Since my first visit there in June 1975, I’ve loved immersing myself in Newport’s fashionable, historic seaside environment.
Thirty years later, I really got to know Newport when I attended the Victorian Society in America’s Summer School. For ten days in June 2005, I studied Newport’s architectural heritage with Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor and Chair of the Department of Architectural History at the University of Virginia. Through daily lectures and tours of public and private buildings, I learned about the Colonial-era homes, Shingle-style structures, and Gilded Age “cottages” for which Newport is so famous. I picked up new vocabulary words like inglenook and Lincrusta, soaked in the surroundings on daily strolls on the Cliff Walk, and made three friends who love history, decorative arts and architecture as much as I do. So, on this visit two weeks ago, I was ready to see how much I remembered.
Passing the Newport Casino, the 1880 building designed by McKim, Mead and White to house sports facilities, shopping, a restaurant, reading rooms, and gentlemen’s lodgings, was like seeing an old friend. I love the Casino’s Aesthetic fish-scale shingles, Chinese Chippendale-style fretwork and spindlework screenings, and its La Forge Casino Restaurant, which overlooks its famous grass tennis courts. I also waved to the Newport Creamery, across Bellevue Avenue from the Casino, which Virginia, George, Ed and I visited several times.
Our first stop was Marble House, which William Kissam Vanderbilt built as a 39th birthday present for his wife, Alva, between 1888 and 1892. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the house was inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. It used 84,000 tons of marble and cost $11 million to build.
The elaborate front doors are constructed of bronze, steel and glass and feature the initials “WV” in ovals. The doors measure over 25 feet wide and are 16 feet high. Each moving door weighs one and a half tons and swings on hidden pivots.
Walking through the rooms of Marble House is like traveling through the history of French interior design. The Gold Ballroom is reminiscent of Versailles, with its gilded walls and mirrors, gilt wood panels, marble fireplace with bronze figures and a mythological painting on the ceiling.
Stepping across the threshold of the next room transports you to medieval France. During the summer of 1889, the Vanderbilts and Hunt visited Paris and purchased over 300 pieces of medieval and Reinaissance art. They displayed those objects in the Gothic Room, my favorite room in the house.
Red Lyons silk damask with a stylized pomegranate design covers the walls of the Gothic Room. The ribbed ceiling is covered with geometric sections of blue-painted canvas decorated with gilded fleur-de-lis, tendrils and foliage motifs. The chimneypiece is covered in Gothic pointed arches and tracery. Gothic paneled doors and high-backed Gothic benches complete the feeling that you are standing in a private museum. Medieval stained glass is displayed on four moveable wrought iron frames. A tapestry depicts a secret garden, a fountain representing the Virgin Mary, and the two prophetesses known as the Sybils. According to the audio tour we listened to as we walked through the house, the Vanderbilts’ only daughter, Consuelo, said that the Gothic Room — the scene of her engagement to the ninth Duke of Marlborough, whose family home was Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England — created an “atmosphere propitious to sacrifice.”
In Alva’s library, you can see depictions of Father Time; Cleo, the Greek muse of history; and figures of women representing chemistry, botany, engineering and astronomy. The most charming part of the room is the portrait of the Vanderbilts’ youngest son, Harold — who grew up to be an award-winning yachtsman and the inventor of contract bridge — holding an armful of kittens.
Fashioned of pink Algerian marble, the dining room was also inspired by Versailles. The bronze dining table chairs were so heavy that a footman had to push a guest up to the table.
After ascending the first flight of stairs, peer into two cozy private rooms in which the family could spend time, known as cabinets. Climb a few more stairs and enter Alva’s bedroom, which was designed in a Rococo style with lilac brocade covering the walls and cherubs over the door bearing shields with the letter “A” for Alva.
Red walls and a dark wooden ceiling set the appropriate tone for Consuelo’s bedroom. Standing in this room, we heard about what Consuelo experienced during her training to live in a European castle, such as having a steel rod strapped to her to ensure that she sat up straight. As she said, she was a “perfect specimen framed in the perfect setting.”
Throughout the house, you can spot images of the sea, such as dolphins and scallop shells decorating doorknobs. Outside, you can have lunch in the Chinese Tea House, which was built in 1907 and was where Alva held suffrage meetings.
Designed as an Italian Renaissance palazzo on an 11-acre oceanside site, The Breakers is a four-story, 70-room villa. Constructed of limestone, marble, brick and steel, it cost $7 million to build.
The painted sky ceiling of the 45-foot-high Great Hall imitates an open-air atrium. At the base of the elaborate staircase, you can see a fountain created by the Austrian sculptor Karl Bitter. Above a doorway, you can see a carving of cherubs that combines Classical imagery with a train and other advancements of the Industrial Age that led to the Vanderbilts’ success.
The 50-foot-tall state dining room is decorated with red alabaster columns with gilded bronze Corinthian capitals, Baccarat crystal chandeliers, and gilded life-size figures on the ceiling, which features a painting called “Aurora at Dawn.”
Throughout the house are oak leaves and acorns, the symbols of strength and longevity that the Vanderbilts chose to represent their family. They’re carved in marble and stone in the entrance hall, and you can spot them on the mosaic floor of the Billiard Room. In this room, one of my favorites, you can also see a mosaic turtle on the ceiling, dolphins representing the Vanderbilts’ hospitality, and Tiffany lamps.
In the Morning Room, we learned that a portable X-ray machine revealed that the silver panels with paintings of the Muses were actually constructed of platinum. Stopping to listen to our audio tour here, we heard the Vanderbilts’ youngest child, Gladys Vanderbilt Széchenyi, talk about her childhood, including her description of a game that her brother invented called “Going to Church.”
Walking through the Music Room, we arrived in the Library, where gold leaf had been pressed into Russian wood paneling and walls were covered with Spanish leather embossed in gold in order to make the room look like a hand-tooled leather-covered book.
Downstairs, much of the furniture was designed by Jules Allard of Paris, and the carpets were from William Morris’s factory in England. Upstairs, the Vanderbilts commissioned Ogden Codman, Jr. for the interior design of 13 rooms on the second floor. To create an understated, elegant style, Codman selected a light color scheme and elegant furnishings, using wallpaper on smaller panels between doors and windows. In Alice Vanderbilt’s bedroom, Codman incorporated panels depicting the Four Seasons that were copied from the Grand Trianon. In contrast, eldest daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s bedroom features a striking wallcovering of pink cabbage roses on a black background.
The Breakers has 20 bathrooms. Plumbing fixtures are fitted with four taps, for hot and cold running salt water.
The house is named for how the waves break on the cliffs below. We heard exactly that when we stepped outside onto an open-air seafront piazza with a beautifully decorated ceiling and took in a magnificent view of the ocean.
Before we returned downstairs, we admired a skylight by John LaFarge, the 19th-century artist who studied with the painter William Morris Hunt in Newport and created decorative glass windows that often featured opalescent glass, which he invented. We heard how the steps on the main staircase are two inches shorter than usual, allowing women to glide downstairs without stepping on their skirts.
In the kitchen, our audio tour introduced us to Rudolph Stanish, who worked his way up the ranks of the kitchen staff of many of Newport’s grand houses and said that the experience “made wonderful people out of the likes of us.” Read more about the “Omelet King” who prepared President Kennedy’s inaugural breakfast here.
The tour also provided the opportunity to spend several hours in downtown Newport, soaking up the seaside atmosphere, seeing historic sights like the traditional Colonial Newport shell pediment above the doorways of several homes,
…and shopping at J.H. Breakell & Co., a jewelry store that designs and creates everything by hand, such as its annual snowflake ornament and matching jewelry pieces. My favorite is the 2003 snowflake, which combined the anchor for hope, the whale for Rhode Island’s seafaring tradition, and the pineapple, the symbol of Colonial hospitality. This year’s is a tribute to lighthouses. Other Breakell pieces I like include a “Rhode Island Red” pin and the Goddard Shell pin and earrings, inspired by the carving of Colonial Newport furniture maker John Goddard.
Our driver/tour guide was terrific. He introduced us to “stone-enders,” a unique style of Rhode Island architecture that developed in the 17th century. Stone-enders are so named because one wall of a timber-framed house is made up of a large stone chimney.
Driving by a modest white house on Spring Street, he told us about Ida Lewis, the keeper of Newport Harbor’s Lime Rock Lighthouse who had been born there. Ida’s father was the first keeper of the lighthouse, but after he suffered a stroke, Ida cared for the light, rowed her siblings to school and helped keep the house in order. After her mother died, Ida was officially appointed as the keeper until her death in 1911.
There’s plenty to read about Newport. Fiction works we read in the VSA Summer School include “An International Episode,” a short story set in Newport that was written by Henry James in 1879. “The American Scene,” which James wrote in 1905, includes other comments about Newport. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, was more required reading, as was Theophilus North, by Thornton Wilder. “Mr. North,” a movie based on the story, was filmed in Newport. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Skeleton in Armor,” from 1841, is said to be inspired by the Newport landmark known as the Viking Tower or the Old Stone Mill in Touro Park, off Bellevue Avenue and north of Memorial Boulevard. “High Society,” the great 1956 film with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, was filmed in Newport and several of its mansions.
If you like Newport architecture, read The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island, by Antoinette Downing and Vincent J. Scully, Jr.; Newport: A Tour Guide, by Anne Randall; and Newport Houses, by Roberto Schezen. Aficionados of Newport interior design should check out The Decoration of Houses, by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, originally published in 1897. If you’d like to learn more about the Gothic Room at Marble House, see Gothic Art in the Gilded Age: Medieval and Renaissance Treasures in the Gavet-Vanderbilt-Ringling Collection, by Virginia Brilliant. The Glitter and the Gold, by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, is an eye-opening read. Gilded: How Newport Became America’s Richest Resort, by Deborah Davis, and The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter: The Remarkable True Story of American Heroine Ida Lewis, by Lenore Skomal are also worth checking out.