The rich really do sleep better at night — or at least the bed isn’t to blame if they don’t.

This was one of my last conscious thoughts before I dropped off for the night in the nearly vertiginous comfort of the Frette linen draped bed at Forty 1 North – a newly opened twenty-eight room hotel in Newport, Rhode Island that had invited me for a weekend visit. It turns out to be an ideal place to contemplate the dreams of the very wealthy.

Earlier that day, I’d been to visit the famous Newport mansions, or, as their first Gilded Age owners would have had it, “summer cottages”. Each “cottage” has ample room to fit the entire hotel I was staying at, and its marina, several times over. The giant size of these houses were part of the point, of course. These were the occasional homes of the newly and outrageously wealthy Americans, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, who, after traveling in Europe and seeing what old money and its trappings looked like, “sought to establish self-made royal status”, writes Amy Handy, in American Castles. This anxiety to establish aristocratic bonafides led to mad collecting of art, fabrics, windows and architectural materials for these homes – both contemporary to the period, and antiques from ancient Greece and Rome, medieval and Renaissance Europe.

The Breakers Newport

Sometimes the owners would limit themselves to a country, or a period of history, but often it would end up in all under one roof. And so The Breakers, the famous Newport mansion of the Vanderbilts, was modeled after the sixteenth century palaces of Genoa, but didn’t trouble itself with any borders (or the notion of Switzerland) that lies between Italy and France. Its staircase cribbed its design from the Paris opera house, the music room went further and was constructed in Paris, to be assembled, like a very expensive Lego set, in Newport. And everywhere you looked there were rare marbles, mosaics, sculptures and frescoes. The excess crescendos in the dining room, which, Handy writes, “is the most magnificently appointed in this exclusive community”. It’s two stories tall, alabaster columns, dramatic red curtains, no surface left unembellished without a frieze or a Baccarat crystal light fixture or molten gold.

The dining room elicits a “whoa” when you walk into it, as it’s supposed to, but as I stood there listening to the audio tour, I couldn’t help but thinking I wouldn’t want to eat a meal in there. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend the night in the place, even if it was bustling with servants, even if my bath tub had three taps, one for hot water, one for cold, and one for salt water piped directly from the sea. To my modern eye, the place was not just a little over the top. It was tacky.

***

 

Back at Forty 1 North that evening, I looked around and felt some satisfaction about the superior luxury aesthetics of our own age. I mean,  here we have a newly designed boutique hotel, aimed at the modern well-to-do. (Rooms average around $600/night, suites well exceed $1000.) It was designed incorporate some of the same aspects that so delighted the Gilded Age upper crust – the goal, according to a presentation by DAS Architects, was to “respect the history of Newport and highlight the nuances of the old grand dame hotels but also convey a new era of Newport hospitality.” And so modern luxuries are well heeded: the aforementioned linens, the 40 inch flat screen TV, the fireplace, and not just an iPod dock, but an iPad in every room. There’s no salt water spigot in the bathtub, but it does accommodate two people, the separate shower has many means of soaking, and there are Malin + Goetz toiletries.

Abalone art at Forty One North, NewportThere’s certainly nothing you’d describe as a vaguely rococo at Forty 1 North: it’s all clean lines, ample spaces left unadorned, and a soothing palette of pewter and pale blue and creamy white and wood and glass. But there was one aspect of Gilded Age aesthetics that made it into the hotel’s décor — I hadn’t quite registered it in the morning, but that night at the bar my mansion attuned eye noticed the execution of one DAS design concept: “The hotel should glisten in metallics & shimmer,” the presentation firmly states. And so it does: floor mosaics in the bar shimmer, the chair upholstery in the restaurant glints copper, the tiles in the guest room bathroom are iridescent glass, and a dramatic nine foot square sculpture made from abalone shells glitters in the hotel foyer.

 

***

On a frieze in the main hall of the Breakers, the Vanderbilts had their craftsmen insert a locomotive behind a cherub, since they made their money in railroads, and an acorn motif is repeated in the mosaic floor of the billiard room — the acorn a symbol of their family. All that self-reference, and that was besides the many shimmery reflective surfaces.

Oh the shiny object, which holds such enduring allure! That’s what I thought, or something similar, as I drifted off to sleep that night. After all, in what else besides a shiny surface would we have the chance of glancing that most pleasing and precious of images, the deep and satisfying luxury of our own reflection?