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The Society Mansions of Newport, Rhode Island

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When that day arrives we'll live on Ocean Drive
- 'Ocean Drive' by the Lighthouse Family

In Newport, Rhode Island, USA stands a collection of ostentatious homes built by the rich and famous for use as summer residences. Now many are open to the public, who can step back in time and glimpse what life was like as a 19th-Century millionaire.

Who Lived in a House Like This?

In the 1800s Newport became the place to be seen for rich businessmen and industrial magnates. Families travelled there from New York for the party 'season', where the cream of high society tried to outdo each other, in both the size of their summer abodes and the splendour of their dinner parties.

Among the famous names who built houses on Ocean Drive and the surrounding streets were Cornelius Vanderbilt II, then president of the New York Central Railroad, and the Astors, including Nancy Astor who became known as the Queen of American Society.

More recently, John and Jackie Kennedy owned a house on Ocean Drive, called Hammersmith Farm. They held their wedding reception there in 1953 and visited the property so often it became known locally as 'the summer White House'.

Not Quite Paved with Gold

The streets of this area of Newport, Bellevue Avenue, Ochre Point Avenue and Ocean Drive, are wide, tree-lined avenues. They are located on a peninsula away from the town centre, overlooking Easton Bay and Narragansett Bay. Apart from the mansions, these quiet streets are also the setting for the campus buildings of the Catholic Salve Regina University. Tourists arrive in cars and coaches but the area remains peaceful and austere, even at the height of summer.

For an insight into the creation of these sought-after addresses, one can visit the Museum of Newport History in downtown Newport. Housed in an old market building, this tiny, free-admission museum includes a 'carriage ride' where visitors sit in a stationary vehicle and watch a film about the architects and owners of the mansions.

The mansions were known as 'summer cottages'. The author Henry James, however, called them 'white elephants' due to them being unoccupied for most of the year. The term 'conspicuous consumption' was apparently invented by sociologist Thorstein Veblen because of the Newport mansion owners' need to show off their wealth.

What's In a Name?

The mansions' monikers give an idea of the sense of grandness their owners were hoping to purvey; Marble House, Rosecliff, Kingscote and Chateau-sur-mer being among the names chosen.

Marble House has a Chinese tearoom in the garden, along with a golden ballroom. It and Rosecliff was featured in the film The Great Gatsby. Kingscote has a glass wall made by Tiffany.

The largest mansion is The Breakers, built by the Vanderbilts. It was finished in 1895 and has over 70 rooms, including a 45-foot-high Grand Hall. The architect was Richard Morris Hunt and many of the rooms were made in Europe then transported to Newport. It took 2,500 people two years to complete the house.

The Breakers is so named due to its position above a rocky coastline. Rough Point is another mansion named after its setting, on the cliff edge, and was owned by the Duke family, who made their fortune in tobacco.

Nancy Astor reigned over Beechwood, also designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Though not on the scale of The Breakers, it has a lavish ballroom, a French sitting room and gardens leading down to the ocean. Mrs Astor was truly the lady of the house: when in town, her husband preferred to sleep on his yacht, which would be moored in Easton Bay. Her Summer Balls became the high point of the summer season. In 1912 the Astor's son, John Jacob, became the richest person to perish on the Titanic, as he and his second wife were returning from their honeymoon in Europe.

One of the mansions, Belcourt Castle, is still occupied by its owners. Nevertheless it is open to the public, who can learn about its first owner, Oliver Belmont, whose horses slept in white linen sheets.

In 1892, Cornelius Vanderbilt's son, William, built Marble House for his wife, Alva. The marble alone apparently cost $7,000,000. Alva divorced William three years later and married Oliver Belmont, moving just down the road into Belcourt Castle. When Belmont died, Alva moved back to Marble House, where she held suffragette meetings in the Chinese tearoom.

A Moment in Time

Visitors can tour many, but not all of the mansions. Some are maintained by a preservation society while others are privately managed. There are both guided and audio tours available, along with ghost tours and murder mystery events. Beechwood employs a company of actors who welcome visitors to the house as if they are there to attend one of Nancy Astor's famous parties.

Those who decide not to pay the entrance fees for a look around the mansions can peep through the gates and railings or take a walk on the cliff path which passes a number of them. The Cliff Walk is 3.5 miles long and is sign posted from Memorial Boulevard. Some of it is less accessible than other parts and walkers need to check the maps posted before setting out.

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