13 October 2016

Newport Mansions

The term "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twain, and it was not a compliment.  He used it to refer to what could essentially be called slapping lipstick on a pig - the tendency by the people in the era to want to be as elaborate as they possibly could.  And boy could they.

If you look at a list of the wealthiest people in history, most lists will include at least five men from the Gilded Age in the top ten.  The era lasted from roughly the end of the American Civil War and lasted through the turn of the century and refers to the incredible wealth of men like Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt who came into their money because of overwhelming business success.  Unlike men in Europe who were scrambling to hold onto wealth that was slipping through their fingertips as the Industrial Revolution took off, men in America were rolling in more money than they knew what to do with, and when you had more money than you knew what to do with, you built a home in Newport, Rhode Island.

Newport is full of mansions owned by the well-to-do of the day, and these little Versailles were especially interesting to visit after seeing the inherited wealth of England all summer.  Unlike the estate homes in England which were full of relics passed down through the centuries from family to family, these homes are full of extravagance that was the product of a few years of work.  These were homes designed to look old.  Sometimes they would have the old shipped in - one home we saw had a five hundred year old French fireplace shipped over from Europe - but for the most part, these homes are, like Versailles, designed to show off wealth.  They lived short familial home lives, though - few of them are lived in now - only two or three generations of these families have been able to really experience the grandeur of such living.  (Again, unlike the British counterparts, where many of these grand homes are still, at least in part, family homes.)

We started the day in Marble House, so named because it's got an insane amount of marble on all the walls and floors.  There was marble in colors I didn't know marble even came in.  Not all the marble was real - upstairs some of the walls are painted to look like marble, but that was really only because the family wanted the house open in time for "the season" (the summer) and the house wasn't done being constructed yet - it was just faster to get the painting done rather than wait for more stone.

As far as history goes, this house is best known as being home to Consuelo Vanderbilt, who would go on to marry the Duke of Marlborough (best known to Americans as the uncle of Winston Churchill and ancestor of Lady Diana).  It was not a happy marriage for either party - both Consuelo and the Duke had other people in mind that they would rather have been with, but both had familial obligations to fulfill: the Duke needed to marry someone who could afford to pay for the upkeep of Blenheim Palace (she could, and famously added indoor plumbing to the place), and she needed to marry someone with a title (the fashionable thing for a socialite to do). Consuelo was extremely beautiful (J.M. Barrie is said to have waited for hours just to see her get into her carriage) and talented, her artistic taste is all over Blenheim Palace and much of her story (and stories of other women like her) inspired the stories of Downton Abbey.

Marble House is an homage to the last Kings of France.  All through the house are tributes to Louis XIV and his grandson, Louis XVI (he of "married to Marie Antoinette" fame).  As in Versailles, Louis XIV is everywhere in the house - his bust greets you when you come up the main staircase, his figure features above the main mirror in the gold room off the main hall (and on the ceiling, where he vomits up light fixtures).

Marble House may have been one level of ornate, but The Breakers were insane.  There's a reason houses like that one are often used to represent Jay Gatsby.  The Breakers (so named for its proximity to the ocean) is really the second house built on the property - the first mysteriously burned down.  As a result, the new home is built with no wooden structural pieces at all and the broiler is kept far away from the main structure of the house.  It was owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt - the center of the Newport social scene.  The mansion contains seventy rooms and many technological innovations that Europeans could only have dreamed of under similar living conditions - electricity for one, running water for another.  There were buttons on the walls that could be used to call specific places around the house (similar to an intercom system) and enough bathrooms for everyone to enjoy a hot bath whenever they wanted.

That kind of wealth is just unfathomable to me.  One Vanderbilt described such inherited wealth as being as dangerous as cocaine.  Another talked about how horrified she was when she found out about her status as an heiress; she was worried no one would love her for anything other than her money.  I think, when it comes down to it, I feel like Anne Shirley when she visits the city for the first time - that she'd like the chance to live in wealth for a while, but that ultimately she'd like the sound of the brook behind her house more than the sound of tinkling china. Having enough money to not have to worry about money - that's all I want.

We spent so much time wandering the houses that we completely forgot about lunch - plus we got off to a bit of a late start, partly because we slept in, partly because mom dropped her phone in the toilet, partly because mom also lost her ticket to the mansions somewhere on the walk from the car (her back pocket was cursed today), so we went straight to dinner after we were done with The Breakers.  We went to a restaurant on the waterfront as recommended by a travel website I found called "The Mooring" and it was utterly divine.  Rick Steves says that coming home with the most money is not the goal of travel - coming home with the most experience is, and sometimes the best way to get that experience is through freakishly awesome food.  I got fresh sole (fish) topped with a crab cake and arugula, along with some golden Yukon potatoes.  If I'm ever asked what I want my last meal to be. . . I think that's what I want.  It was divine.

In general, exploring Newport was utterly delightful.  Every time I travel I discover a city that I wish I could stay in for much longer - this time I've discovered two - Newport and Concord.  I haven't had nearly enough time in either place.  I think tomorrow will probably not make things better as we are off to Maine for our last full day before heading home.  It's been dreamy.

No comments: