The Summer Playground for Millionaires is Grandest Place to Be in Winter & Spring
By Karen Rubin
Oh to be in Newport in winter.
Dancing to a Big Band in the ballroom at Astor’s Beechwood looking out to the grand lawn blanketed in snow – the musicians in black tie, the dancers in casual dress – I couldn’t help but imagine that on some wintry evening, the housekeeper and the caretaker would take a similar turn on the dance floor.
Who could resist?
These opulent mansions that brought new life and industry to Newport in the Gilded Age were only opened for the three months of summer – the rest of the time, the city was as it is on this night, populated by ordinary folk.
Newport is magical in the off-season. More casual and uncrowded, peaceful and calm, it still displays its riches of fascinating points of interest and activities – some unique to the season, like the seal tours offered by Save the Bay and ice skating at the harbor rink.
Newport is also a festival city. There seems to always be some reason to party. We happened to time our visit for the annual Winterfest that takes place during the President’s week school vacation, with a wealth of whimsical and engaging activities, ranging from a ghost tour of Belcourt Castle hosted by the lady of the house, to comedy, magic and musical performances, special walking tours of Newport’s working wharves, rides on a historic train, and a grand illumination of a forest created by Rogers High School students – enough activities, in fact over the course of 10 days to fill a 29-page booklet.
It is an enchanting time that brings out local Newporters and Rhode Islanders who mix with the out-of-towners like ourselves.
We are the hoi polloi and gleeful about it.
It is also a time for incredible bargains on everything from hotel packages, such as the Newport Harbor and Marina, dining, and even shopping where we found amazing discounts (and for the greatest treat of all, plan to spend time in the Antiques Center, on Thames); Rhode Island even dispenses with sales tax on handcrafted items. And there are experiences that only happen in this time of year, like seal tours and ice skating at the harbor rink.
Specials extend all the way into “the season”, through May 15, with Newport’s historic hotels, quaint inns and bed & breakfasts offering midweek rates starting as low as $39 at participating properties.
Newport’s fine restaurants offer incredible specials throughout the winter months to entice diners, even on the coldest winter night. Christie’s, a unique restaurant with a retro feel, offers two entrees and a bottle of wine for $26.95 every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Head to Fluke for harbor views and its daily three-course prix fixe menu for only $20.08, featuring fresh local seafood and produce. Try the Atlantic Beach Club’s Menu Madness, where every Wednesday all entrees (except lobster) are $12.95.
Newport is the best winter place outside of a ski slope that I can think of for spending a holiday – most of what you want to see is in walking distance, reachable by a superb tour trolley or public bus system, and there is so much to do inside.
But probably the greatest benefit is the opportunity to visit these extraordinary mansions in a much more intimate, unhurried way. These are not just architectural masterpieces and museums to see breathtaking art, furniture and interior design, they offer windows to understanding the people who literally built and dominated America during the Gilded Age. In fact, you feel more in the role of the working people who overheard the intimate details and learned all the gossip about these intriguing characters, like the Vanderbilts and the Astors.
Marble House, which was built by Alva Vanderbilt, for example. I was able to use the personal video tour to linger in rooms, and hear the stories about this powerhouse who (I had no idea) was a singular force propelling the Women’s Suffrage Movement as well as a shrewd, calculating, dominating wife and mother.
All around – literally built into the gilded ceilings – are symbols of feminism. She convinced her husband, William K. Vanderbilt (grandson of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt), to give her the $11 million house as a 39th birthday present, then a short time after, divorced him (the first of her social set to divorce!), this time marrying for love, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (who built the Belmont Racetrack), and moving in across the street to his mansion at Belcourt Castle.
Alva sought to make Marble House a “temple to the arts” and drew inspiration from the Petit Trianon at Versailles; she took symbols of beauty, wealth and power from Greek and Roman mythology. The parlor is gilded in 22 carat gold; chandeliers emerge from the mouth of Apollo.
The audio tour includes narration by Alva’s daughter, Consuelo, and you listen as if hearing a soap opera instead of a history. Without any hint of anger or resentment, you learn that Alva saw marriage as a woman’s only means to power and independence, so she set to raise Consuelo to marry royalty. The girl was forced to sit and do her lessons wearing a steel rod down her back and connected to her forehead.
In this calm, unhurried atmosphere, I lingered in a photo gallery in the basement, outside the massive kitchen where Alva would arrange for dinner parties for 100 – to get to know better the back stories.
