by Karen Rubin
Want to feel like a million bucks? The scion of a Vanderbilt? Perhaps you are seeking the most romantic setting imaginable to pop the question, exchange vows, reconnect. Possibly you are looking for a power-place to forge a deal. Or maybe you think you were born in the wrong era, and you are more at home in the Gilded Age.
The mansion of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, built in 1909, has been re-imagined for 2010 by international hotelier and entrepreneur Peter De Savary as a luxurious boutique hotel/membership club, Vanderbilt Hall.
The goal at Vanderbilt Hall – with its intimate scale, doting service and attention to detail – is to let you fantasize that you have not come to a commercial lodging, but rather, you are one of the guests invited to a house party.
And you adore living the illusion.
It really is quite something to tour the famous mansions along tony Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island, built by the millionaires of the Industrial Age (when a million dollars was like a billion): Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s Breakers, Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House, Rough Point (Doris Duke’s mansion, originally built for a Vanderbilt), and then return to your “own” – at least for the time you are in Newport.
Walking across the threshold, it is easy to imagine you are an invited guest, coming for a house party. Everything around you suggests a private home – most spectacularly, Peter De Savary’s $30 million private collection of American Illustration Art that decorates the walls. De Savary’s collection rivals the private collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. And while you are a guest, you experience the paintings in a more personal way than visiting a gallery.
At Vanderbilt Hall, they do their absolute best to make you feel that way: there is no “reception desk” as you might find in a commercial hotel, even a boutique hotel. You sit down at a grand desk with someone more like a concierge and are given your pass key.
So maybe you are a guest who is a recent acquaintance. It is okay to fantasize.
It is late afternoon when we arrive, and we quickly take advantage of one of the most alluring and distinctive attractions that De Savary has added to Vanderbilt Hall: the Crow’s Nest, a rooftop terrace where cocktails and complimentary hors d’oeurves are served (6-9 pm), with a view of the harbor and the rooftops of historic Newport sprawling before you. A stone’s throw away is the steeple of the magnificent Trinity Church, Newport’s centerpiece that dates from 1725, while on the opposite side, the sun sets in a glorious blaze of color behind the Newport Bridge.
Vanderbilt Hall is very much part of the history and intrigues of Newport.
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the great grandson of Cornelius (“Commodore”) Vanderbilt, commissioned the mansion, in Beaux Arts style, for his mistress, Agnes O’Brien Ruiz, who was at the time, the wife of the Cuban attaché. The publicity of the affair, made public in divorce papers filed by his wife, Elsie French, in 1908, led to Agnes’s suicide in 1909. After she died, Vanderbilt donated the house to the people of Newport. Only a few years later, in 1915, Alfred perished in the sinking of the Lusitania, a hero who saved others on that doomed ship, including giving his own life vest to save a mother and her infant. His son, William Henry III, went on to become Governor of Rhode Island.
A direct link to the Vanderbilts of the Gilded Age is the name, “Alva,” boldly emblazoned on the fireplace in Monty’s, the grandly gilded Dining Room.
The legend that is told is that Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt’s Aunt Alva, who was married to William Kissam Vanderbilt (Cornelius Vanderbilt’s grandson), was so upset at Alfred’s affair, that she threatened he would be cut off from the family’s fortune; she had her name put on the fireplace during the construction to serve as a conscience, as if to say “I have my eyes on you.” Alfred broke off his relationship with her and she later committed suicide.
(But when I did my own investigating, the timeline does not make sense, since Alfred inherited the money a decade before, leaving more of a mystery as to why “Alva” is emblazoned there. Indeed, the backstory is even more fascinating, as you learn when you visit Marble House, the mansion that Alva Vanderbilt built as a shrine to feminism, had her husband gift it to her, and then, breaking with the norms of High Society, became the first of her social set to divorce so she can marry her husband’s partner, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, in 1896; after Belmont dies, in 1908, Alva becomes a leading Suffragette, fighting for and financing the movement to win the right to vote for women.)
There are still just 33 “keys” – almost all of them suites – which makes for an exceptionally personal experience. The suites from the 400 sq. ft. Chihuahua Suite to the 1,000 sq. ft. Vanderbilt Suite, all with every manner of creature comfort – from sumptuous Italian linens with cashmere throws, marble bathrooms, to in-room entertainment and kitchenettes – that make you feel very much at home, but in the lap of luxury.
