Wealth that would wow a Kardashian. Technological advances that would impress Bezos and Branson. A glittering facade that masked greed and corruption. Such were the hallmarks of America’s Gilded Age, post-Civil War and into the 1900s, when massive fortunes were made (and lost) and the old guard slugged it out with flashy newcomers for a spot atop the social heap.
Who better to capture the drama than Lord Julian Fellowes, the award-winning creator of “Downton Abbey”? When it came time to film his HBO series, “The Gilded Age,” he headed to Newport, R.I. For six weeks last winter, Fellowes and his cast and crew went on location to this seaside city to shoot scenes inside Newport’s fabulous mansions, now preserved as museum houses, where the Gilded Age elite played and partied. “The Gilded Age” premiered in January.
Although much of the story is set in New York City, the show owes its stunning look to Newport’s meticulously preserved “summer cottages,” The Breakers, Marble House, The Elms, Rosecliff, Chateau-sur-Mer, and Hunter House. Now TV viewers can get a peek inside these time capsules of the Gilded Age, where every piece of furniture is historically accurate. The copper pots are, too.
Those in-your-face Bellevue Avenue mansions, so familiar to New Englanders, were intriguing to Fellowes, says Trudy Coxe, CEO and executive director of the Preservation Society of Newport County. In Europe, large estates were surrounded by acres of land. Not so here, where the whole point was to build it bigger and fancier than your neighbors, and right next door so they couldn’t miss it, with gold-leafed everything, Venetian paintings, and acres of marble. “It’s a very American approach, and Fellowes found it fascinating,” Coxe adds. “He genuinely loves Newport.”
The families featured in “The Gilded Age” are fictitious, but “These stories ring true,” Coxe says. “These were people with big dreams and big personalities. I don’t know if Bertha Russell is [modeled after] Alva Vanderbilt, but it’s fun to wonder,” she notes. “These are amalgams of people who really did exist.”
Watching the period drama is fun, but why not sample some of that Gilded Age gloss (minus the greed and backstabbing) yourself? Some of the mansions are open now, and you’ll have plenty of room to yourself, before the tourists arrive in May. On a recent visit, we decided to live like a Vanderbilt, just for a weekend. Here’s how to do it in style — even if you don’t have an industrialist’s income.
Where to stay: Hotel Viking
In Newport’s Historic Hill neighborhood, Hotel Viking has hosted presidents, suffragettes, tennis stars, and Bob Dylan. This circa 1926 property also housed house guests of the families who summered in the mansions. The 208-room hotel has been renovated, of course, but it retains elements of old, like an original letterbox. “We’ve put great effort into keeping the place historic,” says marketing manager Ellinor Walters. “It’s a great place to immerse yourself in Old Newport.” The mansions are within walking distance, and the hotel’s four specialty “mansion suites” offer old-school luxury. From $160; www.hotelviking.com.
The Newport Mansions
Among the mansions shown in the TV series, some are open now, or will be soon. The Elms, which opens on April 1, was built in 1801 for the family of coal baron Edward Julius Berwind. Designed to emulate a Parisian chateau, this 60,000-square-foot house is the only mansion with a conservatory, and it holds the largest intact collection of Venetian paintings found outside Venice (a total of 10), according to Melanie Garcia, director of museum experience at The Preservation Society of Newport County. It’s amazing to think that, in 1962, this home was nearly demolished; a Berwind heir had auctioned the contents and sold it to a developer. The Newport Preservation Society purchased the house, and recovered some of the original furnishings. For the series, filming took place in Hermione Berwind’s bedroom and in the Elms kitchens, appearing as the kitchen at the Russells’ house. Much of the action with the servants takes place here, Garcia says. To get a sense of what their lives were like, sign up for the Elms Servant Life Tour. This “downstairs” tour includes the boiler room, laundry room, basement kitchens, coal cellar, and lots of stairs.
Open daily as of Feb. 19, Marble House is a stunner. There’s marble from Italy, South Africa, and elsewhere — some 500,000 cubic feet of the stone. In the TV series, Marble House interiors stand in for the Russell family’s Fifth Avenue palace. And palatial it is; the house was built in 1892 by William Kissam Vanderbilt to mimic the Palace of Versailles in Paris. This house, along with The Breakers, was designed by noted architect Richard Morris Hunt. Vanderbilt built Marble House as a birthday present for his wife, Alva. “Alva’s family had lost their money and it was her job to marry rich. That, she did,” Garcia says, and she made her mark, gilding the house to the hilt (don’t miss the Grand Salon, a.k.a. the Gold Room) and hosting lavish costume balls. Was Alva the inspiration for ruthless social climber Bertha Russell in “The Gilded Age”? Hard to say at this point in the series, but there are definite similarities. In the show, the bedroom of Consuelo Vanderbilt (William and Alva’s daughter) appears as the bedroom of George Russell.
Now open daily, The Breakers is the grandest of Newport’s summer cottages. Built for Cornelius II and Alice Vanderbilt in 1895, the 70-room, 138,000-square-foot home was modeled after Italian Renaissance palaces. The French Baroque-style music room, a fantasy of crystal, marble, and gold leaf, was used in the series as the ballroom at the Russell House. If you watch the show closely, you’ll recognize the Billiard Room, designed by Hunt and featuring a Roman bath-inspired look. The room is lined with marble and alabaster, inset with semi-precious stones in the shape of a billiard cue.
Note: If you visit in summer, when most people do, consider picnicking on the grounds of the mansions. You’ll need a ticket, and it’s BYO lunch and a blanket, but what a lovely way to enjoy the splendid settings of the mansions. For current mansion schedules and ticket prices, visit www.newportmansions.org.
International Tennis Hall of Fame
How does this sporty site, complete with a talking hologram of Roger Federer, play into the Gilded Age theme? It is set in the Newport Casino, established in 1880 as a place for socializing and recreation for Newport’s elite. The ultra-rich mansion dwellers didn’t build their own tennis courts, so they played here, in a fireplace-bedecked space designed by renowned. architects McKim, Mead and White. “Socialite James Gordon Bennett wanted to build a social club that was open to the public to host concerts, events, and, of course, court tennis,” a combination of squash, racquetball, and tennis, says senior vice president of content & partnerships Julianna Barbieri. In 1881, the very first US National Lawn Tennis Championships was hosted here; the event remained in Newport through 1914, when it moved to New York and became the US Open. If you want to get a sense of what it was like to watch tennis during the Gilded Age, come to the Hall of Fame Open in July, the only grass court tournament outside of Europe, Barbieri suggests. Meanwhile, look for the Newport Casino building as a backdrop in the TV series. $18; www.tennisfame.com.
Want to see how current rich people live, with gorgeous ocean views? Take a drive along 10-mile Ocean Avenue. Begin at the intersection of Ocean and Coggeshall avenues, at the very end of Bellevue Avenue. Sites include Hammersmith Farm, Fort Adams State Park, and Gooseberry Beach.
Where to eat: White Horse Tavern
America’s oldest tavern opened its doors to guests in 1673, way before the Gilded Age, and was operating as a rooming house in 1895. It was acquired by the Preservation Society of Newport County and began operating as a restaurant in 1957. But it fits with the “old Newport” theme, and the menu is definitely rich; beef Wellington is a signature entree, made the traditional way with foie gras mousse and puff pastry. There’s also lobster bisque, escargot, and even caviar service. Just another Tuesday dinner at the Vanderbilts’ back in the day. whitehorsenewport.com.
For more information: www.discovernewport.org.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com