Party palaces

Snoop around the grand man­sions of New­port, Rhode Is­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

BE­FORE Jay Gatsby started hang­ing out at Syd­ney’s Fox Stu­dios with his new pal Baz Luhrmann, you might have found him at New­port, Rhode Is­land. Back in the 1920s, it was a great place for a man with a du­bi­ous past to pur­sue re­spectabil­ity.

Af­ter host­ing so many lav­ish par­ties at his own mag­nif­i­cent house on Long Is­land, a wannabe like Gatsby might have ex­pected Old Money would re­cip­ro­cate and in­vite him to what the su­per-wealthy used to call their ‘‘sum­mer cot­tages’’.

Of course, they’re not ‘‘cot­tages’’. That’s just mock hu­mil­ity. They’re os­ten­ta­tious palaces of mar­ble and gold, ex­trav­a­gant sur­vivors of what writer Mark Twain satirised as the Gilded Age, in which a great wave of Amer­i­can ex­cess splashed through the late 19th cen­tury and into the early 20th, gath­er­ing up the most ex­u­ber­ant Euro­pean ar­chi­tec­tural styles and scat­ter­ing them around New­port’s pre­mier ad­dress, Belle­vue Av­enue.

The ‘‘cot­tages’’ cost mil­lions to build, but to­day they’re yours for a few bucks. Just $US31.50 opens the doors of the five most pop­u­lar properties of the Preser­va­tion So­ci­ety of New­port County.

We start our tour at The Break­ers, a ‘‘hol­i­day es­cape’’ built more than a cen­tury ago for Cor­nelius Van­der­bilt II, a lead­ing mem­ber of what was then the rich­est fam­ily in the US. The Van­der­bilts made their money build­ing rail­roads. The Break­ers, how­ever, is a U-turn into the past. Un­der its mighty sky­light, we find late Re­nais­sance Italy col­lid­ing with the French court of Louis XV, as though Cor­nelius couldn’t quite de­cide whether to be an Ital­ian mer­chant prince or a Bour­bon king — and set­tled for a bit of both.

In fact, a lot of both — the au­dio guide leads us un­der glo­ri­ous painted ceil­ings, sup­ported by monumental plas­ter­work, ex­quis­ite in its gilded de­tail, through rooms rich in pol­ished wood and silk glow­ing in the re­flected lustre of ex­pen­sive mar­ble. The house takes ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to try to im­press.

Re­mark­ably, the Van­der­bilts used The Break­ers for just six or seven weeks a year. Ah, but how they used it. The guide re­calls balls and din­ners, ten­nis and yacht­ing, golf and coach­ing (that’s with a coach and four horses). The rich were any­thing but idle.

Just a few blocks away is Mar­ble House, de­signed by the same ar­chi­tect, Wil­liam Mor­ris Hunt, for the same fam­ily: Cor­nelius’s brother, Wil­liam Kis­sam Van­der­bilt, and his wife, Alva, who was even more of a Fran­cophile than her in-laws. Any pass­ing French king would have felt at home here — ac­tu­ally, there are two in the din­ing room in the form of enor­mous por­traits of Louis XIV and Louis XV look­ing down from walls of pink Nu­mid­ian mar­ble. The au­dio says the gilded bronze chairs at the din­ing ta­ble are so heavy that each one needed a foot­man stand­ing be­hind it to help guests move in and out from the ta­ble.

The foot­men, maids, kitchen staff, gar­den­ers, laun­dry staff, grooms and many other de­nom­i­na­tions of ser­vants make fre­quent ap­pear­ances in the com­men­tary, their words re­called by ac­tors and by those who worked in th­ese great houses. They re­count the drudgery of life be­low stairs, a plod­ding coun­ter­point to the glit­ter­ing so­cial oc­ca­sions in the salons above.

Yet there is also a cheer­ful pride in hav­ing played a part on th­ese grand stages and even a wist­ful­ness for a style of life now just a hol­low mem­ory echo­ing through empty rooms.

The tours in­clude the kitchens, where the sur­prise fea­ture — stand­ing among mas­sive stoves and sinks as big as swim­ming pools — is a safe for the fam­ily sil­ver­ware. The but­ler kept the key.

Fully half of the 70 rooms at The Break­ers were to ac­com­mo­date the Van­der­bilts’ house­hold staff, plus the maids and manser­vants of house guests. A fash­ion­able woman from New York might change her out­fit seven times in a day as she flit­ted from one so­cial ac­tiv­ity to the next. The laun­dry and iron­ing was her maid’s prob­lem.

It was all too ex­trav­a­gant to last. The in­tro­duc­tion of

Above:

Be­low: per­sonal in­come tax along with ris­ing wa eroded the fi­nan­cial foot­ing of th­ese grand dimmed the glit­ter­ing en­ter­tain­ments of New­port; its last great star­burst was in the what Jay Gatsby’s cre­ator, F. Scott Fitzg tened the Jazz Age — be­fore the Great Cras

A quar­ter of a cen­tury later, the Preserva of New­port County was set up to save the great houses from de­vel­op­ers, in­clud­ing the on our tour, the darkly ba­ro­nial Chatea which, de­spite, its French name, is un­mist cen­tury Amer­ica writ large in gran­ite.

Though some monumental res­i­dences w ished, oth­ers have sur­vived to be re­cy­cled as or up­mar­ket of­fices. Some even per­se­ver homes; for ex­am­ple, soft­ware squil­lion El­li­son, re­port­edly Amer­ica’s third-riche re­stored Beech­wood Man­sion, sum­mer r As­tor clan, as a hol­i­day es­cape for his fam­ily to house his col­lec­tion of Amer­i­can art.

Beech­wood Man­sion sits be­tween the la

PIC­TURES: GETTY IM­AGES (TOP); ALAMY

The fore­shore of New­port, Rhode Is­land, is fes­tooned with pala­tial for­mer play­grounds of the su­per rich

The op­u­lent mu­sic room in The Break­ers, built for rail­road baron Cor­nelius Van­der­bilt

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