Ours is one of eight duplex loft suites, with kitchenette, two TVs, a skylight (with remote controls – it actually closes automatically if it should rain). From our window, we can look out to the steeple tower of Trinity Church on the next block. You feel you are at home in Newport.
All of this intrigue just reinforces the feeling that you are part of Newport society and you have slipped back into that time. It is delicious to contemplate.
The mansion itself went through many incarnations: it was a YMCA for a time, and was going to be condemned in the 1980s when it was turned into a hotel and its five bedrooms rooms turned into 33 guest rooms. The mansion came on the market again in 2009, when Peter De Savary, who has created boutique hotels and private clubs around the world, purchased it, renovated it, and “re-imagined” it for today’s high society.
Dinner is served at Monty’s Grill, named for owner Peter De Savary’s Chihuahua, Monty, who is frequently seen around with him when he is in the hotel. The dining room is utterly, breathtakingly stunning, bedecked with gold wallpaper that sets off the paintings in gilded frames to spectacular advantage.
There is live music being played on piano, also gilded in gold and black (with Monty’s portrait), by chanteuse, Christine, wearing a 1920s-vintage dress. The ambiance is perfection – and could well have emerged from one of the paintings.
The crystal, China and silver, fresh flowers set the mood for a delectable clam chowder and a char-broiled steak; grilled swordfish served with Sherry and red onion sweetened asparagas.
De Savary has infused Vanderbilt Hall with Britishisms – most apparent in the menu at Monty’s, where there is a large selection of “British eccentricities” from across the Pond: Steak and Ale Pie ($28); Fish & Chips, $23; seafood pie, $35; Bangers and Mash ($30); and Salmon from the Isle of Skye. Each night there is an adult “comfort food” selection (a reflection of De Savary’s whimsical approach to life), as well as “Local and Sustainable New England” selections like steamed lobster ($42), pheasant ($38), and sticky wild boar ribs ($36).
Adjacent to the dining room is a Snooker room (a table game similar to billiards), which can be converted to a private dining room or board room. You can easily imagine men in their dinner jackets and cigars taking shots and doing deals.
Monty’s also has a warm and inviting lounge area arranged in front of the “Alva” fireplace and a picturesque bar – the design, from the lighting to the interior decoration is just stunning, a feature throughout Vanderbilt Hall.
Another hallmark of Vanderbilt Hall is its indoor lap pool, decorated in the most tranquil of aquamarine colors, set off by diamond-shaped mirrors – the low lighting making it seem like a watery inner sanctum. There is also a state of the art fitness room with computerized workout programs, iPod docking stations, TV earphones (supplied if you don’t have your own), heart monitor; you can see the regular TV or have personal TV, and though it closes at 11 pm., a guest can get access from the front desk.
But the full-service Vanderbilt Spa epitomizes the personal attention of this mansion hotel.
Allison Schumann, spa director, walks us around three treatment rooms. One, the “duet” room where you can get a couples massage, used to be the Library; you can sit on the couch and sip champagne in front of the fireplace.
Allison, with 12 years experience as a massage therapist, has made a particular specialty of pre-natal massage (ideal for the couple who wants one last escape together). She likes to blend Eastern and Western techniques.
Allison uses Yon-Ka products from Paris, an early innovator in the 1950s in utilizing botanicals – that use five essential oils – Lavender, rosemary, cypress, thyme, geranium.
One of the spa’s signature treatments is the “Amber Massage” – involving an amber candle, that drizzles the warm oil.
Personal training, yoga and mat Pilates sessions can be scheduled for individuals or groups.
After a swim in the pool, we enjoy a breakfast experience (because that is what it is): a delectable omelet with Mozzarella, fresh tomato, pesto, with home fries, croissant, fresh-squeezed orange juice – served in a lovely enclosed patio overlooking the lush garden where there is an outdoor pool; the garden area is the setting for outdoor functions as well as a tranquil place to relax after a busy day taking in Newport’s many, many attractions.
Even here there are stunning paintings from De Savary’s collection, most of which were purchased from National Museum of American Illustration, nearby at Vernon Court, a Bellevue Avenue mansion which De Savary used to own (www.americanillustration.org).
Indeed, the art collection perhaps more than anything else, makes a stay in Vanderbilt Hall an extraordinary event.
There is a corridor of original magazine covers where the paintings had been published – and it is fun to go around the hotel trying to find the originals.
