If you could think of all of the historic towns you could visit, many come to mind. There’s Colonial Williamsburg,VA, Old Sturbridge Village, MA, Saratoga Springs, NY, and Hershey, PA. Every one of these towns share a great assortment of historic techniques, traditions, customs, and depict the old style way of life which we as American citizens were once used to. Not so anymore. No town still boasts and maintains its historic charm more than good old Newport, RI. Newport has a variety of claims to fame. It is home to the Redwood Library, one of the oldest public libraries in the United States. It is also home to the Tauro Synagogue, the oldest functioning synagogue in the country. Above all of that, Newport is remains atop the list in one notable department. Newport is the home of mansion mania.
I attended Salve Regina University, in Newport, RI. For four glorious years, I was surrounded by tourists on a weekly basis. Like the mansions themselves, Salve Regina University is located on one of the many streets connected to famous Bellevue Avenue. Bellevue Avenue is the main thoroughfare that runs through Newport. On almost every block, there is a mansion to be visited. Here are some highlights. Nearest to the Bellevue shopping area, is the Elms. The Elms was built in 1901 by Pennsylvania coal tycoon Edward Julius Berwind. The Elms was purchased by the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1962, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1996. Further down Bellevue Avenue, is the Marble House. The Marble House was built between 1888-1892 by Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt. Marble House was much more than just a “cottage” as known by Newporters at the time. It stood as a social and architectural landmark, a model which set the pace for Newport’s transformation from a colony of wooden houses to a legendary resort of stone palaces.
Aside from The Elms and Marble House, there is another mansion which holds a rather interesting claim to fame. Rosecliff is truly a mansion to behold. It was built by the Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs. It was modeled after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of the Kings of Versailles. Mrs. Oelrichs held many parties and entertainment events at the mansion, including a performance by the great magician Harry Houdini. Rosecliff was also the filming site of popular movies including “True Lies” (1994), “The Great Gatsby” (1974), and “Amistad” (1997).
Bellevue Avenue is not the only place to find famous mansions. There are a lot more located on the side streets east of Bellevue Avenue. Eight blocks from the Bellevue shopping area, turn onto Ruggles Avenue, towards the ocean. On your right you will see Carey Mansion, formerly a residence hall of Salve Regina University. Approximately one hundred yards further down the street at the intersection of Ochre Point Avenue, stands one of the most iconic mansions of all. On the corner of Ruggles and Ochre Point Avenues stands The Breakers. The Breakers was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose family fortune was steamships until becoming the chairman and president of the New York Central Railroad. The New York Central was the one company which played a pivotal part of our country’s economic development in the nineteenth century. In 1972, The Breakers was purchased by the Preservation Society of Newport County by the family’s heirs. Today, like The Elms, The Breakers is designated a National Historic Landmark.
The Elms, Marble House, Rosecliff, and The Breakers are not the only beautiful landmarks Newport has to offer. My college alma mater, Salve Regina University, is home to two other mansions. Both are well-rooted with a rich history of their own. Continue a few blocks north on Ochre Point Avenue and you will come across Ochre Court. Ochre Court was built circa 1895, by millionaire Ogden Goelet. Inside the Great Hall of Ochre Court, the vaulted ceiling will take your breath away. In 1947, Robert Goelet, the son, donated Ochre Court to the Sisters of Mercy. That year, the Sisters of Mercy founded Salve Regina College.
Ochre Court too has had her share of movie screen fame. Ochre Court was used as a filming location for the movie “True Lies”. Every first weekend of December, Salve Regina University holds it’s annual Governor’s Ball in Ochre Court’s Great Hall. The following weekend, the University Chorus and Madrigals hold their Christmas concert. Their Spring concert is held in the same location. As you listen to them sing, you will easily appreciate how gloriously the sound amplifies throughout the room. It feels as if you stepped back in time. The Great Hall begins to sound as if it’s coming to life. If you want to visit Ochre Court and Newport’s mansions, December is the time to visit. Select mansions are open to the public during the Christmas season. They are well-decorated and their historic nature truly shows through. Mark your calendar. Visit Salve.edu and NewportMansions.org for further information.
Across campus from Ochre Court, is Wakehurst. Wakehurst is the second oldest building on the Salve Regina University campus. It was built in 1884 by James J. Van Alen. He was a man of many talents. He was a sportsman, a politician, and a member of a well known New York railroad family. In 1882, Van Alen hired architect Charles Eamer to design the building. Wakehurst, a stone Tudor mansion, was modeled after the Wakehurst Palace. Wakehurst Palace is located in the countryside of Essex, England. Today, Wakehurst serves as Salve Regina University’s student center, a well-known hangout for the student body and the faculty.
The colonial town of Newport, RI is well-rooted in American History. It’s a hot spot for sailing, fishing, film making, and home to a well-renowned annual jazz festival. It is also home to a prominent college campus. Atop all of the history and fame, Newport is the home of mansion mania. From the ornate style of The Elms, to the artistic charm of the Marble House, to the French style architecture of Rosecliff, and to the grand scale aura of The Breakers, Newport has plenty of charm to offer. Newport is not just a northeastern town rich in history. It is a living time capsule and an everyday symbol of our country’s ever-changing lifestyles.