Newport, RI Mansion #5

Our final house museum tour while we were in Newport was Chateau-sur-Mer. We’ll take a look at this interesting house, and I will also give you some insight into some other things my sister and I got into in Rhode Island!

5. Chateau-sur-Mer

Chateau-sur-Mer was different from any of the other Newport houses we had toured in that it was built decades before any of the other fabulous cottages. It actually was not a part of the cottage fad except to the extent it was remodeled to add a few grand touches. It is “High Victorian,” which means it’s kind of heavy – dark rooms, oppressive wallpaper, dark wood paneling… I kind of thought of it as a Gothic architectural style, which was definitely a change from the opulent, bright, and sunny cottages. There were things that were really cool about Chateau-sur-Mer, though.

One was the fact that you could stand in the foyer and look up and see level after level of balconies until you reached the roof. Here is a picture. It really doesn’t convey how cool this architectural technique is, but you can get an idea.

George and Edith Wetmore hired Richard Morris Hunt to redesign the house in the Second Empire French style during the 1870s, which is why, I would imagine, there are several opulent touches. And yet, there are still some High Victorian remnants. Here are a few pictures in which you can see the attention to detail and the blending of 19th century design trends:

Here is a of picture of the exterior:

It was good to visit Chateau-sur-Mer to remind us that Newport had a rich and intricate history before the Gilded Age. Speaking of… Let’s talk about a few more things you can do in Newport!

First, just driving around is a treat. You can go to one part of town and see numerous colonial-era or colonial-inspired buildings that would fit in perfectly in Colonial Williamsburg. There are also lots of Victorian houses where less wealthy, but still rich people once lived, and those are beautiful, too. Of course, there’s no denying that Bellevue Avenue, where all of the mansions are, is really spectacular. There is shopping on the Avenue, too, and you can just picture the carriages going down the streets in summers past.

There is generally good shopping in Newport – lots of boutiques, and both chain and local stores. For groceries, there is a more traditional grocery store as well as a smaller, completely organic store, where prices are actually reasonable. Newport is also the sailing capital of the world. We had intended to go sailing but ran out of time. You can see some of the boats in the pictures behind us here, though:

This was our first experience with New England food, and so we might not be the best judges. Some was wonderful, while some was…not so much. Annie’s is famous for their breakfasts, and it was fine, but we weren’t overwhelmed. Again, this could just be because we were used to a more Southern-style breakfast.

We ate at La Forge Casino Restaurant because of the history of the tennis club in the building. We dined outside, and it was cool to have an experience similar to what it would have been in the Gilded Age. Again, the food was just okay.

We went twice to Griswold’s Tavern, which was our favorite place. I got the Veggie Nachos once, which were delicious. The real upside of Newport food was that there are usually healthy and vegetarian options at most places.

We love seafood, and there was plenty of that. We had been used to a certain style of doing seafood from the beach towns of the Gulf of Mexico, so this was quite different from that. Whereas in Florida, Alabama, or Mississippi, the emphasis is on mahi mahi, grouper, and salmon, in Newport, you have lobster, scallops, and lots of cod. We went to three seafood places. We really loved the scallops at The Lobster Bar. Flo’s Clam Shack was a more traditional beachy place with plenty of fried food and a line of people waiting to get in backed out the door. We also went to The Landing, which was my sister’s favorite! Just a note: if you’re going to a beachy type place, wear whatever you want; if you’re going to a more upscale restaurant, they kind of dress up in Newport. We saw one restaurant where people were going in wearing evening gowns and tuxedos. Never fear, though; you don’t have to go too fancy at most of the restaurants – just dress like you would kind of dress up for a date night.

You can visit the beach, too. We met some very friendly seagulls while we were there, I remember. It was a little too chilly for us to wade in, even in August, but some brave souls tried it!

But the real crown jewel, the do-not-miss activity in Newport, is the Cliff Walk. There’s nothing like the beauty of the ocean on one side of you and mansions on the other. And bonus: it’s totally free! Here are a few pictures:

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Newport, do not miss it! It is one of our favorite places, and we do not regret going one bit!

Newport, RI Mansion #4

The fourth house museum stop for our Newport, RI trip was The Elms.  Get ready for some beautiful gardens and general splendor!

4. The Elms

The Elms was our next stop, and it did not disappoint. Welcome to the foyer!

