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Opulent RI mansions embody America’s Gilded Age

Opulent RI mansions embody America’s Gilded Age

Fri, 26 Nov 2010 20:09:41By Eric Tucker
Associated Press / November 26, 2010

NEWPORT, R.I.—Bellevue Avenue, home to a series of eye-catching mansions that famously embody America’s Gilded Age, crams enough history in a two-mile strip of Newport to be a mini-city unto itself.

Now, to accommodate both history buffs and casual passers-by, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates this city’s historic mansions has created a self-guided walking trail linking 11 historic clusters of properties along the avenue.

Markers outside the properties help identify the trail while also detailing the buildings’ history, architectural style and cultural commentary. They even include descriptions of neighboring buildings that have been demolished or are simply less well known.

“We tell the stories of each individual house, and yes, you can reference one house with another, but we felt we didn’t have an effective medium for linking the whole neighborhood together and telling the whole story,” said John Tschirch, an architectural historian and director of museum affairs for the Preservation Society of Newport County, which owns most of the city’s famous mansions and opens them to the public as tourist destinations.

“You get a rich experience in each house, but we wanted to give the experience of the whole streetscape and the urban plan,” he added.

There are about six homes in each of the clusters. Among the best known homes are the Elms, Chateau-sur-Mer and Rough Point, the one-time home of tobacco heiress Doris Duke.
Some of the homes are private; many of those that are not are open to visitors during certain hours.

The four-year trail project was completed this month and cost roughly $35,000, most of which was given by a private donor. It is similar in intent to the red-brick Freedom Trail in Boston, though the pale-green markers in Newport are more subtle and aimed at better blending into the neighborhood.

The markers read like a list of who’s who of wealthy dignitaries and socialites from the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The sign outside the Preservation Society’s headquarters, for instance, reveals that it once was the home of Herbert Pell, a congressman from New York and the father of Claiborne Pell, who represented Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate for 36 years and died in January 2009.

A nearby Gothic Revival house, the marker says, was built for Albert Sumner, the brother of Charles Sumner, a senator from Massachusetts who in 1856 was badly beaten on the Senate floor by a South Carolina congressman after delivering an anti-slavery speech.

The markers also offer assorted tidbits of information, obscure and well-known alike. Visitors are reminded not only that the film version of “The Great Gatsby” was shot at the Rosecliff mansion, but that decades earlier, the home’s owner, a Nevada silver heiress named Theresa Fair Oelrichs, dressed as Mother Goose at a special Fairy Tales ball.

The trail also highlights the Sherwood home, where an engagement party for John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier was once held. The building has since been converted into apartments.

The markers tell of fights over preservation, demolition and even over the fate of an unsightly junkyard that some wealthy residents considered a blight on the neighborhood. Each one includes a section called “Voices from the Past” — typically a quote from a newspaper or magazine article offering commentary on the homes and on Newport society.

“Since the passing of the Gilded Age that these houses symbolize, two wars, a long depression, high income taxes and a shortage of servants have dimmed Newport’s splendor. The doors of these villas will never be opened again,” a 1944 Life magazine article posited.

Dawn Cochran, 38, who works at a bank and recently was taking a morning stroll down the avenue, said the trail is a good idea, even for locals like herself.

“Living here all my life, I don’t know the history of Newport,” she said.

The first signs went up several years ago to a positive reception, Tschirch said. Of course, there are many Newport attractions beyond the ones on Bellevue Avenue — for instance, the Breakers, the most-visited and spectacular of the city’s mansions — that don’t get recognized on the trail.
Tschirch he hopes to ultimately expand the project to other streets to help visitors better appreciate the city’s rich history.

“Newport was America’s architectural treasure chest and as a result, those architects, landscape designers were shaping American culture, or contributing to American culture — just like painters and writers,” he said.

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