Nestled by the waters edge about an hours drive south of Boston, lies the sleepy town of Newport, Rhode Island. It is one of the most historically intact towns in America and home to the iconic Newport Mansions. The mansions’ architectural fabric provide a rare glimpse into the lives of the most wealthiest of society spanning more than 300 hundred years from the Colonial era through to the Gilded Age.
Locally known as “cottages”, the mansions were only used for a few months a year when families from New York would pack up everything and retire there for the summer. They lived excessively in their grand cottages, most fit out with ballrooms, libraries, reading rooms, music rooms, a great hall and servant quarters to accommodate their large number of staff.
When the American industrialisation era slowed down, so did the income of many of the families who owned these mansions. With enormous maintenance costs, most were closed up and left abandoned for years. But a private, non-profit organisation called the Preservation Society of Newport Country recognised their importance and started purchasing them and all of their contents so that they could be meticulously preserved. They have literally been frozen in time so visitors can wander through them and gain an appreciation and understanding of the architectural and social developments of that time in America.
There are 11 mansions that visitors can tour and many more cottages still privately owned. We only did a day trip to Newport so we could only visit two – The Breakers and The Elms.
Home to the famous Vanderbilt family, The Breakers is probably the grandest and largest of all the cottages with more than 70 rooms sprawling across 138,000 square feet. The design of the “villa” was inspired by the Italian Renaissance and celebrates the architecture of ancient Rome. The five-storey mansion is arranged around a central grand hall with extravagant interiors inspired by the Greeks and Romans with no cost spared for luxurious and opulent furnishings and finishes.
The Elms appears to have been transported from the French countryside, a chateau inspired estate oozing with romance and fantasy. The design inspiration was as much about the building as it was about the gardens – perfectly manicured and symmetrical so guests could enjoy it no matter where they were. The ground floor is raised slightly so you could look down at the garden and the servant’s quarters were hidden on the top floor behind the balustrade so the tranquility of the gardens wasn’t disturbed by staff working.
*Note: All exterior photos are our own, but taking photos inside is prohibited so we have sourced these from Pinterest.