When Consuelo secretly became engaged to Winthrop Rutherford, her mother broke it off. “The 18-year old was no match for her mother, who intended her to marry the Duke of Marlborough and kept her virtually imprisoned at Marble House until she relented. ‘I spent the morning of my wedding day in tears and alone,’” Consuelo said.
You cheer inside to learn that Consuelo finally broke free (following her mother’s example, no doubt). “A dutiful wife for 18 years, almost hostage at Blenheim Palace [her husband, the Duke, was cousin to Winston Churchill] and mother to two sons, she divorced and at age 43, found happiness by marrying Jacques Balsan, a celebrated French aviator.”
Consuelo was awarded the Legion of Honor medal from France for her work establishing hospitals, but that also put her in jeopardy of being taken hostage by the Nazis, during World War II, so she escaped to the U.S. and settled on Long Island and Florida.
You also come to know William Gilmore, Marble House’s superintendent – the one you would most likely meet if you had visited in winter. He first came to Marble House as a 16-year old, to be companion to Alva’s boys.
There are notations from his journals: “Oct. 25, 1894. My birthday. No one thought of it. Raining very hard. WKV Jr’s birthday tomorrow, Oct. 26, 16 years old.” And, “Sept. 23, 1895 – Miss Vanderbilt told me about the engagement to the Duke.”
My favorite part was a clipping from the Sunday Globe, Sept. 1, 1895, that included the speculation that the Duke would seek the engagement with Consuelo. It described the grand ball that Alva Vanderbilt gave. At this point, she was already going through the divorce from William K. Vanderbilt.
“She said she would give a ball for no other purpose than to find out who she might regard as friends, that she would throw down gauntlet for the supporters of her former husband. … Society has awaited this ball – the one topic for gossip…400 invitations were sent with RSVP engraved in large letters…”
It describes the house as “a mosaic of marvels that would have dazzled the eyes of kings, a mass of indescribable harmony of art.”
“The ball was the ‘cream of New York Society,’ with 400 guests…The favors alone cost $10,000 – knickknacks that Mrs. V had personally selected in Paris…In the gray of the morning dawn, the party left Marble House… A ball more magnificent, costly and successful than New York has ever seen, had passed into history.”
Ghosts at Belcourt Castle
My visit to Belcourt Castle was very different. This is the only one of the historic mansions that is open for tours that is occupied by its owner. In fact, you may well be hosted on the tour by Mrs. Harle Tinney, herself.
Instead of the regular guided tour that is offered, I took advantage of the Ghost Tour (offered 5 p.m. most Thursdays and Saturdays) that begins with a slide presentation and discussion of ghosts by Virginia Smith, who describes haunted places here and abroad. Then, we toured the house with Mrs. Tinney – and it is more than the ghosts who come to life – it is the compelling personalities of the people who lived in it.
Belcourt Castle was built in 1891-1894 by renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt for Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (who, with his brother, built Belmont racetrack).
Oliver was the son of August Belmont, a Prussian Jew who worked for Rothschild family, first sweeping floors and rising to banking representative in the U.S., where he became one of the power elite. August married Caroline Slidell Perry, daughter of Commodore Matthew Perry, the famous explorer, and entertained European royalty for the American government.
His son, Oliver Belmont built Belcourt Castle when his father died. It is most unusual – the whole first floor where there is now a grand ballroom and a chapel, was a stables. There were 60 rooms in the house but only one bedroom and one bathroom (he didn’t want guests, who would instead stay at the Viking Hotel). There was no kitchen because he was afraid of a fire, so the servants would bring food prepared two blocks away, and up the stairs.
His wife, Alva, who built the grand Marble House across the street, was the first of her “set” to get a divorce and only five months later married Oliver Belmont. They lived at Belcourt for 12 years (she basically turned Marble House, the grandest house of its day, into a clothes closet).
Possibly what drew Oliver and Alva together was that he was very involved in politics and she had a strong inclination to political activism, though was frustrated by the inability of women to exercise it.
Oliver Belmont published a weekly newspaper entitled “The Verdict” to fight trusts, monopolies and money power on behalf of the common people. He served in Congress from New York’s 13th District from 1901 – 1903, and was nominated for Mayor of New York on the Democratic ticket.
After he died in 1908 of appendicitis, she threw herself into the cause of Women’s Suffrage. She founded the Political Equality League in 1909. She held the International Woman’s Suffrage Convention at Marble House in 1914. In 1921, she became president of the National Women’s Party.
When she died in 1933, the house passed to Perry Belmont, but in 1940, it was sold out of the family, and lay vacant for 15 years.
