A New Gilded Age
By Tanya Hayes
A new generation of homeowners is buying and restoring Newport’s gilded mansions
When thinking of the Gilded Age in America, one instantly calls to mind the mansions that make Newport the standard for historical architectural opulence — The Breakers, Marble House, The Elms — and the other homes owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County. While these grand, larger-than-life mansions understandably draw Newport’s spotlight, they are not the only remaining estates from this affluent period. Many privately owned estates bordering Bellevue Avenue, Harrison Avenue, and the Kay-Catherine neighborhood abound — perhaps hidden behind a privet hedge or stone wall, perhaps altered or renamed over the years to conceal their prominent origins.
These lesser-known — and sometimes mysterious — homes all added to the aura and glamour of Gilded Age Newport’s social scene and lifestyle. During the past two years, we have seen many of these same private estates, some not available for decades, sell for astounding sums. The recent spate of sales and restorations sparks comparisons between the Gilded Age — which was at its peak from roughly 1870 through 1910 — and the industrial, financial and technological tycoons of today.
“We have never had a year like this past year,” said David Huberman, a real estate agent with Gustave White Sotheby’s International Realty. “To have three record sales in one year is incredible, particularly as the previous record for Newport was set in 2006 by the sale of 646 Bellevue Avenue ‘Miramar.’”
Unlike the mansions’ original Gilded Age owners, who predominantly hailed from New York and Philadelphia, “we are seeing people from California and New York, who previously might have been buying in Malibu or the Hamptons, now discovering and settling in Newport,” said Huberman.
Here’s a look at the history — and recent developments — at some of Newport’s Gilded Age mansions.
Originally built in 1866 for William H. Reynolds, Ocean View, at 662 Bellevue Avenue, provides a rare extant example of one of Newport’s most popular summer cottage styles: the Second Empire French Style, with its fondness for a classic mansard roof, abundance of iron and glass, overhanging eaves with stylistic brackets, and square-based turret towers.
Sandwiched between Horace Trumbauer’s Miramar, which was built for Mrs. George Widener, on one side, and Rock Cliff (previously known as New Lodge and later Ames Villa) on the other, Ocean View epitomizes all that was idealized in the 19th Century and today — understated elegance combined with sweeping Atlantic Ocean views through oversized floor-to-ceiling windows.
The original home had a wood frame and stucco exterior, more resembling the seaside cottages that the other marble mansions in town being constructed at the time pretended to evoke. Once owned by Ogden Mills, Ocean View was later purchased by C. Matthews Dick of Washington, the son of the inventor who created the mimeograph. The Dick family owned the home for almost a century — even through a devastating fire in 1983. The home was rebuilt with as much of the original structure reconstructed as possible.
Although architects such as Richard Morris Hunt are frequently associated with the Gilded Age homes of Newport, three notable and distinguished Newport mansions — The Elms, Clarendon Court and Miramar — were designed by noted Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer. Of these, only Clarendon Court and Miramar remain in private hands and have recently been sold to new owners at record prices.
Built in 1904 for Edward Knight, Clarendon Court is largely inspired by, and in fact closely mirrors, 18th century drawings of the John Hedworth House in England by architect Colen Campbell, built in the Regency style.
Clarendon Court, which sits tucked back from Bellevue Avenue, is shielded by tall, gilded iron gates that open into a cobblestoned courtyard before the front entrance façade, complete with an urn-decorated balustrade.
A Newport Gilded Age mansion must have a spectacular ocean view. The rear of the property provides that — and more — with its incredible and largely original landscape overlooking the Cliff Walk and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Inside the home, the marble foyer leads to an elegantly curved marble staircase, intricately paneled and plastered walls, and 18th century marble fireplaces.
Adjacent to the main house — and equally impressive — is the 10,000-square-foot brick and limestone carriage house, designed in the English Baroque style. The carriage house is so elegant and well-proportioned that author Michael C. Kathrens deemed it, “without question one of Trumbauer’s more architecturally distinctive creations in this category.”
Clarendon Court is also known as the site of Claus and Sunny von Bülow’s tragic troubles. Still, Clarendon Court is a stunning example of the Newport “cottages,” and was one of the settings for the 1956 film “High Society.” Clarendon Court sold in 2021 for a staggering $30 million.
Miramar, modeled after Le Petit Palais and the courtyard façade of L’ Hôtel Cassini in Paris by Trumbauer, is directly adjacent to Clarendon Court on over seven acres of oceanfront elegance.
Railroad tycoon George Widener commissioned Trumbauer to design a neoclassical Newport summer home for his family in 1911. Trumbauer had previously designed a home in Pennsylvania, Lynnewood Hall, for Widener’s father.
European antiquity enthusiasts, Widener, his wife Eleanor, and their son Harry, set off to the continent to purchase artwork, furniture and tapestries for their new residence, under the direction of famed art dealer Joseph Duveen.
Their 1912 return trip home ended in tragedy, as Widener and his son died during the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Eleanor Widener survived, and pushed forward with the home design, naming it Miramar for the incomparable sea view the home and grounds enjoy.
