When my husband and I visited Newport, Rhode Island in October 2021, three of the most popular mansions were open: Marble House, The Breakers, and The Elms. I will write about each of them in separate blogs.
The Newport Preservation Society
The first thing I want to say before talking about Marble House, is that the Newport Preservation Society has done a marvelous job of preserving and sharing the history of these mansions. And, I believe they are teaching history in a fairly-balanced manner. Most books about the Vanderbilt’s, and other famous persons of the Gilded Age (1865 – 1910), spend a lot of time trying to shame the families’ wealth and lifestyle. Read the back cover of Anderson Cooper’s book about his famous family and you will see references to their “outsized influence” and “unfettered American capitalism.” But the preservation society’s app, and signage inside the mansions, presents facts and lets you draw your own conclusions.
As I listened to the Newport Mansions’ app and toured the three “summer cottages,” I came away with these impressions:
Women of that era, even exceedingly wealthy ones, didn’t have economic or political power.
The power they did hold centered around their homes and society.
The wives and husbands realized their mansions represented the success of industrialized America. They wanted to showcase that success, and prove they were equal to visiting European royalty and heads of state.
Some individuals–like Alva Vanderbilt–used their wealth and status to make positive cultural contributions to American life.
This wealthiest tier, and their assumed lifestyle, perpetuated class distinctions; something most of us cannot understand today. I think it is important to remember however, that at that time American society still lived under the shadow of its European heritage. We should try not to judge them through a modern-day lens.
Alva Vanderbilt and Marble House
In 1888, Alva partnered with architect Richard Morris Hunt to build Marble House. Alva accepted Marble House as a gift from her husband, William K. Vanderbilt, on one condition: “I stated to Mr. Vanderbilt that I would not undertake to build Marble House unless it was given to me out and out at once.” (Quote from Alva’s memoirs via the Newport Mansion App) Mr. Vanderbilt did cede control of the house to his wife, and when it was completed four years later, he gave it to her–on her 39th birthday.
Alva wanted Marble House to be her “temple to the arts.” Richard Hunt wanted American architects to be as highly regarded as they were in Europe. Together, Alva and Hunt created a French-style masterpiece, complete with 500,000 cubic feet of marble inside and out. Alva designed rooms to showcase specific collections and filled her home with irreplaceable art.
Alva and Women’s Suffrage
Alva helped lead the fight for women’s suffrage. On August 28, 1909, she hosted a rally on the Marble House lawn. A tent was erected that could hold 500 people, and for a $1.00 lawn ticket, members of the public could listen to speakers like Mrs. Julia Ward Howe and drink tea out of special Votes for Women china. (I love the replica teacup I bought from the Preservation Society’s store!) For $5.00 (around $100 today), attendees could tour the house.
Alva devoted the rest of her life to women’s rights. There is a good summary of that in this wikipedia article.
Alva’s Hypocrisy Regarding Her Daughter
Alva’s later fight for women’s independence never extended to her daughter Consuelo. She dominated her. An example of this is clearly shown in Consuelo’s bedroom within Marble House–every piece of furniture and decor was chosen by her mother. In her memoirs, Consuelo said, “. . . I reflected that there was in my mother’s love of me, something of the creative spirit of an artist; that it was her wish to produce me as a finished specimen, framed in a perfect setting.” (quote from the Newport Mansions App)
In 1895, at the age of eighteen, Consuelo was forced by her mother to marry the Ninth Duke of Marlborough. Both the duke and Consuelo were engaged to other people, but by agreeing to marry Alva’s daughter, the duke received 2.5 million a year for the rest of his life. In return, Alva secured a title of duchess for her daughter and social bragging rights for herself. When the duke and duchess had their marriage annulled in 1926 (after a divorce in 1921), Alva admitted she had forced her daughter to marry.
Visiting The Mansions
All visitors must show proof of vaccination, including the booster. For the record, I STRENUOUSLY OBJECT TO THIS. Hopefully the restriction will be lifted this year so that EVERYONE can visit the Newport mansions.
Currently, only The Breakers is open.
Marble House will open for weekends only, starting FEB. 5TH. It will be open daily starting FEB. 19TH.
The Elms and Green Animals Topiary Garden will open daily in APRIL.
Rosecliff will open by the END OF MAY. They will also host an exhibit of Gilded Age objects starting May 27th, 2022.
For more information, see the Newport Mansions’ website. And be sure to download the free “Newport Mansions” app. It provides an excellent audio tour and even includes some photographs. You don’t need to tour the mansions to enjoy the app.
Stay tuned for another blog on The Breakers, and then The Elms. And if you want to know more about staying in Newport, read my last blog. Thank you for reading, and if you enjoy this blog, please remember to share it with others. Thanks!