Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In My Footsteps: Trip 38: Newport, RI - The Mansions

In My Footsteps
Christopher Setterlund
Trip 38: Newport, RI – The Mansions
March 25, 2010

            The Mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, just mentioning them conjures up images of incredible architectural beauty along the streets and ocean side.  They have inspiring names like The Breakers and Rosecliff.  Many of them can be toured but there is so much more to the mansions than just the structures themselves.  The history of these amazing homes and how they ended up being built in Newport is nearly as spectacular as the homes are.
            Although they are spread around Newport, mostly along Bellevue Avenue, the best way to enjoy them, as well as the natural beauty of the ocean is along Newport’s famed Cliff Walk.  The development of the walk began all the way back in 1880 but it took more than fifty years to get the walk into serious working order.  Even with the Cliff Walk’s popularity as a tourist destination there are some home owners that do not enjoy the pathway crossing through their property.  All in all however the Cliff Walk has been well received by the mansion owners, many of them have helped in improving the path itself to increase its enjoyability.  For the most part it is a very easy walk with sloping hills on level, paved, ground.  There are a few tough spots and the drop off of the cliffs can be up to seventy-feet, so of course exercise caution while walking. 
            Running a total of three and a half miles along the coast, the Cliff Walk begins at Memorial Boulevard but there are many entrances along the route if you don’t wish to walk the entire length.  I began my journey along the Cliff Walk at the end of Narragansett Avenue which as a great view of Atlantic Beach to the north and of the land across Easton Bay.   
            The first buildings I saw were actually not mansions in the common term.  The buildings are amazing but they are part of Salve Regina University.  Ochre Court(above), which serves as the school’s administration building, is the second largest mansion in Newport behind only The Breakers(right).  It was given to the school as a gift in 1947.  The mansion was originally owned by wealthy New Yorker Ogden Goelet in the 1890’s.  I can only imagine how it is as a student at the university with such incredible views of the ocean and spending so much time in the mansions, it must become commonplace for them.
            Located right after Salve Regina is the largest and perhaps most famous of the mansions in Newport: The Breakers.  As I mentioned in my first Newport article this mansion was owned by the immensely wealthy Vanderbilt family.  Built between 1893 and 1895 this definition of luxury cost more than $7 million back then which when adjusted to today’s dollars ends up being over $150 million.  For pure numbers The Breakers stands on thirteen acres of prime oceanside land, contains seventy rooms, and is approximately 65,000 square feet in size.  It is normally a first stop for any tour of the mansions and one can see why.
            For those who did not read the first Newport article Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the man for whom the mansion was built, was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt the patriarch of the family.  At his peak the elder Vanderbilt had a net worth equivalent to more than $143 billion in today’s money.  This was made from shipping and the New York Central Railroad ventures during the mid-19th century.  The Breakers is considered to be the ultimate definition of the ‘Gilded Age,’ which is the period of great economic growth felt in the time after the Civil War up to the end of the 19th century.  Even from a distance behind a fence its majesty is obvious; I had to stand and marvel at it for a while in an attempt to understand what I was seeing.
            Rosecliff(above), the mansion built for silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs, sits on six and a half acres of land and is known for its red striped awning which covers the spacious back porch area.  During my trip the awning was not present however.  Built between 1898 and 1902, Rosecliff cost $2.5 million at the turn of the 20th century and was used for scenes in such films as The Great Gatsby and True Lies.  Mrs. Oelrich’s fortune came from her father, Irish-immigrant, James Graham Fair who made his money thanks to the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada.  This was the first major discovery of silver ore in the United States in 1859.  Harry Houdini once performed at Rosecliff as Mrs. Oelrich enjoyed throwing lavish parties featuring many of the day’s wealthiest socialites and brightest entertainers.
            Next up was the Marble House(left, top) which has the claim to fame of being the home that began the evolution of Newport from quiet seaside village to wealthy summer getaway.  Built between 1888 and 1892 this summer home for William Vanderbilt, another grandson of the ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt, has more to offer than just the incredible 500,000 cubic feet of marble.  In addition to the main house which cost $11 million, more than $250 million today, there is a surprising sight, a Chinese Tea House(left, bottom) that looms on the periphery of the grounds just above a tunnel which takes you underneath the Marble House property.  Built in 1914 by Mrs. Alva Belmont, she divorced Vanderbilt but kept the house, after her second husband died, the Tea House was used as a rallying spot for women’s right to vote.  It was an unexpected sight in the sea of marble castles to see a piece of Eastern architecture sitting amongst them.
            The Cliff Walk in Newport is one of the most celebrated areas in New England.  It is a mix of two of my favorite things, the beauty of the ocean and amazing pieces of American history.  It sells itself but I highly recommend walking here, even if it is only a short walk.  Whether it’s Salve Regina University, The Breakers, Rosecliff, or the Marble House with its amazing Tea House, anyone reading this needs to visit Newport and see these incredible mansions in person.  Have fun and happy traveling!

     My first book, In My Footsteps: A Cape Cod Travel Guide, is now available at,, and, soon to be in stores everywhere!  Follow me on Twitter!

Directions: Cliff Walk:  From I-195 take Exit 8A for Rt. 24.  Slight left onto Rt. 114, slight left onto Rt. 214.  Rt. 214 becomes Rt. 138A, follow until a left at Bellevue Avenue.  Turn right at Narragansett Avenue, follow it to the end, this is a great spot to begin Cliff Walk, Salve Regina is first of mansions.

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