Newport News The gildeD age

The second day of my trip to Rhode Island was an excursion to Newport News, preferred summer vacation spot for the rich gentry of the golden age. Illustrious names like Vanderbilt, Wetmore, Oelrichs, Stuyvesant Fish, and in more modern times the Kennedys and Astors would spend their summer month here, away from the humidity and heat of New York City. The season here would include at least one Ball for up to 400 people with 24 hour musical entertainment, food and drink. Several formal dinner parties for up to 100 guest were to be given and invitations to sport events and other distractions were required. As each dress could just be worn once, the lady of the house would have over one hundred dresses made for the season with required matching adornments. A season here, about 12 weeks could amount to about $400000, today this would be several million.

Rosecliff cottage

In my opinion one of the more modest houses in Newport was built in 1898 and then later (1900-1902) renovated by its second owner Tessie Oelrichs. She was a silver heiress, married to Herman Oelrichs, the American agent for Norddeutscher Lloyd steamship line. The architectural firm, MCKim, Mead and White, who e.g. built the Providence stated capitol and renovated the White House were hired for the renovations of Rosecliff.

Wealthy women of this time had little else to channel their energies into, so the planning and executions of these summer cottage soirées were something they could shine with. Being the most desired hostess of the season was something all of the Newport Women competed for. The dedication to this goal is shown in this little tale. The construction (started in 1899) for the renovations were delayed during the cold winter. But since Mrs. Oelrichs sister had just married William K. Vanderbilt, a party was to be given the following season. Mrs. Oelrichs, who had already moved into the house in 1900, threw out all the workers and concealed the unfinished renovation with ferns and floral arrangements. The goal was to outdo Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish's Harvest Ball at Crossways. A formal dinner for 112 guest was given in August in honor of her Sisters marriage.


Rosecliff already had the name when it was bought, it sits overlooking the Atlantic and its previous owner had started a substantial rose collection that would later grow even larger. Stanford White modeled the mansion after the Grand Trianon of Versaille, but reduced it to its basic H shape. It is built to look as if made of solid marble. The brick construction of the house is clad in white architectural terra-cotta tiles . Decorations and figurines were cast in plaster and glazed, a new technique of the time. This helped with the weight of the decorative adornments. The top floor, the servant quarters, were set back behind the second floor balustrade as was the fashion in Europe.

The heart-shaped staircase is about the first thing you see when you walk in. Upon arrival the ladies would walk up to lay down their stoles or coats and then descend down the magnificent stair to their waiting men. Today it's a great spot for wedding pictures
Inside front Parlor

The front rooms show an exceptional quality in craftsmanship that emphasizes the grandeur of the time, but believe me when I say that compared to the Vanderbilt houses this was done modestly. Pillars and decorations on the fireplace were all fashioned with finely detailed plasterwork that show religious inspired scenes, if I remember correctly. The coffers ceiling with its two tones gives a great depth effect that showes off the beautifully detailed work. The crystal chandelier and the satin wallpaper round of a spectacular first impression.


The central corps de Logis is entirely dominated by the ballroom, spanning 40 by 80 feet (12 by 24 m) it was clearly one of Newport's largest ballrooms of the time. A scheme of single and paired Corinthian pilasters alternating with the arched windows and recessed doorways creates a beautiful open wall. The center ceiling is painted to look like the sky which is framed by plaster decoration to look like large arched gates decorated with flowerpots overflowing with plants. This gives the effect of a walled in courtyard when looking up. Now imagine all this in the soft glow of hundreds of candles reflecting their light in the crystal chandeliers, the French recessed doors opening to the outside. It would appear as if you are dancing in an open courtyard surrounded by walls with flowers and statues decorating the court. The polished wooden floor would reflect the light and colours like ponds and the soft music that played almost nonstop, due to the two bands hired for the night, would weave in and out through the doors. The expanding view across the low Terrasse and the slightly sloped garden would have you believe that you are almost dancing at the oceans edge. This must have been a spectacular dance.

The ballroom, today a stunning spot for wedding parties was used in several movies, the most impressive one being the original Gatsby film. Another interesting titbit is that the whole construction of the ballroom is built like a stage set. Large panels were fashioned and then anchored to ceiling and walls.

To relax and escape the constant dance and music the men could withdraw to the adjoining study for a game of cards, a cigar or a little nap. Just outside of the study in the hallway was a shallow fountain with fish, this would have been soothing even without having just danced all night.

Gilded Age Man-Cave

The private rooms are on the second floor and again were impressive in their designers' attention to detail. Beautiful pictures of the nieces, small settees to relax on and stunning views made this summer cottage more than enjoyable for the season.

Intimate view into the live of the owners

While I was there, the exhibition ' Splendor at sea' was going on. Since so many of the fortunes here were made from the steamboat business it seemed fitting. The immense expense that was spent on these boats, the fully equipped bathrooms, studies, parlors etc. was sheer excess. Often one owned more than one and the men competed in races against each other. Trips to Europe could now be made in their own comfort and pace and were, often.

Splendor at sea ' The golden Age of Steam Yachting in America'

Cliff walk view from the summer Cottage

Back view of Rosecliff

View from the cliff walk

Back view of Rosecliff

The Breakers, 70 room estate of Cornelius Vanderbilt. The interior features platinum leaf wall panels, rare marble, alabaster and gilded woods throughout.

Side view of the Breakers
Inside of the Breakers. Photo out of the Preservation Societies brochure.
Front view of the Breakers

Chateau-sur-Mer, the house of the Wetmore family is one of America's great Victorian mansions. It is a product of the America-China Trade and was home to three generations of Wetmore families.

Inside you'll see hand-carved Italian woodwork, Chinese porcelain, Egyptian and Japanese Revival stenciled wallpapers. The gardens boast rare trees from as far as Mongolia.
Photo of inside taken form the Preservation Societies Brochure
Intriguing stonework on the wall and arch

The 40 steps were probably one of the most popular recreation spots for servants in the mansions. Descending down to the cliffs you could just sit and watch waves crash into the cliffs, fish or swim if brave enough.

44 Steps
40 steps ocean view

I didn't have time to visit more than one house but I did not want to keep the comparison of interior styles from you. This is Marble House, the summer cottage of the Vanderbilt family. Now you see why I considered Rosecliff to be almost modest.

The grand finale

My lobster on the pier

Didn't take long to finish this off, delicious!

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.