Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Jaunt Around Newport

Since Memorial Day has come and gone, and Summer has unofficially begun, I thought I'd do a post about our detour in Newport a few months ago. Newport, after all, is one of the premier summer resort communities in the United States, famous as a playground for Astors, Vanderbilts, and Kennedys. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century when planters from the South began building cottages along Bellevue Avenue to escape the heat of the Low Country, Newport became known more and more as a fashionable summer resort rather than a Colonial port city. After the Civil War and with the rise of the Gilded Age, Newport "cottages" grew increasingly elaborate (Henry James referred to them as "White Elephants" because they belonged on large estates rather than ocean side lots), many with columns, fireplaces, and sometimes entire rooms imported from Europe as cottagers continually attempted to "one up" each other.

Of course none of my pictures, taken on a sunny, but cold, day in late March, show Newport in it's summer glory. But here is a glimpse of the resort town from the Breakers, along the Cliff Walk, and back again. 

Enjoy! And Happy Summer!

The Claiborne Pell Bridge (better known as the Newport Bridge) spans Narragansett Bay and connects Jamestown to Newport.



One of the first cottages you pass on Bellevue is not on the ocean side, but rather on the inland side of the Avenue. The Elms, designed by Horace Trumbauer for coal baron Edwin Berwind, it was completed in 1901 at the cost of 1.5 million dollars.

The 30' tall gates of the Breakers, the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife, Alice. 

The 70 room mansion was completed in 1895 to replace a previous house that had burned to the ground in 1892 after Vanderbilt had bought it from the Lorillard family. The estate spans 14 acres, with the footprint of the house taking up one entire acre. When Alice Vanderbilt died in 1934 she gave the house to her youngest daughter (none of her other children, including Whitney Museum of Art founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, wanted anything to do with the house). At first she leased the house to the Preservation Society for $1 a year, but then they finally bought the house and made arrangements for the Countess (did I mention Gladys Vanderbilt was a Countess?) to have life tenancy on the third floor. Upon her death in 1998 arrangements were made for her descendants to continue to use the private third floor.

A glassed-in summerhouse at the tip of this private cottage's property.

Looking toward Beechwood, the former home of The Mrs. Astor, famous for creating The Four Hundred after declaring New York Society only had about 400 people worth inviting anywhere (although it was rumored that 400 was the number of people that could fit in her ballroom).

The Cliff Walk is at times paved and at times a complete hike. Cottagers tried many times to close off the Cliff Walk for privacy, but requests were denied. It is a public access trail on private property. In several places Cottagers simply built over the path to keep prying eyes at bay.

All Along the Cliff Walk are sweeping views. Here looking out over Sheep Point Cove to the Atlantic beyond.

The back of Rosecliff, which was used in the original film of the Great Gatsby. Built by the Comstock Lode heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs by McKim, MEad, and White. Modeled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles, Stanford White was the principle designer of the cottage. Tessie Oelrichs, along with Mamie Fish and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, made up what was known as the Triumvirate of American Society, leading New York Society after Mrs. Astor's reign began to fade into old age and dementia.

A closer look at Beechwood, the former Astor cottage. Originally built in 1851, the Astor family purchased and expanded the house, adding a ballroom. After Mrs. Astor died in 1908, she left the house to her son John Jacob Astor IV, who then passed away on the Titanic in 1912. His second wife and widow, Madeleine Talmage Force, turned the entire third floor into a closet. Since at least 2010 the estate has been owned by Oracle founder Larry Ellison who paid $10.5 million for the 39 room house and has plans for creating the Beechwood Art Museum on the first floor of the home.


Next door to Mrs. Astor lived her main rival for social prominence, Alva Vanderbilt. Mrs. Astor, a true Knickerbocker, thought railroad money distasteful and ignored the nouveau riche Vanderbilts. When Alva Vanderbilt completed the "Petit Chateau" at 660 Fifth Avenue with Richard Morris Hunt, it set a new standard for Fifth Avenue mansions. As invitations to her housewarming ball were sent out, none came to Mrs. Astor's brownstone, and her daughter Carrie was distraught. She had been practicing for the fancy dress ball for weeks. It got back to Mrs. Astor that Alva could not invite Carrie, as her mother had never called on her. This led to the tale of the Astor carriage travelling up the avenue and leaving a calling card at Alva Vanderbilt's door, thus giving the Vanderbilt's the seal of approval of Society.

There is a picture of Marble House a bit farther along (you really cannot see the house itself from the Cliff Walk), but the Chinese Tea House was built after she reopened Marble House (she had divorced her husband, married Oliver Belmont, and moved down the street to Belcourt Castle) to hold rallies and fundraisers for Women's Suffrage,

Here is a good example of when the property owners desire for privacy meets the Cliff Walk. A tunnel keeping the public access available, but hiding everything else.