The Tinney family purchased the house in 1956, restored it, and used it to house their massive collection of antiques from 33 different countries. The chandelier comes from a Russian government house; there is a Napoleonic mirror, marble columns from 2nd Century Rome.
Mrs. Tinney, who still lives in the house, conducts the tour. Her story is interesting, as well, especially since for the purpose of this tour, she describes what it is like living in a haunted house for the past 40 years (some 17 ghosts inhabit Belcourt, a sprawling home with 60 rooms). Her history with the house began in 1960 when she was 19 and worked as a tour guide. She fell in love with Harold Tinney and they were married that year and she has lived in the house ever since.
Harold created stained glass windows and restored antiques. There are antiques everywhere – a portrait of Louis XIV, columns from 2nd Century Rome, stained glass from the 13th century. You climb an exquisite oak staircase that took three years to carve. Upstairs, there is a bed carved in the 1800s for the Maharajah of Jaipur.
Then you are taken into another ballroom that is of medieval gothic design, with an assortment of armor and weapons.
In addition to its regular guided tours, Belcourt Castle also offers Candlelight Tour with champagne (6 p.m. most Fridays, Sundays and Mondays; one-hour, not for children under 5), and is a venue for weddings and special events.
The house has been used for major annual events, like the Shamrock Ball (in April). This year, they intend to renew the tradition of an Automobile Festival – the first one in the world was held at Belcourt Castle in 1899 – which will showcase the top 100 cars in the world (657 Bellevue Avenue, 401-846-0669,www.belcourtcastle.org).
Swing at Astors’ Beachwood
Astors’ Beechwood Mansion provides a different way of experiencing the Gilded Age: you cross the portal and step back to this by-gone era of society and luxury. The Beechwood Theatre Company portrays Mrs. Astor’s family, friends, and domestic staff at the height of the Victorian Era. They welcome visitors to the home, offering a spirited interpretation of Victorian society not found elsewhere. If you visit during the winter, you will come to apply for a position on Mrs. Astor’s staff. Find out what it’s really like to work for the queen of American society! Experienced housemaids and footmen with references are preferred. The mansion also hosts many special events throughout the year. We were lucky enough to take part in Big Band Night with Larry Brown’s 18-piece Swinglane (580 Bellevue Avenue, 401-846-3772, www.astorsbeechwood.com).
The most famous of the houses is The Breakers, a National Historic Landmark built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895. The 70-room Italian Renaissance-style house is simply eye-popping. Here, you join an escorted tour, on the hour (401-847-1000, www.newportmansions.org).
The Elms, a French chateau built in 1901 by Philadelphia millionaire Edwin Burwind. He was a bit of a maverick on the outs with Newport’s Social “A” list because he actually worked for a living (he headed Berwind Coal which powered the Vanderbilt railroad). He accumulated a $31 million fortune and spent $1.4 million to build The Elms (the equivalent of $22 million today). Some 43 people were kept on staff to operate the house; a season cost $300,000. Its design and interior decoration is tasteful and personal, and the most unusual self-guided audio tour brings the Burwinds to life through the anecdotes of people who had some connection to them and the house (401-847-1000, www.newportmansions.org).
The Breakers and the Elms are among the six Newport Mansions (11 properties altogether) operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Others include:
Rosecliff, built in 1902, designed by architect Stanford White as a party pavilion for Nevada silver heiress Tessie Oelrichs; Chateau-sur-Mer, built in 1852, was the first of Newport’s palatial summer mansions, built from a fortune made in the China Trade; Kingscote, a Gothic Revival cottage built in 1841 for a Georgia plantation owner, was one of Newport’s first summer houses, Chepstow, an Italianate-style cottage built in 1860, now houses a collection of 19th century American paintings; the Isaac Bell House, 1883, is where you can see ongoing interior restoration, and Hunter House, dating from around 1748, was saved from demolition in 1945 and now houses a collection of Colonial furniture by noted 18tgh century Newport artisans.
Preservation Society of Newport County’s 11 properties, represent more than 250 years of social and architectural history in the city that was America’s First Resort–Colonial, Victorian, the Gilded Age–offers tour packages to meet every budget and interest. For example, a “Gilded Age Experience” admission ticket at $31/adult, $10/6-17, to five of the attractions. There is also a behind-the-scenes tour at The Elms and walking tour of Bellevue Avenue; 401-847-1000, www.NewportMansions.org.)
For more information about attractions and packages, contact The Newport County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-976-5122, www.GoNewport.com.
See also: Newport is Rich in Off-Season Activities
Monday, 31 March, 2008
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