I really liked the scheme of the house: white, gold, marble, and black iron. The inspiration was the 18th Century Chateau d’Asnieres in France. Sarah and Edward Julius Berwind, of the coal fortune, built The Elms in 1901 so that they could host on a larger scale.

The Elms is famous for its gardens, so let’s have a look at those first:

I really loved that bench, and there were fountains, pavilions, and statues galore.

There was what I call a “sunroom” to bring the outside indoors. This included possibly the word’s plushest lawnchair.

The inside was equally lovely. Here are a few of the rooms, which definitely give you the impression of French grandeur (except for the green library, which was more homey). Look at those gorgeous ceiling medallions!

Did you spot both pianos?

I seemed to have collected pictures of a lot of different bedrooms, so I’m thinking there may have been more rooms available for viewing at the house than at the other houses. Here are a few of the bedrooms. (Never mind my sister gazing dreamily at that fainting couch.)

Oddly enough, I remember the portraits acquired by this house the most. This portrait of Elizabeth Wharton Drexel Dahlgren Lehr is quite famous. My sister bought a jewelry dish with this portrait on it while we were in Newport. Elizabeth’s first husband was the son of the famous Admiral Dahlgren (who, as a side note, is discussed by Shannon and her father in Northern Fire!) Her first husband died young. I remember her sad story of her second husband telling her on their wedding night that he had only married her for her money. (Note, this is not the owner of the house. I can’t remember why her portrait is at The Elms – maybe she is a relative?)

Another notable portrait at the house is that of Maria Cosway, an Englishwoman who had, shall we say, a more than casual acquaintance with Thomas Jefferson while he was Minister to Paris. This portrait was painted by Cosway’s husband. I’m not sure how the Elms acquired this original either. Here it is:

Does anyone remember how the Elms acquired either of these fascinating paintings? Comment below if you do!

Stop back by next week for our final mansion. I’ll also talk about some of the other stuff (including a lot of eating) that we did in Newport!

Photo of Maria Cosway: The Preservation Society of Newport County, https://www.newportmansions.org/learn/collections/fine-and-decorative-arts/paintings.
All other photos: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Newport, RI Mansion #2

Continuing our virtual vacation of Newport, RI, this week we’re stopping at the home of Alva Vanderbilt herself, Marble House. So sit back on your (expensive) lawn chair, grab something cool to drink, and enjoy the history.

2. Marble House

Marble House was built by William K. Vanderbilt, another grandson of the famed Cornelius, and a brother to Cornelius Vanderbilt, II.  You may remember Cornelius II as the owner of The Breakers, where we stopped last week.  I seem to remember that there was some sister-in-law rivalry during the design of the two houses. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect of the Versailles-inspired Marble House. He did a fabulous job, as usual, but Alva Vanderbilt’s stamp is all over it.  Mostly, that stamp takes the form of marble.

There is marble everywhere.  Just take a look at the dining room, the foyer, random halls…

Anything you can put marble on, Alva tried it.  Marble House was magnificent in the sense that you really got that feeling of European royalty.  Which, I believe, was one of Alva’s aims, given that she ultimately arranged a marriage between her daughter and the Duke of Marlborough.  This is the room where they most likely became engaged:

Called the Gothic Room, this one really stood out to me.  It had the solemn feeling of a church and duplicated the old history of some castles in Europe particularly well.  Even though the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and Sonny was doomed to failure, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a great place to get engaged!

Here are some other neat tidbits.  Does anyone else love library stairs?

What about fancy servants’ stairs?

Resplendent sitting rooms?

Or bedrooms fit for a queen?

At most of the Newport houses, they also do a great job of interpreting the lives of the servants.  You definitely get Downton Abbey vibes, for any lovers of Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes out there!

The thing I most remember about Marble House is Alva.  She was a complicated, fascinating woman.  She undoubtedly pushed her daughter into marriage for social gain—and then, in order for her daughter to divorce and be happy, she testified before a court that she compelled her daughter to marry.  She was the victim of her husband’s adultery—and then divorced him, married his best friend, and moved across the street.  She was a champion of women’s suffrage and of art.  On the whole, she was a woman ahead of her time. 