Peter De Savary has really made Vanderbilt Hall is own, from the British menu items, to the photos of him in the America’s Cup races, the Tatler Magazine on a table by the pool, the portrait of his dog, Monty, on the gilded piano, and his blue Rolls Royce in the parking lot – all of which personalize Vanderbilt Hall as a mansion home rather than a commercial hotel and add to the feeling that you have been invited to a house party. In fact, there is the Chairman’s room and a second that turn into a suite that can be closed off from the rest of the hotel with French doors, when De Savary is here.
Between those two rooms is a stunning parlor with one of the most important pieces in De Savary’s art collection: Howard Chandler Christy’s famous mural painting depicting American composer Stephen Foster as he is composing “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”. The painting has had only three owners (De Savary had it in his own home in England), and, I am told, has never before been in public.
Vanderbilt Hall is a few blocks away from the Bellevue Avenue mansions (and perhaps the glare of disapproving relatives), just off Thames, in the waterfront area on Mary Street, one of the delightfully narrow, cobble-stoned streets with colonial-era homes around. This is known as Historic Hill in Newport’s Old Quarter, distinguished for the galleries, boutiques, colorful food places, and historic sites including Trinity Church, Touro Synagogue, the Redwood Library (the first circulating library in the US), the Historical Society and the Newport Art Museum.
The area is fabulous for strolling around and taking it all in. The mansion is just across from the revitalized wharfs, with their colorful shops and boats which offer sightseeing cruises or charter opportunities, and of course the magnificent sailboats that Newport is so famous for. The area bustles throughout the day and into the night, and you are a short walk from it all. The wharfs are marvelous, even in winter, when there are seal watch tours and a skating rink.
During our visit, Newport was filling up with sailors who had come for the famous Newport-Bermuda Race. Indeed, it was during one of these races that De Savary began his love affair with Newport and has been entrenched in Newport ever since.
De Savary first came to Newport with the British “Victory” Team challenge to the America’s Cup in 1983 and again in 1986. Since then, he has owned several Newport’s mansions, including Vernon Court, Ivy Tower, Oakwood and the Frederick Law Olmstead summer residence, Wildacre.
Completing the “house party” experience is that guests of Vanderbilt hall have access to De Savary’s 60-foot motor yacht, “Vanderbilt.” And, a private car is available for transportation from the airport or around town.
Another intriguing aspect to Vanderbilt Hall is the opportunity to join the Vanderbilt Hall Club – affording special privileges as well as reciprocity with other exclusive clubs through the United States and abroad (membership by invitation) – a concept that De Savary has used at his other properties and developments.
It is described as “An international members club for those who enjoy travel, the camaraderie of like minded people and the finer things in life, staying in places of style and distinction under a reciprocal members’ agreement at private clubs throughout the world. Many of the clubs provide dining, accommodation, golf, spa, tennis and other recreational facilities.”
The setting of the mansion makes it ideal for special functions and private parties, from weddings to board meetings. Alfred’s Billiards Room (actually snooker) accommodates 14 for private dining or meetings; for larger events, the Victory Room accommodates up to 40 guests for dinner or 60 for conferences. A Wedding Planner is available to assist.
Nearby, there is tennis at the Tennis Hall of Fame, polo, golf and sailing, and restaurants, the waterfront, museums and even a skating rink on the wharf are walking distance from Vanderbilt Hall.
Remarkably (but not surprisingly, seeing De Savary’s Chihuahua, Monty, about), Vanderbilt Hall is dog-friendly: a limited number of rooms are available which accommodate dogs; reservations must be made in advance because some rooms are allergy-free. Dog beds and bowls will be awaiting arrival. There are some magnificent local walks around town and on the Cliff Walk (spectacular). Pets must be under 25 lbs., and incur a non-refundable $50 fee.
Holiday ‘House Parties’
Vanderbilt Hall is a special venue anytime, but is spectacular for the holidays, when Newport, Rhode Island, itself takes on an enchanted quality (it is in fact one of my favorite winter destinations, because there is so much to do, inside, in a compact area, and hosts a special Winter Festival).
I can’t imagine a more cozy yet elegant place to spend the holidays:
Thanksgiving House Party, starts with arrival Thanksgiving Day, with a glass of hot mulled cider by the fire after settling in to your luxurious accommodation, and a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in Monty’s (either 3 or 7 pm); then, on Friday, a brunch buffet ($589/nite for suite accommodations).
