BEHIND THE SCENES AT A GILDED-AGE COTTAGE
All the Newport mansions are over-the-top grand, for the self-made millionaires who built them wanted to look as if they came from old money, and to achieve that, they were willing to spend a lot of new money. Touring these summer “cottages” today, you gawk at expansive gardens, expensive European art and furniture, sumptuous ballrooms and guest rooms, and enough rococo molding to impress any king named Louis. But beyond the ubiquitous gilt of the Gilded Age, each mansion is unique, as is each tour. Exhibit A: the Rooftop and Behind the Scenes Tour at The Elms. Think of this tour as the American Up the Down Staircase.
Edward J. Berwind, a coal magnate from Philadelphia, built The Elms in 1901. Modeled after Paris's Chateau d'Asnieres, replete with about ten acres of formal French gardens, The Elms is so grand that, as you approach the main building, you are astonished to learn that the palace-like edifice on your right is merely the carriage house. Granted, the 64,000-square-foot main building only has 48 rooms (The Breakers has 70), but these are pretty darned swell rooms. And 40 servants were required to, well, service them and their nouveau riche occupants.
One of the first things you see on the one-hour Behind the Scenes Tour is a Hatzel & Buehler in-house telephone switchboard, a reminder – as if you needed one – of how large this manse is and how frequently the Berwinds and their guests summoned the help. It's also evidence of how Berwind loved technology; ringing a little bell for Jeeves seemed so yesterday.
Berwind's love of technology is reflected in the multiple kitchens, too, especially the cold kitchen, which has a first-generation ice-making machine that supplied blocks of ice for several iceboxes. By the 1920s American kitchens -- even wealthy people's kitchens -- would suddenly get ugly, but in this turn-of-the-century setup, finely crafted wood cabinets reflecting 19th-century artistry soften the shock of all these new gizmos.
The lightbulb tester was pretty avant garde for its day, too. But curiously, the huge laundry room features irons you might have found in 1850 or, for that matter, 1940: simple, non-electric ones that had to be heated externally.
The sub-basement sports a railroad-style track leading to a turntable so a coal cart could enter the basement and then make a left or a right toward several large furnaces. Why so many furnaces for a summer home? Aside from the guests' huge appetite for hot water, The Elms required at least some heating in the winter for the protection of pipes, plaster, art, and furniture.
Petroleum or propane heat would have been cleaner, of course, but no matter how prosperous you were back then, coal was pretty much the best option you had. Not for nothing was the Berwind family rich.
The Servants' Quarters
The staff's rooms (above) occupied the third floor, and not only were they simple, bare-bones spaces compared with the palatial rooms for the owners and their guests, but they all shared one bathroom. This third floor with the servants' quarters is hidden; that is, when you approach the main building, the design of the facade makes you think that The Elms only has two stories --albeit lofty ones.
A modern, bridge-like addition to the rooftop (left) allows tour participants to view the gardens, with their spectacular trees, statuary, and fountains, but the roof's design blocked the servants from enjoying this view. Understand, if the servants had been able to look out at the guests on the lawns, then the guests on the lawns would have been able to look up and see the servants. And in such lovely surroundings, who wanted to think about how the servants live?
Lunch at a Newport Mansion
While you're at The Elms, take a tour of the public and guest rooms, too. The gilded ballroom (even the piano is gold), coffered ceilings, medieval tapestries, Venetian paintings, Louis XV furniture, panels from China – a body could get used to this.
Then have lunch at the carriage house (right): It's probably the only chance most of us will ever get to sit down and enjoy a meal at a Gilded Age Newport estate.
For a look at a Newport mansion with a racier reputation, click here.
The first two and last photos: Ed Wetschler. Third and fourth images, The Preservation Society of Newport County.