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 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 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.
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.
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.
View from the cliff walk
Back view of Rosecliff