The end of Newport’s Gilded Age (RI)

(continuer en français) – Last updated: July 19, 2022

The 1930s were fatal for these large mansions as property taxes rose sharply. Declining fortunes affected by the economic crisis were forced to sell or give away their property. Some were destroyed, many became collective institutions. Today the Preservation Society of Newport is working to restore and open the houses to the public, already owning eleven of them.

Vernon Court, c. 1898

Anna Van Nest Gambrill built this holiday home with the fortune of her deceased lawyer husband and her father’s investment in the railways. Many of the architectural details were inspired by a French château. It is now the National Museum of American Illustration, whose most famous artist is Norman Rockwell.

Beach Mound, 1900

This was the residence of Benjamin Thaw, heir to a large fortune in Pittsburgh, who mixed with New York society, especially during the summer months spent in Newport to escape the heat of the cities.

The Elms, 1901

In the early 20th century, Newport continued to attract wealthy New York families before other lifestyles including foreign travel gained interest. Edward Julius Berwind, enriched by coal mining, built a replica of the Château d’Asnières near Paris. Its terraces are decorated with sculptures and ornamental vases. After his death, his sister succeeded him until her own death in 1961.

When comparing with the original, there are of course some variations. The most noticeable deviation to the eye in the American version would be the upper frieze, its thickness appearing contrary to the usual aesthetic balance. In reality it is a practical arrangement to hide the staff quarters on the upper level.



The vast park has been partly restored to its former glory. There is a sunken garden, decorated with beautiful marble and dominated by elegant pavilions.

Following the passing of the original owners, the Preservation Society of Newport was able to purchase The Elms and open it to the public. Unfortunately most of the rich interior had been sold at auction.

Rosecliff, 1902

Graham Fair, an Irish immigrant, made his fortune in the Nevada silver mines. His daughter Theresa inherited his fortune and built a residence inspired by the Grand Trianon of Versailles.

The gardens overlooking the ocean were the place of great parties gathering the high society on holiday.

In 1971, the last owners donated Rosecliff to the Preservation Society of Newport.

Clarendon Court, 1903

It is said that Edward Collings Knight, Jr. inherited his father’s fortune but not his talents in the railway business. He did, however, spend his money very well and Clarendon is a good example of this. Copied from an 18th century English manor house design. The house changed hands several times but remains a private residence.

Bellevue House, 1907

The exterior architecture is in the American colonial style. However, it is the gardens that make Bellevue House famous, with a dozen different types of gardens, embellished with several follies. It is a private property, less easy to visit, which shows a new interest for these old houses from wealthy people.

Champ Soleil, 1929

This was perhaps the last of the great holiday houses built at the end of Newport’s Gilded Age. Lucy Wharton Drexel had inherited the family fortune from the Drexel bank. Her attachment to France, where she spent half her time, led her to choose as her model the Pavillon de la Lanterne, an outbuilding of the Château de Versailles. The mansion is still a private residence.

In a normal year, more than a million visitors come to admire and dream about these sleeping beauties that are slowly waking up. If a half-day tour allows you to go along Bellevue Avenue and return via Cliff Walk, you need a minimum of two days to have time to visit the interior of those that are open to the public.

The first part of the presentation of Newport’s beautiful ‘cottages’ can be found here.

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    • My visit was also a few years ago, but I have seen that visits have resumed. When I visited I was amazed at the number of ‘cottages’ open to the public, all in one avenue, with richly decorated interiors.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The Cliff Walk is such a great way to see the outside of many of these fancy mansions. In December a few of these mansions are elaborately decorated for Christmas and are open for self-guided tours. Thanks for sharing. Linda

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are right, the Cliff Walk is a bit less straightforward than Bellevue Avenue but gives another perspective of the mansions. Like many places in North America, there is a special holiday presentation that must be gorgeous to see given the exceptional setting. Thank you Linda for sharing your experience with us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “I had been promised that the great summer houses were museums and warned that they were monstrosities. Had been assured that the way of life they suggested was graceful beyond belief and that it was gross beyond description. That the very rich were different from you and me and yes, they had lower taxes, and if “The Breakers” was perhaps not entirely tasteful, still, où sont les croquet wickets d’antan.”

    Excerpt From: Joan Didion. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
    Didion’s essay “The Seacoast of Despair” was my introduction to Newport and its ‘summer cottages’. I’ve been intrigued ever since with this place.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t realize there was a place where one could see so many of these “castles of the well-to-do” from that earlier time. Very interesting, and yet another reason I need to visit the northeastern part of the United States.

    Liked by 1 person

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