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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Christmas at the Newport Mansions

The Newport Mansions are a history lesson and a reminder of another era.  It is here in Newport, Rhode Island where the wealthiest spent their summers.  While that time in American History is exactly that, history, the mansions remain thanks to the Preservation Society of Newport.   These mansions are now open to the public year-round to transport you to a time when swans filled the fountains, Gatsbys danced in the ballrooms and gold covered the walls.

Summer is a great time to visit the mansions.  Walking the expansive lawns at the edge of the water you can really "time travel" to the gilded age when these mansions were used as summer cottages.  The warm New England breeze coming off the Atlantic is the perfect occasion to pop in and out of mansions, with a few stops at the raw bar and various Newport restaurants in between. 

Gates to The Breakers
However, Christmas is what I consider to be the perfect time to visit these mansions.  December means less tourists (less crowds, more parking) cheaper ticket prices and most important, the mansions are decorated for the holidays.  And not just a wreath or two, I mean exquisitely decorated Christmas trees, a ton of ornaments, poinsettias, elaborate mantles, beautiful candles, and festive wreaths decorate the mansions inside and out. 

The Marble House 
Not every mansion is open in the "off-season" but the big names like The Breakers, The Elms, Rosecliff and Marble House are open for tours and their halls are decked for the holidays.  You can even get a "winter pass" to view all of the mansions at a discounted price until March (all of that information is detailed below). But, before we get any further into these beautiful mansions decorated for Christmas in 2016, let's go back to the turn of the 20th century.  

The Marble House decoarted for the Holidays

The Newport Mansions owned by the extremely wealthy were being built down Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island during the famous era known as The Gilded Age.  This term, coined by Mark Twain during his novel "The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today" was used to describe the era after the American Civil War from about 1870's to about 1900 when a thin gold gilding masked the social issues of this era/time period.

During the 1870's and 1880s, the U.S. economy rose at the fastest rate in it's history. Rapid economic growth (largely due to the introduction of the railroads, factories, and cold mining) in the north and western regions of the country as a result of the industrial revolution brought a large amount of wealth to a very small amount of Americans.  "From 1860 to 1900, the wealthiest 2% of American households owned more than a third of the nation's wealth, while the top 10% owned roughly 3/4 of it. The bottom 40% had no wealth at all". -  Thank You Wikipedia. 

Rosecliff Mansion
This extreme wealth by few was in stark contrast to the poverty and inequality of a lot of the country, especially immigrants. With the large gap between the very wealthy and the very poor, the glamor of the wealthy was even more prominent.  It is here, Newport, Rhode Island, the spot that served as the "playground for the wealthy" where the 2% spent their summers.  These mansions were built as summer cottages, used by their wealthy owners for about 6 weeks of the year. you read that right... cottages.  It is mesmerizing to see such extravagant portraits of wealth with worldly inspiration right here in the tiny state of Rhode Island (Europe? Nope... Rhode Island).  

As my last lesson, and because I was insanely curious is all about which was built when by whom and for what millionaire.  I wanted to know which mansions dotted Bellevue first and to see how the construction of one influenced the next. 

The Breakers decorated for the Holidays 
The Marble House decorated for the Holidays 
  • 1839: Kingscote was built for George Noble Jones, a Southern plantation owner. A Carpenter Gothic building considered the first of the city's mansions.
  • The Civil War and the years leading up to it slowed further development in the area, but then it picked up again during the economic prosperity of the Gilded Age (Houses became slightly larger than the original cottages, and experimented with new architectural styles)
  • 1851: Chateau-sur-Mer was one of the few built as a year round residence and was later expanded in the 1880's using the Second Empire architecture from France. 
  • 1851: Beechwood (Astor Mansion) was built for New York merchant Daniel Parrish by architects Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux, it later became the summer estate of the Astor family
  • 1888-1892: Marble House was built for William Kissam Vanderbilt -one of the first stone mansions and started a trend toward very large homes in Newport 
  • 1891 to 1894: Belcourt was built by architect Richard Morris Hunt for Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont
  • 1893 to 1895: The Breakers was built as the Newport summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II.  He purchased the land for $450,000 ($11.9 million today)
  • 1998 to 1902: Rosecliff was built for Theresa Fair Oelrichs, a silver heiress from Nevada. The principal architect, Stanford White, modeled the mansion after the Grand Trianon of Versailles. I wrote a post on my last visit here last year which I will be updating soon. 
  • 1899 to1901: The Elms was built for the coal baron Edward Julius Berwind ($1.5 million)
  • 1900: Vernon Court was built to be used as a summer cottage for the widow of Richard Augustine Gambrill, a New York lawyer, Anna Van Nest Gambrill
When you visit the mansions, it is hard to comprehend the amount of wealth, design, and most mind-blowing of all, DETAIL that goes into these mansions.  From the floor to the ceiling, a painstaking amount of detail went into every inch of the design.  For example, never have I walked around a building so mesmerized by a ceiling before.  They are all so unique and beautiful, from the ceiling in the ballroom of Rosecliff (biggest in Newport) designed to make you feel as if you were outside, from the intricate paneling in some of the rooms in The Breakers.  Then you have the details like rooms coated in real gold in the marble house, and the expanse of marble in this mansion, inside and out.  It is hard to describe the expanse of these mansions on a blog post and it is surely something you have to see for yourself. And if you go to see these mansions with your own two eyes as you must, head there during Christmas time for an extra treat. 

