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