The mansions and gardens of Newport, in Rhode Island, glorious and regal in their settings, are stunning representations of an excessive time in our country.
Situated at the southern tip of the state, the tiny town was founded in 1639 as a ship-building and trading center. But it became much more than that. Because of its wonderful climate and island location, Newport grew from a maritime center into the "Queen of American Resorts."
Today, it still holds a special mystique that is a vital part of America's social history.
The Preservation Society of Newport County was founded in 1945, and has been able to display one of the most extraordinary cross-sections of American architecture and interiors in the country.
Indeed, from Colonial times through the Industrial Revolution and the exciting era known as "La Belle Epoque," when Newport was the summering place for America's wealthiest and most influential families, the resort's island charm attracted the greatest architects and designers in America.
Newport had become the favorite summer place of the wealthy, and soon the seaside community saw the largest concentration of mansions anywhere.
In addition to becoming the well-known social capital, it also became a yachting center. Its history is almost a chronicle of upper-class social life.
The magnificent homes are a reflection of the attitude and times when industrial fortunes built America's greatest museums, universities, houses of worship and public buildings.
It was truly a "Gilded Age."
A Wonderful Way of Life
It was in Newport that Jacqueline Bouvier married Jack Kennedy. Two presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy, had their "Summer White House" in Newport, and socialites of the highest order built homes here, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, F. W. Woolworth, Lillian Astor and William Vanderbilt.
Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton partied in Newport. Robert Redford and Mia Farrow made their film, "The Great Gatsby," in Rosecliff, another Newport mansion. Today, the Newport Jazz Festival and America's Cup are just two of the events that dwarf this tiny town.
Contemporary Newport looks quite a bit different than in its earlier days, although it's still a fashionable summer resort of the wealthy. A pedestrian mall lined with boutiques rests in the center of town. A visitor's center bustles with tourists coming and going, all seeking a glimpse into this glorious past.
A tour bus takes visitors on a 23-mile route covering the highlights of Newport. Along Ocean Drive and Bellevue Avenue, palatial estates awe the viewer: the Vanderbilt mansion, the Astor home and the von Bulow estate.
The community, the sea, the climate, the feeling of a distinguished past and a delightful present - all create a wonderful way of life.
One of the most grandiose homes is Marble House, built of 500,000 cubic feet of white marble with a front that was modeled after the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis. William Vanderbilt and his wife, Alva, commissioned an architect to build an impressive summer home on Bellevue Avenue. Artisans came from France and Italy to work on the home, the construction of which remained a secret.
After nearly four years and $11 millions, Marble House was completed, and it opened to guests in August 1892. The magnificent home was modeled after Versailles and invoked images of both the White House and the Temple of Apollo.
These days, visitors cannot only peruse the magnificent rooms, but many functions are held in the glorious dining room and in public rooms where visitors can attend dinner parties of social significance.
When the home was completed, Vanderbilt turned the ownership of the house over to his wife. The couple divorced in 1895. The home, though not always occupied, remained with Alva until shortly before her death, when she sold it to Frederick Prince of Boston, then president of Armour and Company.
As the tour-bus driver describes the places along his route, he tells a rather unusual anecdote: Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, a socialite, threw a dinner party for 100 guests - all of them dogs. The canine guests, our driver told us, wore formal attire, and were all served dinner on silver platters.
He also recounted a story about Fish's neighbor, who was so determined not to let her on his property, that he set up muskets on his lawn pointing directly at her mansion.
400 - But Who's Counting?
Another home, although not one of the seven mansions which the Preservation Society maintains, is Beachwood, once the domain of Lillian Astor, known as the queen of Newport society.
She originated the exclusive "400 Club," which actually included only 213 families.
She decided that 400 was the number of guests she could accommodate in her dining room, so that was to be the socially acceptable number of families to be included in the social register.
Cornelius Vanderbilt's 70-room mansion - an Italian Renaissance palace - is called the Breakers. Another mansion of interest to Philadelphians is the Elms, which had been the residence of E.J. Berwind, son of a Philadelphia tradesman.
You can also view Newport on a cruise boat. Ultra-modern yachts peruse the harbor, and an extensive nautical history is related on board the popular Spirit of Newport.
Indeed, Newport is a natural harbor; Narragansett Bay, which runs 28 miles north to the Taunton River, is the second-deepest deep-water port in North America, surpassed by Halifax in Nova Scotia.
Another delightful place to visit in Newport is the International Tennis Hall of Fame. This elegant showcase houses a century of tennis history. The Volvo Tennis Hall of Fame Championships will be played there next month, as will the Virginia Slims of Newport matches.
For information, call 800-976-5122 or go online at: www.gonewport.com . (If you plan on visiting more than one mansion, buy a combination ticket.)