01 Nov The Amazing Mansions of Newport, Rhode Island

I had heard about the mansions of Newport, R.I., for years — decades, actually — and I had always wanted to visit them because I’m crazy for old houses and these houses are spectacular. But Rhode Island is just a bit off the beaten path. Boston is the center of gravity up in these parts. So I never had occasion to visit Rhode Island, the only state in the lower 48 I had never seen. As it turned out, during my “From Animal House to Our House” book tour of New England, I had a couple of free days, so I contacted the Preservation Society of Newport County and they welcomed me for a visit and a private tour of their way-cool houses.

Rhode Island is isn’t called the “ocean state” for nothing. If you like bridges and coves and lovely marinas, this state is for you. In fact, Newport itself is an island. And it’s not what you think: rich. Yes, the rich come in the summer, my guide told me, and “you could walk across the harbor on the yacths.” But the town mostly belongs to the working class, like so many coastal towns in New England.

Every town has its rich neighborhood. It just so happens that Newport’s is extra special because it became a summer haven for the rich during the Guilded Age — 1880-1900 — when the robber barons ruled the nation and owned most of the wealth (no income tax until 1913). There was a lot of corruption in those days, a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and massive industrialization as the U.S. became the world’s industry leader. So, when the rich did something big in those days, they did it really big. “The Breakers,” the summer “cottage” built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, is the epitome of excess. It’s like a French palace and, in its day, was run by 40 servants for a single family. It’s the American Downton Abbey.

The Breakers and 10 other estates now belong to the Newport County Preservation Society, which manages, preserves, and restores these buildings for public viewing. The Breakers alone receives half a million visitors a year — a mind-boggling number. A a successful house museum elsewhere might receive 25,000 visitors a year and top out at 100,000. Although not as big as Biltmore, “America’s largest castle” (in Asheville, N.C.), The Breakers may be more opulent. I got to see it before the crowds arrived, as the early morning sun was pouring through the windows that look to the Atlantic. My favorite part, though, was a visit to the basement where I got to see the old electrical panel — about ten feet high and fitted with brass fixtures — and also the dank tunnel that leads to the house’s power plant, buried deep in the front yard to protect the house against possible explosions (furnaces were touchy back in those days).

The Elms is a smaller mansion nearby and was nearly lost to demolition in the early 1960s. The furniture had been sold off, as had all rare, old wondrous oil paintings that were built into the massive dining room. The Preservation Society has spent decades tracking down this stuff and bringing it back (at great expense). The dining room is complete finally, as the last paintings were obtained in 2004. My guide told me she preferred the Elms to the Breakers because in the Elms you knew where you were most the time: that is, you didn’t get lost in the house. Like the Breakers, the Embers is very French. The American millionaires wanted very badly to live like European royalty.

I’m a fan of Victorian stuff, so was my favorite house was the Chateau sur Mer. Needless to say, it was no less elaborate than the others. The hand-carved woodwork everywhere inside was remarkable. The hand-painted ceilings were stunning too. Visiting places like these makes me eager to return home and work on our old house. After I visited Biltmore a few years ago, I came back and rearranged all of our furniture. This made Jill laugh. No, our house (though big) is not a mansion. But little touches — especially authentic additions like an antique lamp or painting — can hint at the grand style the rich folk once enjoyed and so these little things transport me a bit out of the here-and-now, filling my head with a gratifying sense of history.