Newport, RI – March 19, 2015

A quick getaway to Newport, for a fix of ocean and Gilded Age elegance. We learned that Mark Twain coined the phrase “gilded age” as an insult, referring to politicians and plutocrats of low-quality, painted with a thin veneer of gold to look better than they really were.

IMG_5724Great deal in the off-season – a ticket for 5 Mansion tours, usually $15/each, for only $32. And the ticket is good for however long it takes you to get back to finish your 5 tours – 1 day or 1 decade. Just don’t lose the ticket!

Started at The Elms, the French-chateau-style summer “cottage” of the coal-magnate Berwind family. Large Venetian paintings, landscaped grounds/gardens (that are probably gorgeous when not snow-covered), all kinds of statues, and a conservatory bringing the gardens inside. It was designed so that the Berwinds and their guests would never see how the place functioned – a circular driveway covered over by wisteria vines hid the constant food deliveries to the working basement/kitchen. During dinner, a footman stood behind every guest, whisking plates away as soon as you put down your fork (one of over 20 different pieces at each place setting – and you’d better not use the fish fork on your salad). The etiquette rules were highly regimented – spend the first 15 minutes of dinner conversing with the person on your left, the next 15 with the guest on your right. And the hostesses kept track who dined next to whom during the entire season so you’d never be placed next to the same person twice! But with 300 – 400 at each ball, it was probably easy to avoid repeats. The Elms, built in 1901, was one of the first to be powered by electricity.

Time for some ocean – drove down around to the state park at one tip of Newport. Beautiful rock formations, tidal pools must be teeming with life in the summer. Oh, and drove past plenty of modern oceanfront estates – not 1800s mansions, but not too shabby. And lots of For Sale signs, too.

Up to the Cliff Walk skirting the back lawns of the mansions. Still snow covered in many areas, but the views are lovely.

Stayed at the Newport Bay Club & Hotel, in an old restored mill on the harbor. Lovely suite with kitchenette, sofa bed, dinette and deck on the lower level, plus a spiral staircase to the master bedroom suite with its own deck upstairs. Views of the town and the bridge, and a seagull who must be used to getting treats.

On to our 2nd mansion, Marble House, built by Alva  & Henry K. Vanderbilt, designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, the first American to be trained at the Beaux Arts in Paris. Completed in 1892, it’s built with 500,000 cubic feet of marble throughout. Not bad for a summer cottage. Henry gave it to Alva as her 39th birthday present. She divorced him 3 years later, and kept Marble House. She raised their daughter Consuela to marry into British royalty – one of the “dollar princesses” whose wealth bought a title (by helping the Duke of Marlborough, cousin to Winston Churchill, pay for the upkeep on his estates).

Alva introduced Russian-style dinner service, where each course is brought out in succession, to contrast with the standard French style where every course is brought out together. The fascinating self-guided audio tour said that the courses were brought and removed so quickly that, despite the quantity of food in 8 courses, guests’ main enjoyment of the meal was in watching the food come and go, with no time to actually eat it. The chairs weighed 75 lbs, and required staff to help the diners move to and from the table, especially the children. The Gothic Room was designed to showcase Alva’s Gothic art collection – a private museum. Alva used Marble House to hold suffragette rallies, hosting teas to encourage women to fight for voting rights. Note her “Votes for Women” china.

Finally, delicious dinner at The Moorings restaurant, on the waterfront –

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