The summer capital of the Gilded Age

As a slew of TV series tap into the society dramas of America’s elite during the late 19th century, we head to their former playground of Rhode Island, whose mansions and mills recall an era of social upheaval and impossible glamour

Words and Photographs George Kipouros

“Picture 300 of America’s wealthiest citizens showing off their finest dresses, jewellery and dance moves right here,” smiled Karen Filippo, resident guide at The Breakers, as she waved me towards the palatial Great Hall. Stepping across the threshold, I was taken aback by the 15m-high ceiling with its impossibly realistic blue-sky fresco. I also had a feeling of déjà vu – was I back in one of Genoa’s Palazzi dei Rolli?

I was in fact touring the USA’s smallest state, Rhode Island. We were in a Renaissance-revival historic mansion that was little over a century old and I was left pondering why anyone would make such a grandiose architectural statement in a small New England town.

“This was America’s Gilded Age showing off at its finest,” explained Karen as she began the tour with a narration of the peculiar era that incubated The Breakers.

The Great Hall of The Breakers, with its trompe l’oeil sky fresco, was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt to echo the open-air courtyards of Italian villas

The Great Hall of The Breakers, with its trompe l’oeil sky fresco, was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt to echo the open-air courtyards of Italian villas

The Gilded Age, a term originally coined by Mark Twain for one of his lesser-known novels, refers to the economic boom that swept the USA roughly between 1877 and 1900. It was the period during which the Second Industrial Revolution reached North America, giving birth to a nouveau riche oligarchic class of banking, mining and railroad magnates, all impossibly hungry for social legitimacy and grandeur.

Rhode Island’s oceanside town of Newport would become the holiday playground for this newly minted elite, a dramatic showcase and stage for their extravagant lives and society dramas.

“This was once the world’s most sought-after resort area,” beamed Mark Brodeur, a walking Rhode Island encyclopaedia and state tourism official. “Anyone from across the USA who wanted to be seen in society needed to summer in Newport – even coming in from as far out as San Francisco.”

The summer ‘season’ here typically lasted for six weeks, I was told, shocked that they would build all this grandeur for barely two months a year.

“The Second Industrial Revolution gave birth to a nouveau riche oligarchic class in North America”

“The real wonder is that many such spectacular mansions were built during a period spanning just four decades,” countered Mark, “with The Breakers taking only two years to build from inception to delivery.”

It was hard to believe such an extravagant architectural feat was created in such a short time. Its interiors are chock-a-block with staggering artwork, furnishings and antiques.

“These are materialistic excesses brought in from around the world to signify status and superiority,” explained Karen. “It’s the ‘money is no object’ approach to getting things done,” she conceded.

The guided walk took us through a procession of rooms where the finest materials shone throughout: Carrera marble floors, Baccarat chandeliers, Tiffany lights, African alabaster tiles, Santo Domingo mahogany furniture. If there was ever any doubt that this ‘summer cottage’ – as the era’s palatial mansions were rather facetiously called – was a child of America’s Gilded Age, it was soon lost in a sea of finery.

I noticed that there were few visitors during my late-afternoon visit in June, yet Karen explained that The Breakers’ was very much in demand again thanks to the attention brought about by recent TV period dramas such as HBO’s The Gilded Age and
The Buccaneers on Apple TV.

A portrait of Alice Vanderbilt, wife to Cornelius Vanderbilt and the enduring matriarch of the family

A portrait of Alice Vanderbilt, wife to Cornelius Vanderbilt and the enduring matriarch of the family

Television producers have not only used mansions like this one as sets for their shows, they also took inspiration from the real-life personalities of the high society of the era. The renowned Vanderbilt family, for whom The Breakers was built, is reputed to have been the inspiration behind the protagonists of The Gilded Age TV series. As Karen began narrating stories of the family’s real-life societal dramas, using the house’s public rooms as backdrops to her tales, I could see why.

“Perhaps due to their extreme wealth, they seemed to have lived more intense lives, with many dramatic moments,” she concluded.

