Get out of the house, and into a mansion
Gilded Age homes offer design inspiration in safe, virtual visits
Tours of historic and grand American mansions, once strictly in-person events, have proliferated online since the pandemic began. Some are houses with architectural significance, others had famous former owners while others are merely — and wildly — opulent.
Experiencing these domestic spaces through your screen is a safe, virtual getaway. And, if you’re looking for ways to increase your square footage, here are a handful of options — no contractor required. Newport mansions: The 1870s Gilded Age rarely
gleamed as brightly as in late 19th-century Newport, R.I. The state hosted summer cottages for the nation’s wealthy — “cottages” that were 70-room masterpieces of marble, alabaster and platinum leaf.
The Preservation Society of Newport County has made video and 3-D tours available of some of the more fabulous estates: The Elms, Marble House, Chateau-sur-Mer, Chepstow, Kingscote, Hunter House and Isaac Bell House. Scroll and click through Italianate fantasia, Louis XIV pastiche, Gothic extravagance and high-end Victorian clutter.
There’s also a tour of the Elms’ servants’ quarters, for a better understanding of the labour and austerity behind that splendour.
Winchester mystery house: Purchased in 1886 by Sarah Winchester, who inherited a fortune from her gun magnate husband (the second president of Winchester Repeating Arms), this San Jose, Calif., mansion underwent almost constant expansion until her death in 1922. Why? A popular if unsubstantiated rumour holds the design was meant to confuse the spirits of those shot by Winchester rifles.
The corporation that owns the 160-room house has prepared a couple of video tours that provide access to the creepy stained glass, the numerology-influenced light fixtures, the stairways to nowhere and the insane number of doors (2,000!) that Winchester bankrolled. Paranormal enthusiasts might particularly enjoy the séance room, with its single entrance and three exits.
All of this can be seen on a 41-minute video, available on Vimeo — $5.99 (all prices in U.S.) to rent, $13.99 to buy — with an interactive 3-D tour ($8.99) that includes areas not usually shown.
Neither viewing includes glimpses of the ghosts visitors have reported seeing.
Mark Twain house: In 1874, Samuel Clemens (pen name Mark Twain) and his family moved into this Hartford, Conn., mansion.
The lavish interior, designed by Tiffany’s Associated Artists, came seven years later. Asked about the style of his house, Clemens said, “I guess we’ll call it ‘eclectic.’ ” Highlights of the free virtual tour include the library, the conservatory and the billiard room, which doubled as a writing room.
It was a source of great sorrow to the writer when financial problems forced the family to abandon the house in 1891. “To us, our house was not unsentient matter,” Clemens wrote, “it had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with.”
The Frick collection: Before it rebranded as a sumptuous museum, this Manhattan mansion housed the wealthy industrialist Henry Clay Frick. A new renovation will close the building for at least two years.
In the meantime, a detailed 3-D guide with a helpful audio component moves viewers through the ground floor rooms of the Garden Court, the Fragonard Room (once a drawing room), the Music Room and the Boucher Room (once a boudoir), to name a few.
The free tour includes closeups of the art and baroque furnishings that surround it, as well as archival photographs.