My first thought on seeing the Bellevue Avenue mansions in Newport was of how we in the south (quite rightly) remove offensive statues – and yet we buy tickets and stand in line to see these monuments to greed and excess that have been preserved as an honored part of our country’s heritage. A tribute to a couple of decades that Mark Twain termed the ‘guilded age’ when some of the rich families of the new American empire competed very openly and intently to display their wealth exclusively to each other, each house more outlandish than the last.
Almost every one of the several mansions owned by the preservation society was occupied no more than a couple months of the summer. Only a very few were practicable to inhabit at all for more than a few years, as they required 40 or so servants to operate. I’d wager that not one of the untold thousands of miners and seamen and field hands and factory workers upon whose labor these gilded walls were built were ever permitted to see them or even know of their existence. And without exception the owners all had several other mansions in Philadelphia or New York or Hyde Park or California or Florida that were similarly guilded.
That being said…we had a great two days touring every damn one of them. The Breakers, built by one of George Vanderbilts brothers is my favorite. It makes the Biltmore look like a large country home. Another brothers home next door took a half million cubic feet of Italian marble to build. Every surface in every room displays something artistic or rare or just expensive. One ballroom is completely surfaced – walls and ceiling – in 24 carat gold. Another has almost that much in platinum. The later was eventually owned by Doris the Duke heiress, who led and financed the effort to preserve the mansions for we unwashed millions to see and dream about.
These houses were all built without any regard whatsoever to cost, for the sole purpose of having the finest place for the summer party season. Lavish parties to which only those who qualified were invited. They all became white elephants when WWI started. None of them exhibit any particularly significant architectural value or, for all the hundreds of hand painted mural ceilings and tile fireplaces and tapestried walls, any valued art or artifacts. A solid marble tub in Mr. Vanderbilt’s bathroom had to be filled with hot water and emptied five times before it could be used. The servants spent way more time every year opening or closing up the estates than the owners spent in residence. One or two fell into complete disrepair and were about to be demolished before their tourist value was fully realized and developed.
Turning the spit once again, the craftsmanship that produced these manors is stunning. As my wife points out this is not only important to preserve, but it serves as inspiration for artists and craftsmen (like her) in the future. Marble wall panels six feet square split in two and bookmarked all around the walls of a drawing room. Hand carved walnut molding and inlaid wooden floors like you’ve never imagined would be possible. Every room in every mansion has a vast amount of workmanship that hardly exists today.
Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, owns the neighboring Astor Estate (J.J. or William Waldorf I forget which) and is in the process of a massive remodeling project. I took a picture of it for the time capsule.
Here are the pictures, which will take a few days to fully upload. I like to think of them as autopsy photos, to be viewed carefully for detail, leading to a better understanding of the living.