Located in the coastal town of Newport, the opulent mansions were once a summer playground for the obscenely rich, who did their best to outdo one another in home building and partying.
The Gilded Age
The mansions in Newport are not the first Gilded Age homes we’ve visited. We’ve toured the Biltmore in North Carolina and Hearst Castle in California. Both are grand, ostentatious, and very beautiful. We’ve also visited the former Gilded Age enclave of Jekyll Island, a well-preserved island retreat of cottages off the coast of Georgia.
These mansions, along with dozens more throughout the country, were built between the end of the Civil War and the early 1900s. The rapid expansion of railroads, along with the phenomenal growth of the oil, steel, and tobacco industries, made a small group of businessmen extraordinarily wealthy. A lack of government regulation allowed the powerful to squash competition, creating monopolies. And no personal income tax enabled the rich to become richer, while the poor became poorer.
Although the term “Gilded Age” sounds elegant, it was coined by Mark Twain as a satirical reference to the corruption and poverty that lay beneath the era’s sparkling facade. I’ve heard it said that we’re currently living in Gilded Age 2.0. Although there aren’t mansions being built to quite the same level of extravagance, there certainly are similarities, including gross inequality in wealth distribution and the influence of corporate money in politics.
The Cliff Walk
It’s easy to understand why so many Gilded Age tycoons built their mansions in Newport. The rugged shoreline, vast blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, and cool breezes create an idyllic setting for a summer home. Most of the Newport elite came from New York City, and the coast was a welcome escape from the sweltering city.
The Newport Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile trail (7 miles round-trip), is unique in that it’s a National Recreation Trail in a National Historic District. The trail meanders past eleven Gilded Age mansions. But…you can’t get close up views of many of the mansions. Access is blocked by imposing stone and wrought iron fences. Nonetheless, the trail is a fun adventure along a picturesque path that hugs the cliff.
Rich People Outdoing Other Rich People
The nouveau riche believed they were the nobility of America, and they did their best to create castles similar to those they had seen in their European tours. They copied European architecture, decorated their mansions with furniture imported from Europe, dressed in the latest European fashions, and hosted elaborate social events. A competition to one-up each other ensued that lasted for decades.
You have to hand it to them. They really did a remarkable job of building their castles, down to the tiniest details. The mansions truly do rival anything I’ve seen in Europe. And since I think royalty in general is a ridiculous concept, I don’t really find the Gilded Age mansions in the U.S. any more egregious than castles elsewhere in the world.
Touring The Breakers
Eric decided he didn’t need to see another Gilded Age mansion, but I definitely needed to see a couple of them. I will rarely pass up an opportunity to visit a significant historical building, and I love critiquing the decor, LOL. The mansions are managed by the Newport Preservation Society, and tickets are required for touring the homes.
The most famous Cliff Walk mansion is The Breakers. Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the Italian Renaissance-style home is the largest (140,000 square feet!) and most lavish of all of the Newport mansions. It looks like a cross between a palace and a cathedral, with glittering chandeliers, carved and painted ceilings, heavy velvet draperies, and ornate furniture.
Every single surface of every single thing is decorated, and then gilded. There is no rest for the eyes. Except perhaps for the kitchen. I liked the simplicity of the kitchen and the dozens of copper pots hanging from the ceiling.
Rosecliff, another Gilded Age mansion, was built by a silver heiress and inspired by the Palace of Versailles. Compared to The Breakers, Rosecliff is a simple mansion of only 65,000 square feet. (Can you imagine?)
The euphoria of the Gilded Age didn’t last for long. The introduction of income tax and estate taxes combined with difficulties in finding servants made it impossible for the wealthy to continue to live with such blatant extravagance. The vast majority of Gilded Age mansions are no longer used as family homes, and few are still owned by the original families. Some fell to the wrecking ball, while others reopened as museums, including most of the mansions in Newport.
Biking The South Country Bike Path
With only two full days in Rhode Island, our only other activity was biking the William C. O’Neill Bike Path (also known as the South Country Bike Path), just a few miles from where we were staying at Fishermen’s Memorial State Park.
We were in Rhode Island the last week in October, and Fishermen’s Memorial State Park wasn’t looking too scenic, with no leaves on the trees and bleak days. I’m sure it’s much more attractive in other seasons. But we were happy with our stay in an electric and water site. The campground was peaceful, cell service was good, and it was well-located for what we wanted to do. Not sure if we’ll make it back to Rhode Island, but if we do, we would stay there again.