In summer New York can get pretty hot. Nowadays the solution is air conditioning, but in the 19th century if you had the money the solution was a summer cottage by the sea. A peninsula on Aquidneck Island immediately south of Newport became the location of choice for the super rich and famous, whose idea of a ‘cottage’ was something that looked more like a minor royal palace in Europe. Although the mansions that they built were used for no more than 12 weeks each year they had to be large enough for an active social season and a supporting army of servants. Some mansions are still used as private residences, but 11 have been preserved and are open to the public.
The Vanderbilts were not the only people with the money to built palaces in Newport. Edward Berwind made a fortune in the Pennsylvania coal industry. Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer designed The Elms along the lines of a French Chateau and it was completed in 1901 at a modest (compared to Marble House) cost of $1.4 million. Berwind was a keen collector of art, and the house is a showpiece for his extensive collection of Renaissance ceramics, Oriental jades, and 18th century French & Venetian paintings. The Elms does not overlook the sea so much more work was put into the design of the gardens than at many other mansions. In comparison to The Elms, Berwind’s New York house at 828 Fifth Avenue must have seemed positively claustrophobic!
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Back to the Vanderbilts! William K Vanderbilt, the younger brother of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, had Marble House built between 1888 and 1892 at a cost of $11 million. Like The Breakers it was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, but in this case the design was inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. On completion, William gave the house to his wife Alva as a 39th birthday present. They divorced in 1895 and the house was mothballed until Alva’s second husband died. She then reopened Marble house and had a Chinese Tea House built on the cliffs. Click Tab 2 to see the Chinese Tea House.
Isaac Bell House (1883)
Those who weren’t quite as rich as the Vanderbilts tended to build slightly more modest houses. Isaac Bell Jr. was a wealthy Cotton Broker who also engaged in politics. He was US Minister to the Netherlands between 1885 and 1888. The house was designed in 1883 by the firm of McKim, Mead and White and is one of the best preserved examples of shingle style architecture in the USA. The design of the building brings together English, European and colonial American features with elements from the Far East.
The Breakers from Cliff Walk
The Breakers probably has the best location of all of the mansions. Its name derives from the sound of the waves breaking at Ochre Point at the end of the garden. It was built between 1883 and 1895 for railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The 70 room house was designed in the style of an Italian palace by Richard Morris Hunt and it stands in grounds of 4.5 hectares (11 acres). In the centre of the house is a Grand Hall to provide a majestic welcome for the Vanderbilt’s guests. Click Tab 2 to see the Grand Hall decorated for Christmas. The cliff walk runs down the east coast of the peninsula past many mansions. Attempts by mansion owners to close the walk were thwarted by local fishermen and it remains an excellent way to see the mansion exteriors.