Column: Touring the mansions of Newport

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Today, on our way home from Cape Cod, we stop by Newport, R.I.  Founded in 1639, Newport was originally best known for its religious freedom. A Quaker meetinghouse, built in 1699, is the oldest religious structure in Rhode Island, and Touro Synagogue, founded in 1763, is the nation’s oldest synagogue. Newport is now famous for its palatial oceanfront mansions.

In the 1880s, America’s wealthiest families began competing to build the most expensive and elaborate “cottage” in Newport. The competition became most intense between two grandsons of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Between 1888 and 1892, William Kissam Vanderbilt built Marble House, which he presented to his wife, Alva, on her 39th birthday. The 50-room summer residence, designed in the Beaux Art style by Richard Morris Hunt, a graduate of the French School of Fine Arts, cost $11 million to build ($359 million today). When Marble House opened, it was the most lavish house in America. Its dining room, with bronze chairs covered in gold, helped define the so-called “Gilded Age.” Not to be outdone, a year later Cornelius Vanderbilt II, William’s older brother, began constructing his own cottage, designed by architect Hunt to emulate Italian Renaissance palaces. When The Breakers opened in 1895 at a cost of $12 million ($425 million today), its 70 rooms on five floors encompassed 138,000 square feet. The imposing Great Hall ceiling was 50 feet high. Soon after The Breakers was completed, Cornelius II suffered a stroke and died in 1899 at age 55.

Today, Marble House, The Breakers, The Elms, Rosecliff, and other spectacular Gilded Age mansions are maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County and open to the public. Most provide parking, but parking near the harbor and walking to the mansions provides an opportunity to see much of Newport, a very pleasant city with a population of about 25,000.

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