the late 19th century. The house was purchased for $450,000 which would have been equivalent to a whopping $12 million today.
Architect Richard Morris Hunt directed an international team of Craftsmen and Artisans to create a 70 room Italian Renaissance – style palazzon, inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin.
The mansion comes with 14 acres of land, which extends outwards into the Atlantic Ocean, and ended up being the inspiration behind its title. ‘The Breakers’ takes its name from the ‘breaking’ of the Atlantic waves that crash against the rocks at the foot of the garden.
In 1948, The Breakers was opened to the public to raise funds for the society, and in 1972, the Preservation Society purchased the house.
I can’t put into words how beautiful the décor and furnishings in each room was, so I’ll let the following pictures speak for themselves!
The Elms is a large mansion, facetiously known as a summer cottage, which cost $1.5 million to build! Designed by architect Horace Trombauer in 1898, the house was modelled after the Chateau d’Asnieres in Asniere – Sur-France. The mansion was completed in 1901 and became the home of the Berwind Family.
The Berwind Family visited Newport regularly in the summer months, and like many of Newport’s summer residents, were ‘new money’. Mr Edward Berwind was hailed as one of 58 men who ruled America, having made his fortune in the coal industry.
In 1962, the family sold the house to a developer who wanted to tear it down, but fortunately, a couple of weeks before it was due to be destroyed, The Elms was rescued by ‘The Society’, who purchased the property for $116,000. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996 and is now open to the public for tours.
Interestingly, The Elms was one of the first homes to be wired for electricity and included one of the first electrical ice makers which I got to see during my tour.
Although not as breath-taking as The Breakers, the interior of the Elm’s is still stunning, more so with Christmas decorations. The Berwind’s collection of Renaissance ceramics, 18th century French and Venetian paintings, and Oriental jades were on show throughout the mansion.
The elaborate Classical Revival gardens on the grounds were developed between 1907 and 1914. They include terraces, marble and bronze sculptures, a park of fine specimen trees and a lavish lower garden featuring marble pavilions, fountains, a sunken garden and carriage house and garage.
Behind the Scenes Servant Life Tour
What I loved about this particular property was the ‘Behind the Scenes’ tour they offer, which takes you on a journey of Servant Life. It allows you to step away from the wealth and success of the Berwind family, and gain an insight of a completely different side to living there.
The tour begins on the third floor where the servant’s quarters are located. The corridors are thin and long, and rooms are a fraction of the size of those in the main house. Some of the bedrooms and bathrooms had been decorated and furnished to demonstrate what they would have looked like when servants lived in them, giving an authentic feel of what life on the third floor may have been like. The tour proceeds out onto a tiled roof which has an incredible view of Newport harbour, in addition to the rear lawn, trees and gardens of The Elms. We then made our way downstairs to the basement to view the coal fired furnaces and tunnel, from which the coal is brought into the basement from a nearby street. Other notable stops included the ice maker, galley and wine cellar, the laundry room and the steamer trunk storage area. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and I learnt a lot about life at The Elms.
Throughout both mansions, there is a self-guided audio tour which allows you to view the properties at your own pace, exploring each room how you wish. The audio guide has extra information regarding certain ornaments, collections, jewellery and paintings in each of the rooms – very useful if you want to find out more information about a particular piece.
I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the history of the Newport Mansions and remain extremely jealous of the families who got to live in them! My favourite was The Breakers, so if you are in the area and only have time to visit one, it’s a must see.
For more info on how to visit the mansions, follow this link: Visit the Newport Mansions