Newport, Rhode Island, United States

Monday, June 26, 2017
Newport, Rhode Island, United States
Newport must be one of the most beautiful cities in the US. It is not too large (about 25,000) and surrounded by bays and inlets. Most of the streets are tree-lined with beautiful timber houses going back to the 1800’s. It is also famous for the mansions that were built at the turn of the 20th century by the super-rich of the time and was the home of the America’s Cup yachting races from 1930 until taken by Australia in 1983. You get the feeling that having held the Cup for so many years, Newport residents still believes it should be there and that this is its spiritual home.
The holder of the Cup for 132 years from 1851 until 1983 was the New York Yacht Club and, and interestingly, just after the loss of the Cup, in 1988, they bought a magnificent club in a 1906 mansion on the shores of Newport Harbour. Members for clubs with reciprocal rights can stay there, as a friend of ours from the Royal Perth Yacht Club in Western Australia did recently (Royal Perth YC just happens to be the club that won the Cup in 1983). Since the loss of the Cup the NYYC has reinvented itself and become involved in team racing, youth sailing, and international regattas.
The main activities in Newport are around the harbour area and Thames Street where there are restaurants, boutiques, galleries, yachts and boats doing day trips. A lot of the buildings are on the wharves stretching into the harbour. Washington Square is the historical centre of Newport and where George Washington met a number of times, with the French commander, le Comte de Rochambeau, to plan defeating the British. This led to the victory at Yorktown, Virginia that assured American independence.
The other important area is the Bellevue Avenue Historic Area which is where the super-rich built there summer vacation houses – try mansions. Even the private homes in this area are amazing. The International tennis Hall of Fame is also on Bellevue Avenue, in an 1880 structure, which now includes a museum as well as a number of different types of courts.
On our previous visit to Newport, we visited Rosemount, the mansion featured in the original version of The Great Gatsby so this time we toured The Breaker and The Elms. The Breakers is the most lavish of all the mansions built in The Gilded Age (a satirical term used by Mark Twain to describe the money being spent) and was completed in 1895. It was built for Cornelius Vanderbilt and was one of the first houses in the US to have fire-proofing as one of its key elements. The house has 70 rooms many of which feature furnishings and decorations bought in Europe. Incredibly, these mansions were used no more than 2 months per year by their owners, the rest of the time being closed.
The Elms is a somewhat smaller “summer cottage” with only about 40 rooms. It was built for a coal mine magnate in 1901 for a cost of $ 1.5 million (about $40 million in 2017 money). It is a little more sedate but also features European paintings, furniture and sculptures. In keeping with the French architecture of the house, the grounds of The Elms, were designed in French eighteenth-century taste and include a sunken garden and a large coach-house and stables.
In their prime, the owners of these mansions spent vast amounts of money outdoing each other with their parties. Apart from the food prepared by French chefs, there were flowers imported from exotic locations as well as animals such as monkeys and camels on show.
Vernon Court, one of the mansions on Bellevue Avenue, houses the Museum of American Illustrators. This is a private museum owned by an architect and his wife and has over 2,000 original works of noted American illustrators including Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, J. C. Leyendecker and N.C. Wyeth. Many of the works on display were use as covers for major publications such as The Post, Time Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar and others.
We are fortunate to be able to visit these mansions at all because in the 1950s and 60s, it looked as though most of them were going to be demolished to make way for developments. One way to see many of them is by doing the “Cliff Walk”, a 5 km walk along the shoreline and past the front of the houses.