Newport Mansions – A World Apart

Last Saturday was the perfect weather for a road trip. After a long work week Michael and I were eager to escape the city, so in the spirit of adventure we decided to drive to Newport and have a look around the infamous mansions that dot Rhode Island’s coast. Though we only toured two of the eleven palatial homes, the sheer scale and opulence of each was enough to transport me right back to the turn of the 20th century when the houses served as summer respites to the great oil, steel, and railroad magnates of America.

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The Breakers (above) was my favorite of the two.  Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895, each room in the 135,000 square foot property was designed to Gilded Age perfection.  Walking through it I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the set of Downton Abbey – every bedroom was equipped with buttons that read “Kitchen”, “Butler”, and “Valet” – and I half expected Mrs. Patmore to be in the kitchen cooking up afternoon tea for our arrival (she wasn’t).

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Not only did the whole experience make me green with envy of all the ladies and gentlemen who were privileged to live in such a colossal space, but I learned a few fun facts about what life was like when you were part of the richest family in pre-war America:

  • There was no income tax. That’s right – you earned it? You kept it.
  • Though electricity was a new-fangled notion at the time, Cornelius found it pertinent to have the entire house wired.  Because there was no such thing as a city electrical “grid”, he solved that problem easily by installing his own generator to run the entire property.  And if the power should go out?  Nevermind – every chandelier was also equipped to run on gaslight.
  • The massive tub in the photo above was carved from a single block of Italian marble, in the style of an Egyptian sarcophagus (kind of like taking a bath in a coffin, if you ask me, but whatever).  True story: the marble is so thick that whenever Mr. Vanderbilt desired to use it, he was to inform his staff with ample advance warning so they could fill and empty the tub three times before the water was warm enough to bathe.
  • The 3rd and 4th floors of the house is still occupied by descendants of Vanderbilt today – and Anderson Cooper happens to be a cousin.

Once we left the mansions, Michael and I ventured into Newport’s charming town for a bite to eat on the water.  Thanks to our friend’s referral we found a great restaurant called the Black Pearle, where we cozied up to oysters and a bottle of vino while watching the boats come and go.  Cheers to that!

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Alors, qu'est-ce que tu penses?