The Gilded Age mansions

How Art Shapes Our Life

Sal MaccaroneApril 11, 2012 

During the years following 1870, America was beginning to enjoy a bustling industrial economy. As with some of the phenomena of today's world, a few remarkable individuals became very wealthy during this short-lived era.

Now referred to as "The Gilded Age," this name was first coined through the title of a book which was co-authored by Mark Twain and Charles Warner. The title was meant as a satire that played upon the phrase, "Golden Age." Because the gilding process involves the application of superficial layers of gold, Twain and Warner's effort was in fact referring to ostentatious behavior and materialism.

The city of Newport -- in the state of Rhode Island -- was somehow selected by history as the epicenter of a very pretentious display of wealth. Among many other things, Newport has always been known as an East Coast summer resort area. This was especially true in the 1890s when some of this country's wealthiest families began to summer there. The social scene of the time is set forth in another book, Edith Wharton's novel "The Age of Innocence," which earned her a Pulitzer Prize, (the first ever awarded to a woman). Edith maintained a cottage in Newport called "Land's End" and was herself a part of the world that she had so eloquently wrote about.

The expansive summer properties in Newport were called cottages by their gilded age owners because they were only enjoyed during a brief ten-week period each year. But in reality, these were no cottages!

For instance, "The Breakers," built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, tallied in at an astounding 65,000 square-feet. The cost of this 72-room cottage, at the time, was more than $12 million (valued at $350 million today). This elaborate get-away was designed by the famous New York architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) who also designed the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.

Mr. Hunt designed several of the Newport cottages like "Belcourt Castle," which was a more modest 50,000 feet. Resembling a French hunting lodge, it was built by U.S. congressman and socialite Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont. With a sizable inheritance in hand, Belmont set out to build this French, German, English and Italian Renaissance beauty. During a time without automobiles, this property was mostly famous for the opulent stable and carriage areas which were actually part of the main structure. The 60-room interior of this house was equally as impressive in that its main theme was related to thoroughbred horses and racing. Oliver's father was August Belmont for which the Belmont Stakes, part of the Triple Crown, was named.

One of the most fascinating of the Newport properties and my personal favorite is, "Hammersmith Farm." This Victorian mansion complete with its own beach was built by John W. Auchincloss in 1889. Many years later it became the childhood home of Jacqueline Bouvier. The property was also host to her wedding reception in September of 1953 after she was married to John F. Kennedy when he was still a senator. During the Kennedy presidency, Hammersmith Farm was referred to as the summer White House.

At the end of the gilded age many of the sprawling mansions fell into complete disrepair and were abandoned by the owners. At one point a few of them were for sale for a mere forty thousand dollars. Currently, many of the gilded age mansions continue in private use. Some have been converted for academic use. Others, such as The Breakers, have been purchased and beautifully restored by the Preservation Society of Newport County, www.newportmansions.org). These mansions are open for tours to the public and are a "must see" for anyone visiting the East Coast.

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