The Elms decorated for the Holidays
Visiting the mansions during the month of December is a show of opulence and wealth boosted up another 20 levels.  When you see these mansions decorated for the holidays it will put you in the Christmas spirit instantly.  Before you go, it is important to note that some of the exhibits in the Newport Historical Societies booklet of sites like the Topiary Gardens and mansions like Chateau-sur-Mer are closed for the winter season. The schedule is a little confusing and it changes by the date but as of December 2nd, The Breakers, The Elms, Rosecliff and the Marble House were open for tours.   All three houses will be decorated and open daily for tours from Saturday, November 19, 2016 through Monday, January 2, 2017.

Additional Highlights from
  • The Breakers Great Hall will feature the iconic 15 foot tall poinsettia tree. Model trains, recalling the Vanderbilt family's New York Central Railroad, will be on display in the second floor loggia around three decorated trees On weekend and during Holiday Evenings at The Breakers, the trains will be operated by volunteers from the Little Rhody Division of the National Model Railroad Association.
  • At The Elms, the ballroom will be transformed into a Gilded Age streetscape, complete with sleighs, a topiary horse, trees and mannequins dressed in period costumes. 
  • For the second year, fireplaces mantels on the second floor of Marble House were decorated by regional garden clubs in a friendly competition.
  •  The Breakers and The Elms open daily at 9 a.m., Marble House opens at 10 a.m. The last tour admission at all three houses is at 4 p.m., and the houses & grounds close at 5 p.m.
Schedule for the houses after January 2 through the winter to spring can be found here

Rosecliff decorated for the Holidays 
A Winter Passport ticket providing daytime admission to all houses open from November 19 to March 17, 2017 is $29.49 for adults, $9 for children 6-17. Children under 6 are admitted free.  All other Newport Mansions daytime tour tickets remain valid through the Christmas season as well.  All houses closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. 

**If you are a student, you can get a yearly membership at a discounted rate.  $35 gets you into all of the mansions for a year.  

Santa Pictures at The Breakers
Santa Claus himself will visit each of the three houses on successive Sunday afternoons in December to listen to your children's wish lists! Bring the kids and your camera for a great photo op!  Santa's visit is from 12 p.m. - 3 p.m. on each day. Included in tour admission.

December 4 - The Breakers
December 11 - Marble House
December 18 - The Elms

The Breakers decorated for the Holidays 

Holiday Evenings at The Breakers
Saturdays, November 26, December 3 & 10
Fridays, December 23 & 30
6 p.m.- 8 p.m.

Holiday Evening Duet at The Elms & Marble House
Saturday, December 17  6 p.m. - 9 p.m.

Rosecliff and Splendor at Sea: The Golden Age of Steam Yachting in America Exhibition
Open Daily December 4 - January 2. Rosecliff opens at 9 a.m., last tour admission at 4 p.m. House and grounds close at 5 p.m. Self-guided audio tour of 1st & 2nd floors. Exhibition located on 2nd floor.

The Elms decorated for the Holidays 
The Elms decorated for the Holidays 

The Marble House decorated for the Holidays 
The Marble House decorated for the Holidays 


  1. Oh my god. As a Christmas freak I'd LOVE ALL OF THIS! Looks super dreamy.

    Naomi in Wonderland

    1. These are amazing any time of year, but there is something special about seeing them all decked out for the holidays! Such a treat !


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