A walk through Newport, Rhode Island is an adventure in time travel. The price of admission is small; the fee allows the visitor to enter a world of fantasy filled with, what for most of us are, unattainable treasures. It provides a glimpse into the glittering days of the “Gilded Age” and chance to rub shoulders with ghosts of the past.
English settlers arrived in Newport in 1639 seeking religious freedom. By the mid-1700s it had gained prominence as a major port, along with Boston, Charleston, New York and Philadelphia. According to Newport’s Historical Society, during the War of Independence, the British occupied the town, destroying much and causing many to desert it, eventually leading to Newport’s decline. In the early 1900s, the forgotten jewel along the coast, bypassed by the Industrial revolution, became the summer playground of old money wealthy and noveaux riche.
During turn-of-the-century America and up until the First World War, Newport became the East Coast’s bastion of “conspicuous consumption.” There, the elite competed with each other – peacocks strutting and flaunting their wealth in a whirl of social display.
Old and new money mingled side by side and made up crème-de-la crème society. New York’s (and Newport’s) Caroline Webster (Schermerhorn) Astor’s very exclusive social circle, the “Four Hundred” included (eventually) Cornelius Vanderbilt, II (wife Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt), his younger brother William Kissam Vanderbilt (wife Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt). Outspoken, unconventional and determined, Theresa, “Tessie” Fair Oelrich — descendant of an inn-keeper and prospector — rose to become a member of this list. (see Rosecliff).
They built mansions, called them “cottages”, then left them unoccupied for most of the year. The Breakers is the largest of these. Bought by rail-road & steamship tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the initial house was a wood structure destroyed by fire in 1892. He hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to build the current Italian Renaissance-style villa.
Similar in scale is the Marble House, commissioned by Cornelius’ more competitive brother, William. Additional over-the-top decorations and displays can be seen while visiting the Elms and Rosecliff .
An over-abundance of marble, silk, crystal and gilt may have you gasping for breath and leave you foot-sore and eye-weary. Seek relief at the Isaac Bell House, a simpler and modest version of the summer cottages, built in Shingle-style architecture complete with organic, Japanese-influenced Arts and Crafts interiors.
Another way to restore your breath is to head to the Cliff Walk. The only glitter you’ll find there is that of sun spots, sea-foam and snow-white gulls dancing on the waves. The breezes from the Atlantic Ocean will slap away sagging spirits and transport you back to reality.
Now I invite you to come with me on a photo expedition through this treasure by the sea, to ogle a few of its treats, trinkets and odd residents.