What would it be like to live here?
This is the question the Newport mansions want you to ask, and yet make it almost impossible to ask. They are homes, in the literal sense of this word, although it’s a fair wager that your home is not a 65,000 square foot, 70 room home, like The Breakers, the summer cottage of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, pictured above.
Or that your home is not equipped with a Siena marble grand staircase designed with treads of such a height so that gowned women would appear as if they are floating when they descend to the ball room, as in Marble House, pictured below, the summer cottage of Alva Vanderbilt. Or for that matter with a ballroom designed to be the largest in town, as in Rosecliff, the summer home of Comestock Lode heiress Tessie Oelrichs.
I’m sure your closets are not designed to accommodate the seven changes of clothing required in a typical ladies’ day during the Newport season, and that your meals are not multicourse affairs served to you at such a pace that you might well leave the table hungry.
I’m sure your house doesn’t have a name – or in any event, one that’s different from your own.
It’s not that it’s so difficult to imagine being that kind of fabulously wealthy. We all watch Downton Abbey, don’t we? And it’s not exactly the peculiar feeling of air over your head when the ceiling is fifty feet away that makes it hard to imagine this place as your own. Or that you’re milling around with a crowd of kneesocked tourists, with the foam of earphones pressing on your ears, and an audio tour device hanging around your neck; or even that staff constantly, ever-presently and eventually genuinely irritatingly reminds you not to take photos.
It’s hard to imagine living in such a place, because these houses were basically designed first to impress and second to be lived in. So while it is a museum today and feels like that, as much as the excellent audio tours try, through reminiscence, through excellent storytelling, to take you into life in these homes you just can’t shake the idea that you’re on a stage set.
So it’s not really a surprise to learn, as you will at some point in each house, that these houses really did not make their mastermind owners happy. Either because they dropped dead shortly after construction was complete (The Breakers) or they divorced (Marble House), or ultimately went insane (Rosecliff).
But perhaps something of Gilded Age sensibility has crept into your thinking, after all? For if you visit The Elms last, you might note that the ballroom feels sort of wee and cramped-ish– it’s a good thousand square feet smaller than Rosecliff’s, under 2,000 square feet, I mean, can you imagine? Although you’ll grudgingly allow that the Conservatory seems a pleasant place to spend the afternoon.
[Earlier thoughts on the mansions of Newport after my last visit, a couple of years ago. My photos are better this time; it was a nicer day. Also, come dwell with me upon the very troubled history of Newport, rum and slavery.]
Alison J. Stein
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