Looking back down the Cliff Walk. You can see the scale of Beechwood and the height of the cliffs compared to Contractor standing on the path.

Next to Marble House sits another former Astor property, Beaulieu. It was built in 1859 by Calvert Vaux for a Peruvian guano merchant (yes, you read that correctly) and was purchased later by the William Waldorf Astor, whose wife was the only social rival at the time of THE Mrs Astor (who lived next door until Marble House went up between Beaulieu and Beechwood). After Viscount Astor moved to England, the house was rented (and in 1911 sold to) Cornelius Vanderbilt III and his wife Grace Vanderbilt, who many considered the last connection to the Gilded Age when she died in 1953. For the past 55 years or so the house has been owned by Ruth Buchanan Wheeler and is still a private cottage.

Looking back toward where we started. The hulking mass of the Breakers always surprises me as it rises above already large cottages.

Looking toward Rough Point.

At points along the way there are 70' drops. It's all very wild and loud.

Rough Point is another house built for Fredrick William Vanderbilt and was completed in 1892. In 1906 the Leeds family purchased the property and remained the owners until 1922 when James Buchanan Duke bought the 10-acre spread. Doris Duke was Rough Point's last and most famous resident. Two other famous residents were Princess and Baby, two Bactrian camels given to Duke as a gift. During Hurricane Bob they took shelter in Rough Point's solarium. When Doris Duke died in 1993, the estate was left to the Newport Restoration Foundation, a charity begun by Duke for the preservation of Newport's houses threatened by redevelopment.

A low wall along this stretch of the Cliff Walk.

Some almost acid green lichen that caught my eye.

Behind the hedges is Land's End, Edith Wharton's last home in Newport. Wharton had grown up summering on the opposite side of the island at her family's cottage, Pencraig. Her first married home was a cottage on that property. She and her husband bought Land's End in 1893 for $80,000.

In Edith's words - "the outside of the house was incurably ugly, but we helped it to a certain dignity..." She called in her friend Ogden Codman, Jr. to supervise the alterations on the house and help with the landscape design. This collaboration would lead to the book The Decoration of Houses, published in 1897. That book, written with Codman, gave Edith Wharton her first royalty check.

The almost desolate view from Land's End.

Edith Wharton happened to be visiting her friend Alice Vanderbilt when the fire broke out at the original Breakers. This is at the Ledge Road exit for the Cliff Walk. Here we started walking back along Bellevue Avenue.

Edith Wharton soon tired of Newport, and in 1901 she purchased 113 acres in Lenox, Massachusetts and created a new home there called The Mount.

Belcourt Castle, where Alva Vanderbilt moved when she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont. He had built Belcourt Castle with the ground floor devoted to his horses.

Construction on Miramar began in 1911 and was completed in 1915. Built for George and Eleanor Widenor, both of whom booked passage on the Titanic. George Widenor died and Eleanor survived and completed the home. Here's the listing for when it was last on the market for $25 million.

A bit farther north on Bellevue Avenue is Clarendon Court, once home of Sunny and Claus von Bulow. Their story is the basis for the movie Reversal of Fortune, this house is where Sunny was found in a coma in 1980. She remained in a coma until her death in 2008. You can read more here in her obituary. I believe the house last sold in 2012 for $13.1 million. 


Champ Soleil, built in 1929 for Lucy Drexel Dahlgren, it was also at one time owned by Sunny Von Bulow's mother, Martha,

Here at last is a picture of Marble House. It cost $11 million dollars to build in 1892, $7 million of which was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Given to Alva Vanderbilt as a 39th birthday present, is was here that she locked her daughter, Consuelo, away until she agreed to marry the Duke of Marlborough. Don't worry, years and two divorces later, mother and daughter made amends.

The front of Beechwood under renovation.

Sunnylea, a much more simple, $3.5 million Bellevue house. Check out the listing!

And a newer cottage for sale that was just built in 2006 and is for sale for $3.195 million.


From there we jumped back in the car and headed out Ocean Avenue. The first cottage you run across is Crossways, summer home of Mamie Fish, the third hostess of the Triumvirate. She had a sharp tongue and a quick wit, and enjoyed shaking up society and giving an occasional insult. When one guest begged for just one more dance she said "How about a two step? One step up the stairs to get your coat, and a second step out the front door."

Ocean Drive is a bit more wild than the Bellevue Avenue section of town.

A blurry drive-by of Hammersmith Farm, the house owned by Jackie Kennedy's stepfather, and where Jackie and Jack's reception was held. It was also referred to as the Summer White House while Kennedy was President. The Peace Corps Act was signed at Hammersmith Farm. Jackie's mother sold the property in 1976, and it changed hands and fell in disrepair until restoration began in 1999 after being sold for $8 million.

One last look at the bridge and harbor as we completed the circle around little Newport.