Mid-way through our road and cycling adventure in America's north-east, David and I had the chance to go behind the scenes at a real life Downton Abbey. Newport Rhode Island is famous for its mansions. Built as summer residences for the New York elite in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the mansions became synonymous with the term 'Gilded Age'. Many of America's wealthiest families came to Newport each year to escape the summer heat and indulge themselves in a social season of music, dining and elaborate balls. Families such as the Vanderbilts, the Astors and the Wideners constructed grand palaces with ever more lavish entertaining areas, but few guest bedrooms - any guest worth inviting was expected to possess his or her own gilded summer estate. The Gilded Age didn't last long however - not many decades after they were built taxes and the cost of maintaining the houses made them impractical. Some were demolished, a few remain in private hands and others are open to the public giving we mere mortals a glimpse of what it was like to live such a rarefied existence.
|The Elms with its grand sweeping lawns.|
The Elms was the summer residence of the Berwinds. Edward Berwind made a fortune as a co-founder of one of the largest coal producers in America. He built The Elms in 1901. It was modelled on a mid-18th Century French chateau, d'Asnieres and reputed to cost $1.4 million - a staggering sum. When his wife died in 1922, Edward invited his sister, Julia, to become his hostess at The Elms and after Edward died in 1936 Julia continued to spend her summers there until her own death in 1961. As other members of Newport's high society cut back on their lavish lifestyles in the years following World War II, Julia continued to live a life of opulence and indulgence maintaining a staff of 40 servants and burning through a considerable slice of the family fortune in the process. In 1961 the house and contents were sold at a public auction. The Preservation Society of Newport County purchased the house in 1962 for $116,000.
At its height, the summer social season at Newport was focused on ostentation and show. Very few of the rooms at The Elms, or indeed any of the other mansions we visited, felt livable by today's standards. The Elms was all glamorous, even gaudy, conspicuous consumption with its grand, marble-tiled entrance, banquet-sized dining room and living rooms large enough to double as a ballroom. The gilded furnishings, artwork and tapestries would have felt quite at home in a European palace.
|Imagine trying to get comfortable on furniture like this.|
|Even the less formal rooms were strikingly ornate.|
Guests would arrive for afternoon tea, stay 30 minutes, and depart - to stay longer was considered impolite - or come for a few hours of cards. Julia was a great lover of cards and would, our tour guide said, rope in her bulter when an extra player was needed. For just a moment, I thought she seemed human, someone I could understand if not entirely relate to, but then the guide went on - 'the butler, of course, was required to stand at the card table for the whole game, not sit with Julia's society guests.'
|A dining room at The Elms|
More than the extravagant lives of its owners, the real draw card of The Elms is the 'Servant Life Tour', the only tour of its kind in Newport. Here we met the ordinary people who lived and worked at the Newport Mansions - peeping into the day to day existence of the scores of servants whose loyalty and labour made it possible for the wealthy few to live their lives of luxury and indulgence.
|A call system for The Elms' servants. I'm fairly sure this system was more sophisticated than that used in Downton Abbey.|
|The linen was kept by the housekeeper under lock and key. Our guide told us that a single handkerchief could be worth more than a housemaid earned in a year. It seems incredible doesn't it - I wonder if it is correct?|
After meeting at the front of the house our 'Servant Life' tour guide ushered David, myself and a small group of others around to the side of the house to the staff and delivery entrance where we were conducted through a world almost as foreign at that of the Berwinds themselves. It was here that The Elms' equivalent of Downton Abbey's Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes reigned over their own small empires. Their subjects were the chambermaids, kitchen maids, cooks, footman, laundresses and, oddly named, 'useful men' (Ladies - I can't help thinking that's a contradiction in terms). Many were European immigrants searching for a better life in America - I wonder if they found it? Wages were low, the work was tedious and the hours were long. Only the French chef seems to have been paid what we would think of as a good salary - receiving, we were told, five times more than the butler. A good chef after all was essential to out-entertaining one's neighbours.
|One of the two kitchens at The Elms.|
|Imagine being a laundry maid in one of the Newport Mansions.|
Our small group was led up the back stairs to a world of plain furnishings and austere surroundings, all hidden from view in order to give the illusion that the house ran by magic. Even the entrance was hidden from above by a large wisteria. We saw the servants' hallway, bedrooms, sitting rooms, laundry, kitchens (there were two of them) and a roof top terrace surrounded by a wall so high there was no view at all except from a small platform reached by a single set of steps. The wall was to shield the Berwinds' guests from catching sight of any staff who might be out on the terrace. There was even a coal cellar complete with railway tunnel and tracks to streamline delivery of coal to the boilers. History failed to record the lives of the Newport Mansions' staff in the same level of detail as it did the houses' owners but with the help of family stories handed down through the generations there are enough anecdotes to bring the rooms to life.
|Coal in the basement ready to stoke the boiler.|
|The coal was delivered on railway tracks via a tunnel running from the street outside.|
There are ten Newport Mansions open to the public. David and I have explored The Breakers, The Marble House, and Rosecliff on previous visits to Newport. This time we chose to spend all our time at The Elms, taking an audio tour of the house in the morning and joining the Servant Life Tour in the afternoon. While I highly recommend a visit to The Elms and particularly the Servant Life Tour, if you want the full over-the-top, as gaudy and ostentatious as it comes, experience then you should also visit either The Breakers or The Marble House. Both have cliff water frontages, separated from the sea by a narrow public walking path. From a 21st Century real estate point of view The Elms is very much on the wrong side of the street, however at the height of the Gilded Age having an address on Bellevue Avenue was worth much more than uninterrupted views of the ocean.
|The Breakers (in the front right of the picture). The mansion on the left is privately owned.|
Tips and tricks and things to know: -
Where is The Elms and when is it open?
- The Elms is at 367 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, Rhode Island 02840. There is parking on site or you can park at the Newport Visitors Centre and catch the Yellow Line trolley from there.
- Click here for a list of the opening hours of all the Newport Mansions.
How much does it cost to visit and how do I buy a ticket?
- Tickets are purchased through The Preservation Society of Newport County. You can buy them at any of the mansions or online - here.
- You can purchase tickets individually or for more than one house. The multi-house tickets give a discount on individual admissions and don't all have to be used on the same day.
- The Servant Life Tour requires a separate ticket. Numbers are limited so reserve your ticket in advance to avoid missing out.
- Leave plenty of time. We spent a couple of hours wandering around The Elms listening to the audio tour and then returned in the afternoon for the Servant Life Tour. In all we spent most of the day at The Elms.
- The Servant Life Tour is a separate admission to The Elms house and audio tour. The Servant Life Tour focuses on the staff quarters and service areas such as kitchens, laundry and boiler room. It does not include the rest of the house. If you intend to do the Servant Life Tour I highly recommend visiting the main part of the house first to give context to what you will learn about how the house was run.
- While you are in the area don't miss the Cliff Walk. The Cliff Walk is a 4.5 mile walk from First Beach at Memorial Boulevard to Bellevue Avenue at Reject's Beach. Join the walk at Narragansett Ave, survive the world's most difficult and confusing parking metres (but that's another story), and you can stroll in front on many of the mansions. You'll get great views of several of them.
Who would you be (or like to be) in a real life Downton Abbey?
I will publish a new post every Thursday/Friday (depending on your time zone). If you want to follow our travels check back each week or enter your email address in the 'Follow this blog by email' box in the right hand sidebar just below my profile picture.
For all the posts so far on our north-east USA road and cycling adventure click - here
For all the posts so far on our north-east USA road and cycling adventure click - here
Note: David and I received complimentary tickets to The Elms and the Servant Life Tour.