While The Great Depression and accompanying 1929 stock market crash brought to an end many dynasties of the Gilded Age, some prominent families continue thriving to this day. Though the Vanderbilt heirs squandered much of the massive wealth built by patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt, Karen shared that there were descendants of the family still living in part of The Breakers up until 2018. She also revealed that it was not the only Newport mansion associated with them.

Indeed, although The Breakers is arguably the grandest example of this era, I would soon discover that it was one of many attention-grabbing mansions lining Newport’s famed Bellevue and Ocean avenues.

The Breakers was built in just two years

The Breakers was built in just two years

How the other half lived

Just a short walk away, I left the Northern Italian Renaissance behind and arrived in Louis XIV’s Versailles, entering the grounds of Marble House. The two mansions shared not only the same architect – the most in-demand man of the age, Richard Morris Hunt – but also an association with the extended Vanderbilt family.

William Vanderbilt commissioned Marble House as a 39th birthday present for his wife, Alva, who would become a central figure in Gilded Age society. It was at Marble House that I would understand just how pivotal a role women played in this era of American history.

“While business was headed up exclusively by men, it was women that moved the society of the Gilded Age,” explained local guide Raymond Roy as he started narrating the story of Alva Vanderbilt. As the lady of the house, she was responsible for running the household, both here and in the principal family home in Manhattan. She would also meticulously plan and execute the most important task of all: society entertaining.
Alva Vanderbilt famously said: “I know of no profession, art or trade that women are working in today as taxing on mental resources as being a leader of society.”

William Vanderbilt gifted Marble House to his wife, Alva, on her 39th birthday, little thinking that she’d divorce him several years later on grounds of adultery, scandalising the society of the day

William Vanderbilt gifted Marble House to his wife, Alva, on her 39th birthday, little thinking that she’d divorce him several years later on grounds of adultery, scandalising the society of the day

Yet Alva did a lot more than host vain society balls and picnics. “She was in fact a pioneer of the American suffrage movement and heavily involved in the National Women’s Party,” Raymond announced proudly. The on-site exhibition listed the many ‘firsts’ of Alva in her pioneering work on women’s empowerment. “She did all that while also managing this most beautiful of Newport mansions,” he remarked.

Named after the 14,000 cubic metres of white marble that were used in its construction, Marble House is graceful, elegant and modelled after the Petit Trianon de Versailles. I enquired about the trend among the Gilded Age’s elite to design these homes in faux-historic European architecture.

“As America did not have its own artistic tradition at the time, European arts and architecture lent an air of sophistication,” explained Raymond, just as Mark interjected: “Remember that among the newly wealthy there was real hunger for legitimacy; a need to confirm that new money does matter.”

“Interweaved with the interiors were stories taking in immigration, employment and labour disputes”

For many historians, Marble House was the mansion that started the societal competition that would transform Newport from a summer resort of wooden colonial houses to the must-be-seen epicentre of opulence. I was eager to see more of what it inspired.

Our next stop, The Elms, drew on the 18th-century French Château d’Asnières and took its name from the expansive grounds that were originally filled with towering American elms – none of which survive to date, having long succumbed to Dutch elm disease.

There is an impossibly grand entrance to the main building, giving way to a rather theatrical entry into the French-style Neoclassical grand ballroom. Inside, little of the original furnishings remained, unlike the ‘summer cottages’ I had explored earlier. Yet The Elms was an enlightening stop on my journey across the remnants of Newport’s Gilded Age, particularly after I had joined the only ‘Servant Life Tour’ among the mansions. It started with a flight of 82 stairs that led from a hidden basement-level servant entrance all the way up to the third-floor staff quarters.

A visit to the kitchens of The Elms

A visit to the kitchens of The Elms

“The owners of The Elms went to great lengths to keep its servants out of the sight of residents and visitors,” noted Mark.
Over the next hour, I heard many moving stories of butlers, cooks and maids – the myriad support staff needed to run every mansion in Newport. As we continued to the basement kitchens, bedrooms and laundry rooms, the difference between these and the opulent public and owners’ quarters couldn’t be more striking. Even back in 1901, the Elms was fully electrified and had its own generator, yet the conditions of the staff quarters were much more primeval.

