As we head into the holiday season, I find myself thinking more and more about one of my favorite pastimes – visiting historic sites that are decked out in their holiday splendor, and today I want to share one of my favorites, the Newport Mansions.
The mansions are amazing anytime of year, but they seem to take on an even more magical appearance when they are sparkling with lights, a chill is in the air, and cozy vibes are all around. I’ll be staying close to home this year due to COVID, but that won’t stop me from re-living my memories to the extraordinary places I’ve been fortunate to visit.
Discovering the Newport Mansions
In my first year of college I was working on an assignment to research and write about the career of a famous architect. As I stood in the downtown Orlando Public Library looking through the books, I thought for sure I would focus on the Beaux Arts style, which was in contrast to the library’s Brutalist architecture (which I detested at the time).
Stanford White’s New York by David Garrad Lowe found its way into my hands, and as I turned the pages I became more and more excited. I discovered that so many of my favorite New York buildings were designed by Stanford White, and the discovery of this book and architect became an obsession for me.
I learned that Stanford was part of McKim, Mead, and White, the most influential architecture firm of the Gilded Age, having designed incredible structures like New York’s Penn Station. I also learned that the firm of McKim, Mead, and White was famous for designing the summer homes of the era’s wealthy industrialists, and that many of them were located in close proximity in Newport, Rhode Island. Visiting these “summer homes” (ahem, mansions) became a bucket list item.
I began researching these homes and learned that many of them are owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Among them, Rosecliff was designed by Stanford White, and the Isaac Bell House was designed by McKim, Mead & White. Additionally, Stanford White designed the expansion of Kingscote.
Another architect intimately involved with the Newport Mansions was Richard Morris Hunt, made famous for his design of the Biltmore Estate, the largest private residence in the United States, located in Asheville, NC.
Hunt designed the Mable House and The Breakers in Newport. The legacy of Hunt’s designs and his impact on American Architecture is profound. He founded the New York Society of Architects, which later became the American Institute of Architects. He designed the 1902 facade and Great Hall of my beloved Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was a prominent leader in the City Beautiful Movement.
Newport, Here I Come!
When I met my significant other I soon learned that he was from Rhode Island. By this point, I had a little mini obsession with the state, even though I had not yet visited.
I’m a sailor and a lover of historic architecture. If it wasn’t for the harsh winters and my absolute love for the State of Florida, I could happily live in Rhode Island forever. The “Sailing Capital of the World” AND historic architecture…how could I not be in love?
By our first date I was already quizzing him on what Newport was like, and loved listening to his memories of growing up there. I teased him that I’d date him long enough to take a trip with him to Newport and then “would see where it would go from there”.
My first visit to Newport wound up being one of the most amazing vacations I have ever had. It more than delivered on all my dreams of what it would be, and then some. By this point I’m hoping you have lots of questions!
How Many Mansions are in Newport?
There are many mansions in Newport, but people are most curious about the ones that are open to the public for tours. The Preservation Society of Newport County has nine historic sites and a topiary garden open to the public.
To make the most of your experience, consider visiting the sites in order of their year of construction. This will provide an overview of Newport’s history and will help you to better understand how these buildings came to be. If you took this approach, you would visit:
|Year of Construction||Site Name||Architect|
|1748||The Hunter House||Unknown|
Stanford White (1881)
|1852||Chateau-Sur-mer||Seth C. Bradford|
|1860||Chepstow||George Camplin Mason, Sr.|
|1881-1883||Isaac Bell House||McKim, Mead & White|
|1888-1892||Marble House||Richard Morris Hunt|
|1895||The Breakers||Richard Morris Hunt|
|1901||The Elms||Horace Trumbauer|
Which is the Biggest and Best Mansion in Newport?
The Breakers was designed by Richard Morris Hunt for Cornelius Vanderbilt, also known as “The Commodore”. The Renaissance-style building is located on a 14-acre estate and contains 70 rooms and contains an astounding gross area of 125,339 square feet.
It is the grandest of the mansions and is considered by many visitors to be the best mansion in Newport. It’s definitely the biggest. While The Breakers is beyond impressive, I personally love Rosecliff the most.
How Long Does it Take to Tour Newport Mansions?
It is possible to tour each of the mansions in around 45 minutes. The Preservation Society of Newport County recommends allocating at least an hour and a half for each home. I would not advise this at all! To fully appreciate the experience, I recommend doing only one mansion per day.
Most of the properties are incredibly ornate, and there is so much history to be learned. As much as I love history and architecture, there is a definite sensory and mental overload I experienced when visiting. It’s just entirely too much to digest and properly process.
I learned that the first day of my visit, after we toured two properties. By the end of the day, my head was spinning and I was getting facts and details confused. After that experience, I decided that the best way to see the mansions was one at a time, so I can focus my full attention on what I was viewing and learning. I actually love this, because it means multiple trips to Newport to really learn the attributes to each one, and that truly gives me something to look forward to.
Newport Cliff Walk
The Newport Cliff Walk is a 3.5 mile National Recreational Trail that runs along the eastern shore of many of the Newport Mansions. Much of the trail is easily walkable, however the paved trail ends in the last 1/3rd of the trail and gives way to the rocky shoreline.
Even for those with great balance and shoes with excellent traction, this segment of the cliff walk can be quite dangerous. Unless you are really adventurous, enjoy the 70’ drop and expansive ocean views from the paved path, which contains safety railing.
How Much are Tickets to the Newport Mansions?
As a professional preservationist who thinks often of the financial viability of historic properties, I was downright shocked to learn of the ticket price to tour the mansions. Individually, adult tickets run $18 and youth tickets run $8. That’s quite a steal, but the real value comes in the membership.
Students can get an annual membership for only $35, adults $55, and two adults living in the same house can share an $80 membership. The membership allows unlimited access to tour all the mansions, and discounts on special tours, events, lectures, and merchandise, as well as two issues of The Newport Gazette, the Preservation Society of Newport County’s magazine. Now for the question I know you are wanting to ask:
Are the Newport Mansions Open Now? What About COVID?
The Breakers, The Elms, and the Green Animals Topiary Garden are the only properties open at this time. Precautions being taken to protect the safety of guests are mandatory masks, social distancing, and limiting the amount of people allowed in at one time. They are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. For more information about hours of operations, visit https://www.newportmansions.org/plan-a-visit.
Christine Dalton, AICP is a Historic Preservation consultant specializing in community planning, heritage tourism, downtown revitalization, and civic engagement.