The Parisian firm Carlhian & Cie outlined the interiors to showcase the incomparable Widener collections of Sèvres porcelains, French furniture and boiserie, with Louis XVI-style wood paneling in the bedroom suites. Colorful awnings covered each of the 42 windows to protect the valuable furnishings, with one servant tasked solely with raising or lowering them depending on the position of the sun. In August 1915, Mrs. Widener christened the home with the Newport elite during a large reception featuring multiple orchestras and trees illuminated with electric lights — an extravagant technological feat for the day.
The 27-bedroom, 14-bath mansion was designed to entertain upwards of 700 people at a time, with a 1,701-square-foot ballroom with Louis XVI gilded wall paneling on the first floor, which opens onto a 4,000-square-foot limestone oceanfront terrace.
Among its other features, Miramar boasts a wine cellar capable of holding 10,000 bottles, with a 20-foot-long stone basin designed for icing up to 200 bottles of champagne at once. The garages can house 16 Rolls-Royce limousines. The estate also features a 6,000-square-foot carriage house and grand formal parterre gardens designed by French landscape architect Jacques Gréber.
Eleanor Widener entertained lavishly at Miramar throughout the rest of her life, even transporting her fine artwork and furnishings from her New York townhouse to Miramar and back each season.
After Eleanor Widener and her second husband’s passing, her children donated Miramar to the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. The property changed hands later, becoming at one point a private school for girls and later the business headquarters for a subsequent owner.
In 2006, former Goldman Sachs partner and noted preservationist David B. Ford purchased the home and undertook an expansive restoration of the property, bringing this exceptional neoclassical residence and grounds back to the original vision of Mrs. Widener and her cadre of designers. Miramar remains in private hands, selling in 2021 for reportedly $27 million, still a bargain compared to the estimated $43 million original 1915 cost of the property when adjusted for inflation.
Built in 1851 by architects Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux for New York City merchant Daniel Parrish, the Italianate-style brick mansion Beechwood is one of Newport’s oldest “cottages.” In 1881, William Backhouse Astor Jr. purchased the home for his wife Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, memorably
known as “The Mrs. Astor.”
Caroline Astor, with the assistance of Ward McAllister, devised a list of 200-plus society denizens who could trace their familial lines back three generations, a list famously called The 400. According to McAllister, The 400 were the crème de la crème New York society — and the obvious invitees to any social gathering.
McAllister even told the New-York Tribune that “If you go outside that number, you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.” Naturally, as Newport grew as a fashionable summer destination, members of The 400, including the Astors, sought out appropriate residences for entertaining in the summer social season.
Upon purchasing Beechwood, Caroline Astor hired Richard Morris Hunt to oversee extensive renovations to make it perfectly up to Astor standards, spending the equivalent of $57 million in today’s dollars.
The dining room was enlarged to accommodate up to 200 seated guests, and a mirrored and gilded panel ballroom was added to the rear of the house, along with an arched loggia overlooking the Cliff Walk. For those vacationing in Newport, Caroline Astor’s Summer Ball was the highlight of every season.
After her death, Caroline Astor’s youngest son, John Jacob Astor IV, inherited Beechwood, but in an eerie coincidence to his Bellevue Avenue neighbors in Miramar, he also tragically lost his life on the RMS Titanic while returning from his European honeymoon with his pregnant wife Madeleine.
In 2010, Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle Corporation, purchased Beechwood along with other neighboring homes between Marble House and Rosecliff — Beechwood is currently undergoing an extensive restoration to bring the estate back to its Astor Era of sophistication.
Many celebrated architects worked in Newport during the Gilded Age, but only a handful settled in town themselves. One of them, Richard Morris Hunt, who won commissions to design Chateau-sur-Mer, Marble House, Ochre Court, Belcourt Manor, and The Breakers, owned a large plot of land with several buildings near the corners of Bellevue, Touro and Church Streets, where Hypotenuse House originally stood. Around
1870, Hunt purchased the Greek Revival home and eventually moved it to its current location sitting diagonally to the intersection of Catherine and Greenough, giving it the appropriate moniker of Hypotenuse House.
While he never actually lived in the home, Hunt extensively renovated the property, perhaps experimenting with design elements that would make later, more-refined appearances in
his clients’ houses, such as half-timber effects, bonnet gables and stickwork braces.
Around 1876, Hunt sold Hypotenuse House to his friend, Colonel George Waring, an engineer who oversaw the creation of Newport’s sewage system. Waring was also the popular local host of Newport’s cultural and intellectual salon, the Town and Country Club, which was founded by Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The Club, which local journalists described as “the very best people here, the real crème de la crème, in the highest sense, were the few in whom social and intellectual culture were united,” attracted Newport and New York intelligentsia, such as university professors, journalists, and authors Bret Harte and Mark Twain, to thoughtful discussions of literature and history. Another notable Newport architect is reputed to have contributed architecturally to Hypotenuse House, with the large rear parlor attributed circa 1900 to Stanford White.