Many of the mansions are now open to the public as museums. We drove along Bellevue Avenue where the largest concentration of them lies and went inside two of them.
Our first stop was The Elms, which had been the summer home of coal baron Edward Julius Berwind and his wife, of Philadelphia and New York. The mansion, completed in 1901 at a cost of approximately $1.4 million, was modeled after a mid-18th century French chateau. The gardens are elaborate Classical Revival style. We took the audio tour and heard about all the entertaining they did, how the bustling activities of the servants and deliveries were kept hidden to make it seem as though the house ran itself, and how The Elms was rescued from threatened demolition in the 1960s (when such lavish houses and lifestyles were out of vogue) and restored to its present state. Unfortunately no photography is allowed inside the mansions, so you’ll have to use your imagination (or look elsewhere online).
Next we toured The Breakers, the grandest and most famous of all the Newport Mansions, which makes The Elms look positively modest in comparison. Commissioned in 1893 by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, chairman of the New York Central Railroad system, and designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, The Breakers is “a symbol of the Vanderbilt family's social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America.”
You can see why it’s called The Breakers, because it is right adjacent to the cliffs where breakers roll in. After seeing the house, we took a stroll along the Cliff Walk and enjoyed the sounds of the crashing waves. I took a little video footage of it. You need to click twice to get it to play:
After lunch at the Gas Lamp Grille, we went for a long walk around the old section of town. It was amazing to see one ancient house or public building after another, all lovingly preserved and lived in or used. The main points on our tour were:
Newport Colony House (1739) – fourth oldest statehouse still standing in the US; it served as the statehouse of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the official name of the state of Rhode Island) until the new one was built in Providence in 1901.
White Horse Tavern (1673) – America’s oldest tavern, and the seventh oldest in the world. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Benedict Arnold ate here. We weren’t dressed up enough to be able to eat there, but a kind waiter let us come inside anyway (it was between mealtimes) and gave us a tour.
Great Friends Meeting House (1699) – the oldest surviving house of worship in Rhode Island and the fourth oldest surviving Quaker meeting house in the nation.Touro Synagogue (1763) - America’s oldest synagogue. There had been a Jewish community in Newport since the mid 17th century, but this was their first permanent worship place. In 1790, George Washington wrote a letter to the Jews of Newport, reassuring “those who had fled religious tyranny that life in their new nation would be different, that religious ‘toleration’ would give way to religious liberty, and that the government would not interfere with individuals in matters of conscience and belief.” His letter has come down to us as a key policy statement in support of First Amendment rights.
Redwood Library and Athenaeum (1750; chartered in 1747) – oldest surviving lending library in America. The original collection contained 751 titles and was meticulously catalogued. During the Revolutionary War the library was taken over for use as a British Officers' club, and more than half the volumes vanished from its shelves. In 1806 the library began advertising for the return of the books, and in 1947 a concentrated effort was launched to replace what was irrecoverable with equivalent editions. Amazingly, today the library has recovered or replaced 90% of the volumes that were lost. We got to walk through the oldest section of the library where these old books are housed, but couldn’t take photos inside the building. There is a magnificent collection of portraits hanging on the walls in the library, including one of the copies of a famous standing pose of George Washington, and several by famous Rhode Island painter Gilbert Stuart.
Newport Tower (mid 17th-century) – the remains of an old windmill. There are interesting theories as to its origin, including some who think it is actually several centuries older and would thus represent evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. But carbon dating of the tower’s mortar puts it at between 1635 and 1698. It was most likely built by Benedict Arnold, the first colonial governor of Rhode Island (not to be confused with his famous great-grandson of the same name).
Trinity Episcopal Church (1726) – The congregation that meets here dates to 1698. “A striking feature in Trinity Church is the wine-glass or chalice-shaped pulpit. It indicates the importance of preaching during the colonial period, and the sermon at Sunday services is still given from it today. Most colonial churches had central pulpits, but many later moved them to the side. This is the only center-aisle, freestanding, triple-decked pulpit left in America today.”
We were treated to a spectacular sunset on the way back as we drove across the Newport Bridge over Narragansett Bay. Back in Providence, we had dinner at an Irish pub near our B&B, which has quickly become our local haunt.