Trip Back In Time At The Gilded Age Mansions In Newport

By Gypsy Nester,

While the mammoth mansions in Newport may not have been literally covered with gold, it is easy to see how the term gilded got applied to the age when they were in fashion and the lifestyle of their occupants. Oh wait, we must correct ourselves, these were not mansions, they were summer “cottages.” Yes, in Newport a seventy-room palace can be referred to as a cottage with a straight face. In the late 1800s, many of America’s biggest robber barons began building vacation retreats along the shores of Rhode Island’s Easton Bay, mostly to escape New York’s miserable summers.

Conspicuous Consumption

Newport Rhode Island yachts
Photo by 6SN7

These were the days of the aptly named Conspicuous Consumption and very quickly the construction took on a competitive nature. There seemed to be no end to the keeping up with the Joneses, or should we say the Astors, Vanderbilts, or Belmonts.

Vanderbilt's Marble House
Photo by denisbin 

On the plus side, their overindulgence has left an incredible legacy of architecture for lowly, regular folks like us to gawk at. The Breakers and the Marble House, both belonging to the Vanderbilts, are two of the most impressive residences. Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Marble House private hideaway, the Chinese Tea House, easily dwarfs any reasonable idea of a cottage on its own. In Newport, it’s more or less a clubhouse.

Rough Point Mansion Newport
Photo by Martin de Lusenet

Another Vanderbilt, Frederick, jumped in with a one-hundred-and-five-room mansion, oops, let’s call it a bungalow, perched on the cliffs at Rough Point. The shine must have worn off quickly though, because a couple of years after completing the not-so-humble abode he began renting it out and spent his summers elsewhere.

Gape along the Cliff Walk

Cliff Walk Newport RI
Photo by Timothy Valentine

Without a doubt, The Cliff Walk is the best way to see the “cottages.” It offers great opportunities for unobstructed views of the mansions, because none of the cottage dwellers wanted their view of the sea blocked. That leaves a clear shot back at them from the pathway. For a great night’s rest it may not be The Breakers, but the Forty 1 North hotel is a great way to live out your own gilded fantasies.

Newport Island Clams
Photo by author 

The trail begins at First Beach, Newport’s most popular beach, which gave us the chance to stop at Flo’s Clam Shack for a little pre-hike energy. Clams three ways, chowder, mounds of clam strips, and a fiery hot quahog do the trick. Usually referred to as a stuffie, the quahog was the star of the show, served with spicy stuffing and held together with red elastic, otherwise known as a rubber band… wicked tasty and classic Rhode Island.

Beechwood Mansion Rhode Island
Photo by Wally Gobetz

The three-and-a-half mile Cliff Walk threads along the bluffs, with astounding views of the Atlantic, while passing right by the backyards of all the best-known estates. Several of these are where Robert Redford caroused in the party scenes during the cinematic classic The Great Gatsby. Speaking of parties, the competition didn’t stop with the completion of the cottages, oh no, after construction it was then time to one-up the neighbors by throwing ever more extravagant events. Caroline Astor, holding court from Beechwood, may have been the queen of the society soirée with her annual Summer Ball.

The opulent and the absurd

Others tried to keep up: Theresa Fair Oelrichs brought in Harry Houdini as a guest of honor for one party at Rosecliff, and sailed a dozen white ships along the shore as decoration at another, but it took Mamie Fish to claim the mantel of party Queen. With a flair for combining the opulent with the absurd, she hosted a dinner where everyone had to speak baby talk, and another for one hundred decked out dogs, but her pièce de résistance was a ball for Prince del Drago. When the royal was introduced to the excited socialites, he turned out to be a dressed up monkey. Mamie completed her coup by seating the simian prince in Mrs. Astor’s usual seat of honor.

Lobster Rhode Island
Photo by Daniel Lugo 

We were certain our invite for one of those dinners was not forthcoming, so we headed over to the waterfront where lobsters are served fresh off the boats. At the Aquidneck Lobster Company we picked out a couple from the tanks and in no time they were steamed and ready for our own conspicuous consumption. Eating lobsters out of paper bags on the beautiful back deck while watching the sailboats come and go… no Vanderbilt ever had it better.

Have you been to Newport? What was your favorite thing to do there?

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