Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Summer Season in Newport

By the 1890s New York's elite were erecting enormous "cottages" like Alva Vanderbilt's Marble House.
Even before the outbreak of the Civil War the colonial town of Newport, Rhode Island, had caught the attention of wealthy New Yorkers.   As New York City inched northward, swallowing up their summer estates, the wealthy looked for other resorts.  Despite the long distance, the charm of Newport coupled with the cooling sea breezes, created a refreshing respite from Manhattan heat and humidity.

Newport's charming colonial architecture and atmosphere, along with its cooling seaside breezes, attracted the wealthy in the 1850s.
Even in 1856 when the young Belle Brittan summered in Newport, preparations were arduous.  The voluminous ante bellum dresses, the many hats, gloves and bags necessitated numerous trunks for a lady's wardrobe.  Ms. Brittan wrote to a friend on July 16 about the arrival of one woman’s luggage.

“I forgot to mention the sensation produced by the arrival this morning of about thirty trunks belonging to a handsome New-York widow—one of the trunks being about the size of an Irish shanty.  I am so glad, as Pa scolded a little about the trunk I bought to pack my hoops in; and called it ‘Noah’s Ark.’  But after seeing this huge dry goods warehouse in the hall to-day, he promised to laugh at mine no more.”

Like the other visitors in 1856, Belle Brittan stayed in a hotel.  In 1857 “Appletons’ Illustrated Hand-Book of American Travel” noted “The flood of travel has called up, too, a number of magnificent hotels, of which the chief are, the Ocean House, at the south end of Bellevue street; the Atlantic House, at the head of Pelham street; the Bellevue House, on Catherine street; the Aquidneck and the Fillmore.”  Already the guide was calling Newport “the most elegant and fashionable of all American watering-places.”

After the Civil War Newport became more crowded.  Morning beach-goers enjoy the cool air, although a bit more dressed than today. -- print NYPL Collection
But by the end of the war the train line had been extended directly into Newport, making the trip much easier.  As more and more people crowded into the hotels, private summer homes began cropping up.   There was a burst of building and in 1873 The New York Times commented “There have not been as many new cottages built this year as last, yet, nevertheless, there has been as much money expended, although in a different direction.  Real estate has changed hands; alterations and improvements to cottages already built are being constantly made.  Large sums of money have been laid out in beautifying lawns and hedges, regarding, and otherwise improving private drives.”

A well dressed family poses before an early "cottage" around 1869 -- NYPL Collection
Having apologized for the drop in construction, the article then went on to describe approximately 15 new homes.   “H. G. Marquand, Esq. of New-York, on Rhode Island-avenue and Buena Vista-street, is having built a ‘cottage,’ but which a king might be proud of,” the writer said.   He went on to tell of the “magnificent house” for Mrs. G. S. Robbins of New York and “the most expensive stable” for F. W. Stevens.  “It is built of brick, and, together with the gardener’s lodge and conservatory, has cost, $20,000.”

Hotels were no longer acceptable for New York's wealthy.  Construction turned into a frenzy, with millionaires vying to outdo one another in throwing up larger and more palatial residences.  It would climax towards the end of the century with monumental mansions like Marble House and Rosecliff.

A sleek carriage with liveried coachmen deliveres a visitor to a Newport cottage -- NYPL Collection
“The season” in Newport was as important as the winter social season in Manhattan.  And it took a great deal of money to maintain one’s place in the circle.  The season lasted about eight weeks--no more than ten.  But the houses and grounds required year-round staffing and maintenance, albeit pared back in the winter.  During the summer weeks, the cost of staffing and running a house ran between $2,000 and $4,000 per week (about $50,000 today).  A single night’s entertainment could cost $70,000 or more.  One socialite’s elaborate ball required a more jaw-dropping display by the next. 

When Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs entertained one evening at Rosecliff, her opulent mansion modeled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles, she had a fleet of white ships constructed to float offshore in sight of the gardens.  The ships complimented the swans she stocked in the fountain and the masses of white roses, lilies, orchids and hydrangeas that decorated the house and lawns.
"Tessie" Oelrichs, the sister of Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, was a leading figure in Manhattan-Newport society.  She entertained lavishly from Rosecliff (above).
The massive homes required tiers of staff.  English butlers, French chefs, European governesses and nurses, several ranks of maids and kitchen help were necessary.  One historian noted that “the less a woman appeared to be capable of performing any useful task, the more positively it reflected upon her husband’s social standing.”  Crates of silver from Tiffany’s and china from France stocked the pantries.   

And then there was the matter of the ladies’ wardrobes.

Women required no fewer than 280 changes of costume during a typical season.  Off-season trips to France were not simply to sample the cuisine and see the sights; they meant hours spent in the salons of Paris designers.   The millionaires who made their fortunes in banking and real estate showed off their wealth through horses and exclusive club memberships.  Their wives displayed their financial and social status in gowns and jewels.  

The women changed costumes several times a day.  There were reception gowns, dinner dresses, visiting dresses, evening gowns and day dresses.   And there was one cardinal rule:  never wear the same dress twice.   The wealthiest of the New York-Newport socialites patronized the House of Worth in Paris, among them the Astors, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Fishes and Carnegies.  While some return clients would spent around $10,000 on a season’s wardrobe, others would spend that amount on a single ball gown.

Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish is remembered for greeting a group of guests in her opulent Newport mansion one evening saying “Here you are again; older faces and younger clothes.”  When the season ended, all the dresses and gowns worn that year were given away, sent off to poorer relatives or given to servants.  The next year it would start all over. 

In April of 1895 The New York Times made a slight mention of the lengths the cottage owners went to in order to outfit their homes. “Many rare and valuable exotic plants have arrived here this week for Ogden Goelet and Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Both purchased them recently abroad, and they are said to include species which have not hitherto been seen here.  They are for the most part plants of beautiful foliage and are designed for the decoration of the grounds of the new villas of Mr. Goelet and Mr. Vanderbilt.”

Social climbers risked their entire fortunes in attempts to be noticed by Newport society.   An engraved invitation to dinner or a dance from Mrs. Fish or Mrs. Astor was a coup—it meant acceptance.  It also meant the lady of the house was expected to join in a regimented routine.  Mornings were spent at Bailey’s Beach—in full dress, of course--a private beach at the end of Cliff Walk.  Afternoons were taken up in luncheons, teas, and perhaps other activities like tennis or archery.  Evenings included dinners and a party at one cottage or another.  Acceptance into Newport society could very well mean the financial failure of the husband not rich enough to keep up.

The mistress of a Bellevue Avenue mansion was expected to give no fewer than six dinners for sixty guests and two balls for 600 within the eight to ten-week season.   The leading socialites would spent millions of dollars of their husbands' fortunes each summer.

The vast mansions of that glittering era remain, perched upon the cliffs over the sea.  The breezes still waft over the lawns, but no longer do they cool the parasol-shaded heads of New York’s wealthiest women.   In some, troops of tourists in madras shorts and flip flops tromp through the gilt drawing rooms; proof that the Gilded Age has indeed come to a close.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


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  2. Really loved the architecture of the building thank you for sharing your thoughts and time. Especially last picture looks amazing!!!