Written by Missy Johnston
Between the 1850s and the early 1900s, Newport, RI was going through an interesting transformation. It had spent nearly a hundred years as a sleepy New England town, all but abandoned after the British blockades on land and sea made it difficult to access Newport during the Revolutionary War. But the refreshing sea breeze of Newport offered sailors a perfect place to unfurl their sails and provided a comfortable place to stay cool during the hot summer—for those who could afford the privilege. This combination eventually led to Newport becoming a paradise for wealthy industrial-age yachters in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with wealth so ostentatiously displayed in pre-income tax America, that the period was coined “The Gilded Age.”
As the wealthiest elites in America—including the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and the Astors, among others—came to the area, they built their summer “cottages” and left an indelible mark on Bellevue Avenue and Ochre Point Avenue.
Tour Newport’s Bellevue Avenue during while in Newport on a New England luxury yacht charter, and it will not be long before you notice that these “cottages” are actually modestly named mansions that still display the wealth and affluence of Newport’s Gilded Age.
Newport is often the location for boarding and disembarking a New England yacht charter itinerary and if that is the case for your charter there will be plenty of wonderful opportunities to explore these mansions to be in this beautiful town’s remaining Gilded Age glory. Bring good walking shoes and plan enough time to wander around at your leisure.
Visit these Newport mansions
Private tours are available of the Preservation Society “Cottages” either before or after hours, if you would like to be inside these fabulous buildings alone with only your group. Our tour guide will treat you as if you were the owner with your family or visiting guests, or a private tour with a museum quality guide can be arranged during hours when the site is open and the public is also walking through. With advance reservations and additional cost, there may be an opportunity to have a catered dinner on the lawn or terrace of one of the Mansions.
Considered the most lavish and spectacular example of Newport’s summer cottages for the ultra-rich, The Breakers sits on Ochre Point Avenue. Commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II and designed by Richard Morris Hunt, this mansion features 70 rooms and an enormous Great Hall with 45-foot ceilings. Construction finished in 1895, around the same time as many of the other Gilded Age mansions. Interestingly, the name of this house came from the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks at the shore of the 13-acre grounds.
During a tour of this mansion be aware of a metallic sheen on the wallpaper. This comes from the platinum and alabaster adorning the walls. The Breakers is probably the closest example of a European royal palace built on American soil.
Another Vanderbilt summer getaway, Marble House was commissioned by William K. Vanderbilt—the younger brother to Cornelius II of The Breakers—and designed by William Morris Hunt. When it was built, it cost upwards of $11 million. Considering the cottage was constructed in 1892, you can imagine the immense wealth on display for the time. For context, rumor has it that the more than 500,000 cubic feet of marble used in its construction was responsible for $7 million of the final cost. If any mansion were to challenge the title of “most extravagant” held by The Breakers, it would be Marble House.
William Vanderbilt gifted the palatial cottage to his wife, Alva, for her 39th birthday, just a few years before the couple ultimately divorced in 1895. After William’s death in 1920, Alva reopened the mansion and began hosting parties once more. The tradition of extravagant parties at Marble House still continues today.
For a change of pace, The Elms is a wonderful opportunity to visit a stunning Newport mansion not built by a Vanderbilt. Edward Julius Berwind, a successful businessman in the coal industry, hired Horace Trumbauer to design and build their own personal version of the Chateau d’Asnières in France.
Completed in 1901, this home remained in the family until 1962, when the Preservation Society of Newport County purchased the property. Fascinatingly, the mansion had been scheduled to be demolished within just a few weeks of when the Preservation Society stepped in, rescued the building from destruction, and eventually made it a National Historic Landmark.
Though this mansion does not overlook the Atlantic Ocean, as many of the others do, it has a reputation for being one of the most enjoyable of the Newport cottage tours including innovative technological advancements (it was one of the first in the area to be fully supported by electricity) and a view of the estate’s fantastic sunken garden.
If you’re interested in some of the more hidden gems within the house, there is a special “behind the scenes” private tour that can be arranged of the kitchens, rooftop, grounds, and underground coal tunnel systems.
In 1902, at the height of the Gilded Age, Rosecliff was built by an heiress of a Nevada silver mining family. Theresa Fair Oelrichs commissioned the architect Stanford White to design a summer home reminiscent of the French royal retreat known as the Grand Trianon.
Now, just over a hundred years after its completion, Rosecliff has been featured in movies such as The Great Gatsby and Amistad, as well as the HBO series, The Gilded Age.
In addition to serving as a movie setting, Rosecliff is also the site of several high-profile parties and events every year. If you happen to have a charter booked that begins and/or ends in Newport in June, you might want to visit this mansion to see the spectacular Newport Flower Show.
While not part of The Preservation Society group of mansions, this mansion was built by a Gilded Age tycoon and is well worth seeing not only as a Gilded Age mansion, but also because of the most recent owner, tobacco heiress Doris Duke, and the extensive art collection inside. Duke’s enthusiasm for collecting art from across the world is evident in the resplendent decorations inside Rough Point. Touring this home is comparable to taking a walk through a museum; you can see everything from early 20th century clothing to 18th century portraits and ceramics from China.
If you visit Rough Point, plan to spend a few hours there. There are 105 rooms and 39,000 feet to explore inside the house. Step outside to experience the grounds, the stunning view of the ocean, and the famous Newport Cliff Walk, which provides a perfect photo opportunity looking back at the enormous mansion.
Today, the property is managed by the Newport Restoration Foundation, an organization founded by Duke as part of her philanthropic pursuits.
Newport also has an interesting yachting history
The great displays of wealth didn’t stop onshore; the elites of the Gilded Age spent plenty of time aboard yachts of their own.
One notable story is the tale of the trans-Atlantic yacht race of 1866. James Gordon Bennet, Jr., challenged his friends Frank Osgood and Pierre Lorillard to a yacht race from Sandy Hook, NJ to the Isle of Wight in England. While the other two men allowed professional sailors to handle their yachts while they waited from home for news of the race, Bennet hired a crew—including a professional named Bulley Samuel— and pressed on. After nearly 14 days at sea (13 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes), Bennet won the race with Samuel’s experienced help.
Evidently, Bennet didn’t get his fill of trans-Atlantic yacht racing out of the experience, because he did it a second time in 1870. He lost this time, but only by two hours.
Enjoy a New England yacht charter, sailing in the same waters as the elites of the Gilded Age. Relax on deck and cruise out of Newport Harbor on your charter yacht after visiting Newport’s famous playground for the rich and famous during The Gilded Age.