Newport was founded in 1639 by a small group from Boston who began building ships for use in maritime trading. The settlement prospered in part because they welcomed Jewish and Quaker traders not accepted in other communities. By the mid-1700s, Newport was at the peak of its maritime prosperity, but the Revolutionary War ended that. The area was revitalized when affluent Americans began building summer homes there in the 1830s. By the late 1800s Newport was THE place to be if you were ultra rich. Grand mansions along Bellevue Avenue, Ocean Avenue and Harrison Avenue were built for America’s wealthiest families to use as summer “cottages.” Today, The Preservation Society of Newport County maintains nine historic homes and shows them off to thousands of visitors each year. They include Hunter House, Kingscote, Chateau-sur-Mer, The Breakers, Marble House, The Elms and Rosecliff.
Considered by many to be one of America’s finest examples of American colonial architecture, Hunter House was built in 1748 by sea merchant Jonathan Nichols. Visitors today can see an extensive collection of furniture made by Newport’s great cabinetmakers, Goddard and Townsend.
Kingscote, one of the smallest cottages, was built in 1839 for George Noble Jones, a planter from Savannah, Ga. The mahogany and cherry dining room is illuminated by natural light streaming through a wall of Tiffany glass. Victorian furnishings are accented with Oriental art and rugs.
The first of Newport’s big homes was Chateau-sur-Mer, which was built in 1852 for William Wetmore who made his fortune trading with China. This Italianate-style villa was the most palatial residence in town until the appearance of the Vanderbilt houses in the 1890s.
The site of many lavish parties that ushered in the Gilded Age, the home has a grand scale of architecture, furniture, wallpapers, ceramics and stenciling.
The Breakers, a four-story, 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo that was built for Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1895, is regarded as the most lavish home in Newport. Inspired by 16th century palaces in Genoa and Turin, its interior is exorbitantly adorned with marble, stained glass, gilding and crystal. Furnishings include hundreds of European art treasures. Even the master bathroom is beyond belief: A tub carved from a single slab of marble has four faucets dispensing rainwater and salt water, both hot and cold.
Many visitors consider Marble House the most striking mansion. It’s built with 500,000 cubic feet of gleaming white marble fronted by four towering Corinthian columns overlooking a circular drive. After spending $2 million to build it and $7 million to lavishly furnish it, William K. Vanderbilt ending up spending only a few summers there (1892 to 1894) before losing the home to his wife, Alva, when they divorced.
Modeled after a French chateau with classic symmetry, The Elms was built in 1899 with coal money earned by Edward Julius Berwind of Philadelphia. Perhaps to compensate for its lack of an ocean view, a manicured 10-acre park was designed to surround the home. Parisian interior designers filled the house with museum-quality furniture and art. Berwind arranged for coal to be transported to his sub-basement via an underground railroad so that the home could be kept warm every winter.
Rosecliff, which was built in 1899 for steamship executive Hermann Oelrichs, maintains an image of delicate grace. An H-shaped building with neoclassical details, its exterior walls are covered with glazed white terra cotta tiles that resemble stone. This 40-room mansion boasts the largest ballroom in Newport. The elegant 40-foot-by-80-foot room was the site of filming of The Great Gatsby in 1974 and True Lies in 1994.
Rough Point was the 49-room Newport home of tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Built in 1889 by Frederick Vanderbilt, it was sold to her father, James B. Duke, in 1922. When James Duke died three years later, this home was part of his enormous estate willed to his only child, 12-year-old Doris. She had a keen eye as a collector and followed this passion throughout her life. Upon her death in 1993, she bequeathed the estate to the Newport Restoration Foundation, the organization she founded to help preserve Newport’s architectural heritage. Visitors today can see her lavish furnishings, including her art collection with original paintings by Renoir, and 15th century Ming Dynasty porcelain.
The Astors’ Beechwood Mansion and Victorian Living History Museum was built in 1857. Guided tours feature Beechwood Theater Company actors in period dress. During Victorian tours, visitors interact with both aristocrats and servants for a unique glimpse into what life was like when Mrs. Astor was the queen of American society. Roarin’ ‘20s tours offer guests a chance to visit with Vincent Astor and friends during this fun time in Newport’s history. Once a highlight of local social life, the circa-1880 Newport Casino is now home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which showcases the sport’s history from the 13th century through the present.
Home of Ivy League institution Brown University, Rhode Island’s capital city was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, a religious dissenter from Massachusetts. It soon became a thriving seaport, with furniture, clocks and silver made by local craftsmen among its exports. After the Revolutionary War, Providence benefited financially from trade with China. In the 19th century, manufacturing began to replace maritime commerce, so parts of the Providence River were filled in to enable construction of railroad tracks.
Known as the Mile of History, Benefit Street is lined with magnificently restored colonial homes and churches. One of the few homes open for public tours is the John Brown House Museum, which was built in 1788 for a China trade merchant. Tour this magnificently restored 14-room Georgian-style home to see outstanding furnishings of the period, including early Rhode Island furniture.
The museum at the Rhode Island School of Design has a comprehensive art collection with displays in 45 galleries ranging from Greek and Roman sculpture to contemporary art in every medium. The Culinary Archives and Museum, which is on the campus of Johnson & Wales University, showcases more than 500,000 objects related to cooking. See vintage stoves and cooking utensils as well as an Art Deco diner.