A three-day Christmas package encompasses Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day (a British tradition), starting with hot chocolate and biscuits by the fire in Monty’s on arrival, then in the evening, holiday cocktails served by a butler throughout the Hall, the Conservatory and the Christy Drawing Room, followed by Christmas Eve dinner at Monty’s and entertainment (a dramatic reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas, Christmas Carols”); on Christmas Day there is brunch, a leisurely afternoon of snacks and movies, and dinner at Monty’s; on Boxing Day, Dec. 26, enjoy the incomparable sights of Newport, like the Breakers, decorated for the holidays, a walk on the beach or Cliff Walk (not to be missed), and skating on the ice rink on the harbor. The three-night package ranges from $1600-$2100 for suite accommodations.
A New Year House Party, starting Dec 31, is a Gilded Age black-tie event where you celebrate as the Vanderbilts did. You arrive early to relax and dress for the evening. The party starts with champagne and hors d’oeuvres. At the ringing of the butler’s bell, adjourn to dinner in Monty’s for an elegant, five course gourmet meal with wine pairings created by our Monsieur le Chef and his culinary team. Entertainment is provided by the Hall’s in-house pianist/singer throughout dinner. Immediately following dinner, a special lounge will be set up for dancing with a three piece band providing entertainment. View New Years Eve festivities from around the world on a large screen while dancing the night away. End the evening with a champagne toast at midnight accompanied by a buffet of delectable late night fare. On New Years Day, enjoy a late morning brunch buffet. If you’re feeling adventurous join other Newporters for the Polar Bear Plunge at Easton’s Beach or spend the afternoon on a Seal Watch Tour out on the harbor. The two-night package, including accommodation, New Years Eve dinner, brunches, entertainment and drinks and snacks, is priced from $1850 – $2350 for suite accommodations.
Vanderbilt Hall, 41 Mary Street, Newport, RI 02804, 401-846-6200, 888-826-4255. www.vanderbilthall.com.
For more information on planning a visit to Newport, contact the Newport County Visitors Center, 23 America’s Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 401-845-9123, 800-976-5122, www.gonewport.com
De Savary Properties
Peter De Savary has spent the last 35 years developing what he calls “unique pieces of real estate in a special way,” from Skibo Castle in Scotland to The Abaco Club in the Bahamas. Now, in addition to Vanderbilt Hall, he has converted The Residences at Brown and Howard Wharf on Newport’s famed harbor into the Vanderbilt Residences. Sixteen harbor-front homes (only 7 remain available) make up this exclusive condo complex, offering classic New England architecture with gorgeous views of Newport Harbor and priority dockage at Brown and Howard Marina. Owners will enjoy a menu of concierge services and membership privileges at Vanderbilt Hall, a mansion hotel, spa and private members club located nearby in the heart of Newport’s Historic Hill (vanderbiltresidences.com)
De Savary has made his mark with renowned hotels and clubs – more than 30 projects to date – including Cary Arms, a boutique inn and pub on the beach in Babbacombe Bay in Devon, England, acquired by De Savary in 2009 and named one of the Top 10 Beach Hotels by the Times of London within months of its opening, www.caryarms.co.uk); The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle in Scotland (www.carnegieclub.co.uk); Bovey Castle in Dartmoor National Park (www.boveycastle.com); the St. James Clubs; Stapleford Park in England (www.staplefordpark.com); the Abaco Club in the Bahamas (an ownership development); Cherokee Plantation in South Carolina; and Port Louis (www.portlouisgrenada.com) and Mount Cinnamon in Grenada in the West Indieswww.mountcinnamongrenada.com).
Most recently, De Savary (actually, his wife, Lana) restored and opened The Old Swan, a romantic 600-year old inn and adjoining 18th century Minster Mill, near Oxford, with 60 acres of gardens, orchards and surrounded by what remains of the ancient Royal Hunting Forest of Wychwood. The Old Swan offers 16 beamed guestrooms and suites, while the Minister Mill, with 40 contemporary guestrooms and meeting and function rooms, is designed to be for the more budget conscious and groups (dog-friendly, too). There is also a destination spa with indoor and outdoor pool. An architecturally stunning Great Hall will be created that will historically fit with the village and surrounds. New formal gardens, a traditional vegetable garden and one of the country’s largest wild flower meadows (40 acres) will also be created alongside the River Windrush (www.oldswanandminstermill.com).
Friday, 12 November, 2010
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