So whom do I think won the sister-in-law rivalry?  Well, if you remember, Alice had those stunning verandas.  Then again, Alva had 500,000 cubic feet of marble.  Plus, she caught the Duke.  So you tell me.

Below, this happened to be my favorite photo from Marble House.  It reminds me of Alva and speaks to her strength—and to how she was (just a tad!) over-the top:

Photo Credits: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Newport, RI Mansions Tour

Since many of us couldn’t take a summer vacation this year, I thought it would be fun to take you on a tour of Newport Rhode Island by recounting my trip there in August of 2017.  My sister and I, both history fans, bought tickets from The Preservation Society of Newport County, which allowed us to tour five different Newport “cottages.”  There will be five posts, mostly dedicated to individual mansions, but I’ll give you details of some other stuff we got into, as well.  Here we go!  Buckle up; the ride starts in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cottage #1: The Breakers

As the plane touched down in Rhode Island, we could feel the cool air from the window.  It had been ninety-eight degrees when we had left the South. We looked at each other, thinking, “This is going to be a very good trip.”  And that premonition proved very true!

It had all started when my sister and I had, through various media (Downton Abbey, the book, To Marry an English Lord, numerous novels) become interested in seeing the “cottages” where these Robber Barons—ahem, American Royalty—had summered during the height of their wealth and prestige.  For those unacquainted with Newport, it is a beautiful coastal town in Rhode Island.  It has Revolutionary War history (there are lots of Colonial structures), and it had been a sort of resort town for Southern gentry before the Civil War. Flash forward twenty years after that, and an unprecedented level of American wealth had been created in a few families (the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Carnegies, Astors, etc.) by such industries as railroads, steel, oil, and finance.  It was royal-level wealth—more than that, in some cases.  And one place they decided to display that new money was in Newport.

An entire Newport season developed when the wealthy would retreat there during the summer.  For more information on this brief but vibrant era, I would highly recommend To Marry an English Lord by Carol McD. Wallace and Gail MacColl.  Newport is where the Duke of Marlborough courted Consuelo Vanderbilt, just to give you an idea of the match-making shenanigans you are in for!

For us, the journey started with one of those miserable bouts with TSA in the Atlanta airport.  Pat-down completed for me, we boarded and settled in for the flight to Providence.

It was about sixty-five degrees when we touched down.  In August.  We got into our rental, a Ford Escape we dubbed “Penn” (on account of its Pennsylvania tags), and drove the short distance to Newport.  We were staying on the third floor of a beautifully renovated Victorian home, which we loved immediately. 

After checking the condo out, we drove toward Cliff Walk, which is a walking/running path directly on the coastline of cliffs. It spans pretty much the entire distance of the city, the mansions behind you, the bay in front of you. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life.  We got out of our car near Salve Regina University (right there on the beautiful cliffs!) and just looked across the water.  We got cold.  And we were in sweaters or long sleeves.  Maybe you would have to be from the South to understand how remarkable this was!

Here are a couple of pictures from this moment:

For the first tour, we decided to go for gold: The Breakers, which is the grandest of the Newport mansions. It was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and I think it is most known for its beautiful verandas which overlook the bay.

Here is a picture of the back of the house:

And the side of the house:

We really wanted to see the views.  And that gate:

At all of the Newport Mansions, the tour is self-guided with a headset.  Headsets are a germaphobe’s worse nightmare, but they carefully clean them as soon as you return them.  I also remember only a couple of times that having the headset on was key to understanding anything.  You can leave them off and just enjoy the general splendor and put them on at the points where something sparks your interest.

Here is a picture of my sister with the headset on, listening to the story:

I will post a few collages of pictures from The Breakers so that you can see the general splendor, the minute attention to detail, and the vast fortune spent on this house.  Some of the highlights for me were the sweeping lawn overlooking the bay, the massive double staircase (with a fountain under it), and the molding and trim work everywhere you turn.  The house is supposedly an Italian Renaissance style palazzo.  I saw some of those touches.  But make no mistake: the main architectural style of this house was splendor, in every aspect.  The goal, I think, must have been to show the world that the Vanderbilts had arrived. 

Enjoy the pictures below!  Take in all of the exquisite details. And stop back next time as we continue our journey through Newport’s mansions!

Cover photo credit: The Preservation Society of Newport County: https://www.newportmansions.org/explore/the-breakers

All other photos: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones