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Instead of Newport, R.I., mansions, consider Fenwick, Conn., summer cottages

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In Newport, many mansions for the masses

Among its many firsts, Newport, R.I., was the first city in the United States with a gas-illuminated streetlight. It’s also home to the oldest typewriter in America (now residing at the Newport Historical Society).

Visitors today, however, flock to Newport in search of its even grander past.

By the early 1900s, business tycoons including the Vanderbilts, Astors and Morgans were summering in Newport, building their retreats along the dramatic New England coastline and living the types of lives that F. Scott Fitzgerald so lavishly fictionalized in “The Great Gatsby.”

Once referred to by their owners as “summer cottages” (if your idea of a cottage involves a 40-by-80-foot ballroom, expansive frescoed ceilings and enough rococo settees to embarrass Louis XV), Newport’s Gilded Age mansions (about a dozen are open to the public) are the main attraction for tour buses, school field trips and those in the market for some serious real estate porn.

To see how the other half lived, there are mansions — including the Elms, Marble House and Rosecliff (where scenes from the 1974 movie version of “Gatsby” were filmed) — and then, there are mansions. The Breakers, which was owned by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II, is Newport’s most-visited attraction. Built in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo, this modest cottage has 70 rooms (33 were just for servants); occupies 125,339 square feet, including a stable and carriage house; and has a great hall measuring almost 50 feet in all directions, including straight up.

Location: Newport is about 35 miles south of Providence, R.I.

In Fenwick, a shingled summer colony

Frankly, if you’ve seen one Newport mansion, you’ve seen them all. For a palate cleanser, take your spoonful of sorbet in less-touristy Fenwick, Conn. The borough, which is part of Old Saybrook, is about 75 miles from Newport — and a million miles away in restraint.

With the completion of the Connecticut Valley Railroad in 1871, a group of wealthy businessmen from nearby Hartford, Conn., formed the New Saybrook Company and developed the area (formerly a salt marsh) as a summer resort. It was a magnet for Hartford’s elite, including banker and Hartford Mayor Newton C. Brainard, politician and Aetna Life Insurance President Morgan G. Bulkeley, and the Rev. Francis Goodwin, a botanist and architect known as the father of Hartford’s park system.

Located on a peninsula surrounded by the waters of South Cove on the north and the Long Island Sound on the east and south, Fenwick has a charming historic district smack dab in its center: a small grid of streets lined with cottages and sprawling front lawns.

Unlike Newport’s marbled and columned “cottages,” houses in Fenwick’s historic district are humbler in design and characterized by their wood-shingled exteriors. Here, rooflines are Hitchcockian, with gable and gambrel shapes. Wraparound porches (perfect for wicker furniture) feature lots of ornate spindlework. In fact, Fenwick boasts one of the largest concentrations of shingle-style buildings in Connecticut.

Of course, perhaps Fenwick’s most famous resident was Katharine Hepburn, who came to the town of Old Saybrook when she was not quite 5 years old. Her family’s summer house in Fenwick became her refuge from Hollywood. (She couldn’t escape it entirely, however; supposedly, Howard Hughes liked to land his seaplane on the front lawn.) She called Fenwick her “paradise,” retiring here in 1997. It’s also where she died, in 2003.

Homes in Fenwick are not open to the public, but you can get your Hollywood fix at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, a theater and museum featuring, among rare photos and movie memorabilia, a self-portrait painted by Hepburn.

Other local attractions include the General William Hart House, built around 1767 by a merchant who later served in the Revolutionary War, and the Florence Griswold Museum, lodged in a late-Georgian former boardinghouse where American painters such as Henry Ward Ranger, Edward Charles Volkert and Willard Metcalf stayed. Their work, painted in residence, still hangs on the walls.

Location: Fenwick is about 45 miles south of Hartford, Conn.

Alter is a writer based in Washington. Her website is

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