Interweaved with the barren interiors were stories taking in immigration, employment and labour disputes as America wrestled with its wealth imbalance during an era of rapid economic change. It was a very solemn reminder that this was a period of obscene wealth for the very few, and of abject poverty and inequality for many more.

Continuing our walk along Bellevue Avenue, we came across a single mansion that stood out but was purposefully difficult to approach.

“This was once Mrs Astor’s Beechwood house and the most sought-after invitation in Newport,” smiled Mark.
Mrs Astor was perhaps the most prominent societal figure of the Gilded Age. Receiving an invitation to one of her balls signified that you were part of America’s top echelon of society. Beechwood was previously open to the public as a museum, but today this palatial cottage is entirely out of bounds and is now the private property of billionaire Larry Ellison, co-founder of software giant Oracle.

Mark confirmed that Newport’s homes are still changing hands for tens of millions of dollars. I pondered whether Ellison is perhaps part of a new generation of modern-day American oligarchs, their immense wealth now deriving from the tech industry. It also followed that if the extremely wealthy are still coming here, was the social side also alive?

Admiring the Newport coastline

Admiring the Newport coastline

“The theatricality of the Gilded Age society may be gone, but the exclusivity remains in different iterations,” Mark explained as we headed towards Ocean Avenue. He pointed in the direction of Bailey’s Beach, an exclusive club whose past members included the Vanderbilts and the Astors – it is one of a few in the area. “In a way, the society arena continues today, as getting a membership in one of these is not easy and is much sought-after by anyone who’s anyone,” he affirmed.

I was curious about the enduring appeal of Newport to the extremely wealthy and how they came to be here in the first place. The mild temperatures and ocean-side climate were important, explained Mark, as was its proximity to New York City. The two were traditionally well connected by both rail and road, with the town having been a major shipping hub since the Revolutionary War.

“Newport was once one of the most important colonial towns in America,” Mark insisted, a history that became apparent as we made our way to its historic centre.

The Elms’ theatrical entryway sets the tone for any visit

The Elms’ theatrical entryway sets the tone for any visit

The power of Old money

I was surprised to see the scale of Newport’s colonial core – perhaps the best preserved in all of North America – which featured dozens of homes and civic buildings dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Indeed, it was Newport’s maritime prosperity in the 1700s that led to its first population boom.
Trade and society aside, the city has long been tolerant and welcoming. In 1663, King Charles II of England granted the Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which guaranteed Freedom of Religion to the colony of Rhode Island. It was the very first time a royal decree guaranteed respect for all religions.

Proof of this lay in the city’s main plaza, Washington Square, which isn’t dominated by a single house of worship, as you might expect. Instead, a Quaker meeting house, a synagogue, a Baptist and an Episcopal church are all within short walking distance of the square, and all of equal size and grandeur.
“Newport and Rhode Island have always been welcoming, without pre-conceptions or prejudice. Perhaps this was an added reason why the nouveau riche of the Industrial Revolution found an indiscriminate, open invitation to the city,” added Mark.

Wandering the colonial buildings of Newport’s historic centre

Wandering the colonial buildings of Newport’s historic centre

Eager to find out more about Newport’s origins, I visited the Historical Society Museum on Washington Square’s southern end. On browsing its exhibits, I pieced together the story of the direct links between the Atlantic slave trade and the city’s resulting economic wealth. It was a stern reminder that so much of the beauty around me, whether from the colonial era or the turn of the century, was built on the sacrifice of millions of exploited human lives.

Before leaving Newport, we took to the ocean aboard a restored yacht from the Gilded Age era, joining a dozen or so other visitors. After all, I was in a city synonymous with the America’s Cup and it seemed a fitting testament to all that I’d seen. This is a former yachting capital of the world, and its rich sailing tradition had also been embraced by the magnates of the late 1800s as their sport of choice, complementing their daily tennis rituals.

