While PJ and I were in Newport, RI this past weekend, we visited five of the local mansions preserved by the Preservation Society of Newport County. I had seen a documentary on TV about the Breakers (and maybe some of the other mansions) and really wanted to see them in person. I had been to Newport for a conference years ago, but the conference was in March so the weather wasn’t really right for sightseeing. When PJ mentioned a trip to Newport while I visited him in Massachusetts, I jumped at the chance.

The weather this weekend was perfect. We stayed in the Hotel Viking, which is in walking distance to some of the houses (though it’s a bit more of a trek than we had initially thought it was). We decided at the start of the day that we would purchase the five house deal — tours of five of the mansions for $31. We knew that it would be exhausting, but we only had one full day in Newport, so we figured we might as well fit in as much as possible.

After breakfast, we walked to the Cliff Walk. Here’s a picture I took along the walk.

View from the Cliff Walk

For a larger version of the picture, just click on it. I hope you can see here just how nice a day it was. It started off a little cool, but it soon got into the upper 60s. The water is gorgeous — I could see why millionaires would want to build summer homes here!

The cliff walk connects to a street that borders The Breakers, the first mansion we visited. The Breakers is the crown jewel of the Preservation Society. It was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in the early 1890s. Here’s a picture I took:

The Breakers

Again, just click on the picture to see a larger version. The mansion has some 70 rooms, not all of which are open to visitors, but it’s certainly staggeringly huge. The fact that the mansion still contains most of the Vanderbilt’s furniture and artwork makes a visit to The Breakers even more interesting. If you can only visit one of the mansions of Newport, this is the one to visit.

Next we walked to Rosecliff, which I have to say is the least interesting of the five mansions we visited. The problem with this one is that it contains very little furniture. Furthermore, our tour guide wasn’t very informative. I would suggest that anyone pressed for time skip Rosecliff if it lets you see one of the other mansions instead.

Third, we saw Marble House, which definitely has the most entertaining story attached to it. I didn’t get a great picture of Marble House, but you can see pictures of it by clicking on the link. Marble House was built as a birthday present for Alva Vanderbilt by her husband, William K. Vanderbilt, the younger brother of Cornelius Vanderbilt. They only used the summer home for a few years. Alva divorced her husband (scandalous!) and then married his friend, who had his own summer home in Newport. Alva subsequently used Marble House as a glorified closet. She also had a tea house built in the backyard.

The mansion also has a lot of the original furniture and artwork. PJ and I also enjoyed the fact that you can see the kitchen. Finally, the mansion’s rooms are decorated in very different styles from one another — it’s a very eclectic combination of decor. It’s a great one to tour. This is also one of the mansions that features an audio guide, which is a great way to visit the mansion — it’s informative and lets you decide how much time to spend in each room.

After lunch, we went to two more mansions. The first was The Elms. Here’s what the mansion looks like:

It’s a gorgeous summer home. I have to say that I especially like the look of this one. It reminds me of country houses in England. The grounds of The Elms are particularly nice too. If you click on the picture to see a larger version, you might be able to make out that there are statues (they’re green) and a fountain on this backside of the house. Here’s another picture of the mansion with me (imagining that I lived here):

Again, the larger version might show the statues. I had put my long sleeves back on by this point. It was just cool enough to need them when you weren’t walking from mansion to mansion.

The final mansion we visited was Chateau-sur-Mer, the oldest of the houses we toured. Here’s a picture I took:

It’s a little Addams Family looking on the outside, but it’s gorgeous inside. There’s lots of beautiful wood work throughout the house. After it was completed in 1852, it ruled the area in magnificence until the Vanderbilt houses were built some forty years later. Our tour guide was very informative, but I thought he was a little too defensive about the house’s current status in relation to The Breakers and Marble House. He definitely wanted us to value it as much as — if not more than — the larger, more ostentatious summer homes.

Five mansions in one day was enough. We were definitely exhausted by the end, but I think we were both glad that we had seen all of them. We certainly got our money’s worth. There are actually 12 properties (ten mansions, a topiary garden, and the Stables of The Breakers) that can be seen during tourist season. We saw all five houses that were open in April.

I was impressed with the opulence of these mansions. What wealth these families had! It’s difficult to imagine that some of these homes were seen as little more than disposable — that’s how wealthy these people were. At best, most of them were only used eight to ten weeks a year. For all their grandeur, however, the gilded age lasted for such a relatively brief time — just a generation or two.

But now we “commoners” can purchase a ticket and wander through these former titans’ homes and possessions. America doesn’t have any castles or country estates on the scale of Blenheim, but we do have these summer “cottages.” They certainly are national treasures. I just wish I could live there!

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