Newport is a lovely seaport town in Rhode Island which makes for a great summer getaway. On top of the white sandy beaches, delectable seafood, and cedar-shingled cottages that one comes to expect of a New England coast town, Newport also offers a very interesting historical past.
You can’t talk about Newport without hearing about the “Newport Mansions”. The Newport mansions are a group of 11 extravagant manors with regal architecture, lavish interiors and fine gardens, which are now preserved and open to the public to visit.
These mansions came about in the 1850s, when the wealthy families of New York turned their attention to Newport and decided to build their luxurious summer “cottages” on the charming city hills overlooking the ocean.
This era was termed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain, who didn’t mean it in a positive way. He was referring to the disparity between the wealthy and the working class, who suffered while the industrialists lived their opulent lifestyle. This was a time where families like the Rockefeller’s, Vanderbilts and Carnegies were trying to outdo one another with their ostentatious displays of wealth.
These mansions are most definitely grand, with over 200 rooms, servant’s quarters, and values up to $50 million. Lavish parties were often held at the cottages, leading me to imagine this time as a “Great Gatsby” type era.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Unfortunately for these families, this period didn’t last long. Between 1910-1920, two big taxes were imposed: income tax and estate tax. (Can you imagine a time without these?). These wealthy families, with their multiple exorbitant homes, took a big hit and many had to sell or auction off their homes. These included the Newport mansions, as well as many high priced properties in Manhattan.
The homes that didn’t sell were set to be demolished, which led to the creation of The Preservation Society of Newport County. The Preservation Society bought several of the homes and turned them into museums, which allow the public to stroll the gardens and lavish interiors, as well as to host events like weddings or concerts.
We enjoyed visiting several of the homes, finding a few of the properties further off the main road more pleasant to visit due to fewer tourists. The Newport Cliff walk – a 3.5 mile walk along the coastline – allows you to see several of the mansions from the coast as well, while enjoying a nice sea breeze and views of the ocean: