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Newport and the Gilded Age

Newport and the Gilded Age

Wed, 08 Apr 2009 06:44:43

Story and Photography by Pat Mestern

Rhode Island was always a Mecca for wealthy Victorian Americans, Newport in particular being chosen as an ultimate summer retreat destination. From its roots as one of the three most important ports in Colonial America during the 1700’s, Newport grew to become the summer playground for several hundred families who possessed more than 80% of America’s wealth during the late Victorian period. Newport, known now as America’s First Resort, had its beginnings as one point in the 18th century port triangle. Sugar and molasses from the West Indies were turned into rum in Newport that was then used as "currency" for the slave trade.

Newport saw its demise as a major port after the British blockade of 1776, when most of the timber wharves were used for firewood during the particular harsh winter. They were never rebuilt and the village languished in near obscurity for a half century. This obscurity contributed to the fact that with little developmental progress, early architecture was kept intact. Today, Newport has one of the most architecturally significant and intact old towns on the Eastern seaboard. It boasts the largest percentage of eighteenth century buildings in New England. Most have been restored and present a beautiful time capsule for today’s visitors.

Beginning in the mid 1850’s wealthy families chose Newport and area as an ideal location for their summer cottages. As mansions and villas sprung up, each more elaborate than the previous, the perfect vacation setting was established for "The 400", an elite group of very wealthy individuals. Their presence, and all the events and activities that surrounded their being in residence, produced a unique and unforgettable time in Newport, known as The Gilded Age. Today, Newport’s streets are bustling with visitors. It is one of the premier tourist destinations on the East Coast. Those that are savvy about the area know that negotiating narrow, one way streets in old Newport can be a headache. It is wise to find accommodation that is within walking distance of all attractions. We stayed at The Cleveland House B & B, located several blocks from the harbor, shops, restaurants and a short walking distance from the mansions along Bellevue Avenue.

Speaking of accommodation, the first item on any visitor’s agenda should be to contact the local Convention & Visitor’s Bureau for area information. Because there are a large number of attractions in the Newport area, plan carefully so that you might see as much as possible in the time frame set for your visit. It is also most important that you make accommodation reservations in advance as a room can be hard to find during the height of the tourism season.

The Spring Seasons Inn ( is in an ideal location. During our five-day visit, we only had to resort to driving the car twice, both times to attractions at a distance from the main area. Another alternative for visitors is to purchase an all-day pass to ride the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority trolley.

A gentle sound was the first thing that impressed us about Newport. Walking throughout the old town, we were constantly aware of the tinkling of wind chimes. Every street has their share. As there is always a breeze off the harbor, there is "fuel" for the motion bells. Far from annoying, they provided beautiful background music for one of the prettiest towns on the New England coast. They are appropriate for the seaport.

Newport is famous for its mansions and palatial summer homes. There are thirteen properties visitors can visit, some more popular than others. If time is at a premium, choose several from the list provided by the Visitors Bureau. Be prepared for a lineup at the grandest and most popular. Some "waits" are more than an hour. The best way to beat line-ups is to visit the most popular mansions early in the morning, just after the gates open.

Personal recommendations are Rosecliff, Chateau-Sur-Mer, Marble House, The Elms, The Breakers and Kingscote, not particularly in that order. Of this list, The Breakers is by far the most popular and opulent mansion, followed closely by Marble House. Our personal preference was The Elms that has a self-guided tour utilizing headphones and a recording unit. It was a pleasure to view the house at our leisure, stopping here and there to learn more about the mansion, and its operations, from our personal recorded guide.

The above-mentioned homes are owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County. There is one other mansion that I highly recommend, that being the privately owned Belcourt, one of the most unique and unusual mansions in the area. Belcourt is amazing for its collection of artifacts from thirty-two countries including China and England. Belcourt’s stained glass display is wonderful. The place is also reputed to have several resident ghosts.

Be prepared to pay admission to all properties. There are admission packages available for those owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County.

As it is impossible to remember all the details of these magnificent dwellings, it is a good idea to purchase an illustrated book about them. One of the best is Newport Mansions, The Gilded Age by Richard Cheek and Thomas Gannon.

Newport’s heritage envelops more than 360 years of sailing and sailing ships, so it’s appropriate that visitors can enjoy a sail out of the harbor on a number of schooners. We chose The Madeleine. The wind was up and sailing was excellent. What a way to spend an afternoon! If schooner sailing is not be in your blood, there are also motorized harbor cruises.

Browsing all the shops in Old Newport can take some time! Antiquing is great in the many shops on Spring Street and at the old Stone Armory on America’s Cup Drive. Eateries abound in the area and address all tastes and price ranges. We liked Crawley’s on Bellevue, Aidan’s Irish Pub & Grub behind Old Colony House and Sardella’s Italian Restaurant on Memorial Blvd. W. Ask Sardella’s about their two-for-one specials on slow nights! For great seafood try Johnny’s Seafood Restaurant on Newport Beach.

One of the most interesting attractions for visitors is not a mansion but a church. St. Mary’s Church in the heart of Newport was begun in 1848 and dedicated in 1852. It is known throughout the U.S.A. as the church where Jacqueline Bouvier married John Kennedy in 1953.
If hiking is something you enjoy, you are in for a treat. Cliff Walk, an ambitious three-mile hike, can be accessed from Newport Beach, the forty steps at the end of Narragansett Avenue or the end of Bellevue Avenue. Watch for signs. The last one and a half miles cover rough terrain so be careful. The End of Cliff Walk affords a gorgeous view of Rhode Island Sound.

You will have to drive your car to enjoy the panoramic views Ocean Avenue provides of the Sound. The road also winds past some of the most expensive real estate in North America. There are public parking areas for those who enjoy an ocean view. Mind the private property signs! For swimming try sandy Newport Beach, the place to be seen-and to see!

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86 Spring Street, Newport, RI 02840  |  401-849-0004  |  887-294-0004  |