The Newport Mansions of the Gilded Age
A Beautiful House and Cottage
May 30, 2017
The mansions of Newport, Rhode Island are a group of ten properties built, and once owned, by the wealthiest members of society. They built their “cottages” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when they were used as summer residences. Now owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County, they are open to the public year-round. Each gorgeous property has its own name and rich history. I recently visited the Breakers and Rosecliff, two of the most popular homes.
Theresa “Tessie” Fair Oelrichs commissioned Rosecliff in 1899, and it was completed in 1902 at a cost of $2.5 million (about $69 million in today’s dollars). Oelrichs owned Rosecliff with her husband Herbert, whom she never divorced, but was later estranged. She gained her massive fortune from her father James Fair whose partnership controlled shares of the Comstock Lode, the largest deposit of gold and silver found in the U.S. His share was worth $50 million then, or roughly $1.4 billion today.
Rosecliff opened during the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain to describe an era formed by tremendous economic growth and a high concentration of wealth within the upper class. The richest members of society accumulated great wealth and purchased many expensive and extravagant things, including these summer homes. For example, the design of Rosecliff was inspired by the Grand Trianon of Versailles.
Rosecliff sits very close to the water, and on the second floor there are exhibits of sailboats and uniforms. Apparently, the Oelrichs were very enthusiastic about sailing, which remains a popular Newport pastime today.
There are many rooms and each is different. On the first floor, there is a sitting room with many paintings and vases. There are paintings of Tessie and other important figures of the house throughout. An exhibit on Herbert Oelrichs describes his adventures at sea. My personal favorite room is the ballroom. It is large and spacious with doors that lead to the backyard. According to the audio tour, it once served as a personal roller skating rink for the owners. The grand staircase has a red carpet that looks like a scene from a movie. Speaking of movies, Rosecliff was a major production site for well-known films like “The Great Gatsby” (1974) and “True Lies” (1994).
The Breakers was the summer cottage of the Vanderbilt family. The first Breakers mansion was made of wood, but it burned, and was rebuilt with stone in 1893. Architect Richard Morris Hunt created the design. Cornelius Vanderbilt II bought the Breakers when he became the president and the chairperson of the New York Railroad. This is the largest mansion in the group, costing $7 million ($193 million in today’s dollars), and it definitely lives up to that price. It was built on 13 acres of land. The mansion has five floors, 70 rooms and measures in at more than 125,000 square feet. It is huge.
There are at least two separate tours for the entire mansion. One of them, the one I did, is of the living quarters. The other, called “Beneath the Breakers,” tours all of the machines and rooms in the basement. According to their website it shows “the development of electricity and how it changed the Gilded Age… The emergence of the modern elevator…The revolutionary infrastructure that heated and cooled the great house… The modern plumbing & laundry facilities that affected attitudes about hygiene and cleanliness.”
As you walk, there is a large, open room with a staircase leading to the second floor. Behind this staircase
is a fountain built into it. You can see the second floor from the lobby because it wraps around like a giant balcony with many doors to many rooms. In the mansion is a dining room with gilded walls. It is very extravagant with red drapes over the windows and two chandeliers made of crystal and gold. The ceiling has paintings on it like the Sistine Chapel. This is my favorite room in the mansion. It is so beautiful and intricate. There is also another dining room just for breakfast. The kitchen is very large, like every room in the house. It is so far away because that is where the servants worked. The Breakers has its own library, billiards room, ladies recreational room, gentlemen’s recreational room, and around 35 separate bedrooms.
These two mansions are only a small piece of what is in the group of Newport Mansions. Admission is $9 for people from the ages 6-17 and $27 for an adult two-house tour ticket. These tickets get you the tour of the Breakers and most of the other mansions. I highly recommend touring The Breakers and Rosecliff, as they are beautiful and some of the most amazing pieces of architecture that you can see.
Some of the information used in this article was obtained from the Preservation Society of Newport’s webpage. For more information about the mansions and how you can visit, please follow the link to newportmansions.org .