House Envy Is Alive and Well in Newport, R.I.

The Rosecliff is one of nearly a dozen historic mansions in Newport, R.I., open to the public for tours.
The Rosecliff is one of nearly a dozen historic mansions in Newport, R.I., open to the public for tours. (By Ira Kerns -- Preservation Society Of Newport County)
By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Toward the end of her life, Tessie Oelrichs (an heiress thanks to her father's silver mine fortune) often sits alone in her parlor, or one of them anyway, dreaming of those glittering days just before World War I. Her home is Rosecliff, an opulent affair even by the ridiculous standards of Newport's Gilded Age, and there is much to reflect upon: the white ball to which she'd worn a lace dress trimmed with silver embroidery, the large fountain that had once been stocked with swans.

Now it is all gone. The 80-foot-long ballroom will never witness another quadrille, and no one remains to gawk at Stanford White's heart-shaped staircase. Quite understandably, Oelrichs slips into madness, spending her last days proffering flutes of champagne to imaginary Rosecliff guests, longing for the company of strangers.

Decades after she dies in 1926, Oelrichs gets her wish, sort of. Into the great hall strides a regiment of flip-flops, a couple in matching Harley-Davidson jackets, a woman whose hair explodes through a Red Sox visor, a teen toting a Game Boy -- and me. Like Oelrichs, we have come to this brilliant stretch of Rhode Island coastline, 33 miles south of Providence, to resurrect a world of gentility and refinement. But mostly we've come for the gigantic, monstrous houses themselves, monuments to extravagance built for the titans of 19th-century industry.

Not far from these well-clipped lawns, an unbroken trail of for-sale signs stretches from Newport, R.I., to Newport, Calif. And with millions of domiciles entering foreclosure and the economy in a nose dive, you might think that recent events would temper our national housing obsession. Instead, like Tessie, we're only slipping deeper into madness.

"I could live here," says a middle-aged woman in T-shirt and jeans, staring at the 45-foot-high ceiling in the great hall of the Breakers, a 70-room behemoth built in 1895. "I don't know," says her companion. "The stairs are really steep."

Indeed, the stairs are treacherous, especially in flip-flops, and so it is that this couple will probably never come to live in Cornelius Vanderbilt II's mansion, which in any case is now owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County. We stare in awe at the 400-year-old fireplace pilfered from a French chateau, squirm as our guide shows us a portrait of a man that vaguely resembles Anderson Cooper (Vanderbilt's great-grandson), and gaze longingly at Rhode Island Sound from the mosaic-lined balcony.

Beautiful house; shame about the stairs.

Thanks to the Preservation Society's efforts, the Breakers is just one of nearly a dozen mansions that throws open its two-ton doors to the public for tours. All are impressive, some are ingeniously designed and a few actually manage to incorporate homey touches, such as the conservatory at the Elms, a 1901 home just a few streets over from the Breakers.

"Those are just like the angels in my birdbath," an elderly woman confides to me, noticing my fascination with a white marble urn that sits in a corner of this garden room. A palm sways in the breeze, a fountain splashes. It's a happy place, as the cherubs and the satyrs on the urn attest -- an urn, by the way, that you can see only at the Elms. That and in some elderly woman's back yard, of course.

The Elms, which cost $1.4 million (in 1901 dollars, that is), was built for the coal magnate Edward Berwind and sits on leafy Bellevue Avenue, as does Marble House, a 50-room, $11 million present from William K. Vanderbilt to his wife, Alva, for her 39th birthday. It was also a none-too-subtle attempt by Alva to build the most lavish summer cottage Newport had ever seen. As such, the grand salon is covered from floor to ceiling with tissue-thin squares of gold leaf, each a millionth of an inch thick. The velvet-covered chairs in the dining room are solid bronze and weigh up to 100 pounds. The huge basement kitchen once stored blocks of ice that the Vanderbilts had cut from their ponds each winter.

By this time, the flip-floppers have descended into a kind of rapture. They shake their heads in disbelief at the twin chandeliers in the Gold Room and feel their jaws drop, literally, at a painting that had once hung in a Venetian palace before being purchased by the Vanderbilts and glued to a Marble House ceiling.

"I wish I had a bed like this," says a young girl to her father when we come to the room of one of the Vanderbilt daughters, Consuelo. I move in close to hear the man's reaction, but instead he gives the girl a strange smile.

I want to tell them both how much Consuelo hated this room, how her mother made her wear a steel rod that attached at both the neck and waist (Alva's method of ensuring good posture), and how she was wed against her will to the Duke of Marlborough, a loveless marriage that lasted a quarter-century. And I especially want to tell them Consuelo thought of the room as a prison, later writing that "there were six windows, but at best one could only glimpse the sky through their high and narrow casements."

I want to tell them all this. But I don't dare spoil the dream.

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