NEWPORT — After a splashy silver screen debut in the 1956 film “High Society,” this celebrity enjoyed supporting roles in “The Great Gatsby,” “True Lies,” “27 Dresses,” and “Amistad.” But like many Hollywood stars, Rosecliff, the famous Gilded Age mansion that provided a glamorous backdrop to memorable films, was starting to look a bit weathered around the edges.
Last week, the Preservation Society of Newport County unveiled Rosecliff’s $7.4 million facelift. The 1902 mansion was closed in January for eight months of extensive restoration. Work on the 30-room, 28,800-square-foot mansion was focused on the exterior, with the exception of the mansion’s enormous ballroom. The intricate, 3,200-square-foot ballroom floor was re-created with 305 white oak panels.
The mansion reopens Sept. 1 with an exhibition of Chinese art collected by Newport’s 18th- and 19th-century merchants and industrialists.
According to Trudy Coxe, chief executive officer of the Preservation Society of Newport County, the mansion, commissioned by Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs, had started to crumble. Pieces of statues on the front facade of the mansion were beginning to fall to the ground.
“So we had to put netting around the previous sculptures so that people wouldn’t get hurt,” she said at an unveiling of the renovations last week. “But you could look up and see that a cupid would have a big chunk out of her arm, so that had to be repaired. The only way to repair the four sculptures was to start over again.”
In addition to re-creating the Baroque-style sculptures, 600 feet of the ornate balustrade that runs the roof’s perimeter was carefully removed, re-created, and replaced. The 5,000-square-foot roof was replaced with a new rubber membrane that should last 30 years.
The biggest change most visitors will notice is the freshly gleaming exterior. According to Mike Taber, director of properties for the Preservation Society, all of the mansion’s marble and terra cotta surfaces were steam cleaned.
There were less glamorous updates, such as stripping and repainting the windows, rebuilding the back stairs, and cleaning the fountains. But one of the more mundane tasks unveiled a glitzy surprise. While sandblasting paint from the iron gates on the mansion’s front door, workers discovered gold gilding that had been painted over for decades.
“I’ve worked here for 20 years and never even imagined that those doors were so luxurious,” Coxe said. “When they told me I said, ‘Are you sure the doors were gilded? Really?’ It was just, wow. It makes such a difference.”
Rosecliff, which was designed by the famed Beaux-Arts architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, is one of the most recognizable mansions in Newport thanks to its distinctive heart-shaped staircase and its elaborate ballroom. It was completed in 1902 at a cost of $2.5 million. Principal architect Stanford White modeled the Rosecliff after the Grand Trianon, a 17th-century garden retreat built at Versailles for Louis XIV of France.
According to Coxe, the renovation of Rosecliff was one of the most significant undertaken by the preservation society. The organization spends $10.5 million annually to maintain the mansions. Most of those funds come from ticket sales, and rentals for events such as weddings, filming, and corporate parties.