A glimpse downstairs at America’s Downton Abbey

The TV show ‘‘Downton Abbey’’
Nick Briggs/AP/File
If the Crawley family of ‘‘Downton Abbey’’ were American, they’d summer at Newport.

NEWPORT, R.I. — If the Crawley family of ‘‘Downton Abbey’’ were American, they’d summer at Newport.

The wild stateside success of the British period drama about post-Edwardian aristocrats and their live-in help has piqued interest in the life of servants in the Gilded Age mansions of this seaside city. The nation’s wealthiest families built Newport ‘‘cottages’’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries and would move their households here from New York and elsewhere in the summer to enjoy the ocean breezes and society scene.

Just as the Downton servants develop relationships downstairs, servants in Newport carried on a lively social scene. Many of their stories have begun to emerge from research conducted by the Newport Preservation Society, which owns several mansions. Newly discovered photographs, documents, and family histories have inspired the creation of a guided tour about servants in one of Newport’s most picturesque houses, The Elms, becoming one of the society’s most popular tours.


The tour centers squarely on servants and allows visitors into rarely seen parts of the mansion, including servants’ quarters, the kitchen, and the massive boiler room, where coal would be brought in through a tunnel that goes under the garden wall.

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The Crawleys’ own American grandmama, played by Shirley MacLaine, owns homes in New York and Newport. The city is even mentioned on the show from time to time, including by Lady Mary Crawley, who considers fleeing to America to wait out a scandal involving the death of a Turkish diplomat in her bed. If she had gone to Newport, she might have found a house much like The Elms.

Completed in 1901, it was built as a summer home for Edward Julius Berwind, a coal magnate, and his wife. It was the first home in Newport that was completely electrified, boasted modern amenities such as an ice maker and telephone, and was even featured on the cover of Scientific American.

The tour begins at the servants’ entrance, which is covered by an arbor and therefore hidden from view so residents upstairs wouldn’t see deliveries. The guide then leads people up five flights of stairs to the servants’ quarters, leading visitors to wonder how someone like Downton’s war-wounded Mr. Bates could manage such exertion several times a day. (An elevator is now available for those who need it.)

One servant’s bedroom is furnished as it might have been at the time. One displays census records that show the names, occupations, and countries of birth of the Berwind household’s domestic staff: around a dozen maids, footmen, and others from countries as varied as England, France, Germany, and Sweden.