“The Slater Mill’s exhibits acknowledge the darker side of this story ”

As we sailed across the glorious natural port, it became clear why even grown-ups wanted to build castles on the beach in Rhode Island. The dramatic coastline around the city is quintessentially New England, ranging from wild rocky coves framing white pebble beaches through to charming islets with picturesque and lonesome lighthouses.

The Atlantic behaved well for our short excursion. “It is pleasantly mild year-round and yet fairly windy – ideal sailing conditions really,” explained Jason, the yacht’s skipper. “Except for the hurricanes – when they come, things get real bad!,” he smiled.

The view of Newport’s quaint harbourfront from the yacht excursion

The view of Newport’s quaint harbourfront from the yacht excursion

Thankfully, extreme weather events here are of rare occurrence. This year marks the 70th anniversary of Hurricane Carol, the most devastating tropical storm to hit the town in modern times.

Leaving Newport’s mighty ocean behind, I headed inland, where my next stop would take me back to the very dawn of the mega-wealth that paved the way for the Gilded Age – the site where the First Industrial Revolution began in the United States.

Catching a glimpse of what is today a serene stream of water, it was hard to believe that Blackstone River was once the USA’s hardest working waterway. It supported a network of more than 100 watermills that catapulted the economic fortunes of the area – and of the USA as a whole – into the stratosphere.

I paid a visit to Slater Mill, a National Historic Landmark recognised as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. It was here that I met National Park Service ranger Allison Horrocks, who walked us around the well-preserved site of the first successful water-powered cotton spinning mill in the Americas. Inaugurated in 1793, it signalled the dawning of a new era of textile production; one that would be supercharged by modern machinery and which mirrored the advances that had been made in England – albeit around 30 years after the Industrial Revolution had started in the UK. It all began with the help of English émigré Samuel Slater.

Allison Horrocks, park ranger at Slater Mill, explains the cotton-milling process and how it was revolutionised here in the late 18th century

Allison Horrocks, park ranger at Slater Mill, explains the cotton-milling process and how it was revolutionised here in the late 18th century

The in-house museum’s exhibits narrate how Derbyshire-born Slater, who is often called the ‘father of the American factory system’, was able to introduce English-style textile manufacturing in the States. They also acknowledge the darker side of this story, explaining the simple truth that the growth of the cotton industry here was only made possible by the southern slavery system that allowed cotton to flow cheaply to Rhode Island’s powerful mills.

Under these conditions, the new class of textile barons of the First Industrial Revolution was born. They would later be joined by their peers across other industries during the Second Industrial Revolution – the one that would give birth to the fabulously wealthy family dynasties of the Gilded Age.

More of Newport’s historic homes

More of Newport’s historic homes

The New generation

Mark was eager for me to meet a Rhode Islander whose family history brings the whole narrative together. On arrival at Clouds Hill Museum in Warwick, one of the country’s best-preserved Victorian homes, we were greeted by owner Anne Holst, who often personally welcomes visitors.

The museum is also Anne’s family home, and it was originally commissioned in 1872 by William Slater for his daughter. It has remained in the same family ever since, passing from female to female until it reached Anne, its fourth-generation owner, who in her own words has endeavoured to “look after this incredible place” ever since.

The name Slater was no coincidence either, and I discovered that she had ties to the mill that I‘d visited. Apparently, Anne’s great, great uncle inherited the business.

Anne Holst [sitting] often greets visitors to Clouds Hill Museum

Anne Holst [sitting] often greets visitors to Clouds Hill Museum

Clouds Hill is filled with treasures from around the world – I almost bumped an original Ming-dynasty vase off a side table as I walked around the perfectly preserved reception rooms. I was not surprised to hear the house was selected as a filming location for HBO’s The Gilded Age.

It was then that Mark stepped in to clarify that Anne’s family would have been considered ‘old money’ by the time of the Gilded Age and their ilk. Those making their wealth in textiles in the First Industrial Revolution were already established by the time of the second. However, many of these old families gained an upper hand by investing in mining, railroads and banking, hence securing their spot at the front end of the new wealth.
Anne narrated stories in which Rhode Island’s ‘old money’ initially looked down on the nouveau riche of Newport and their flashy behaviour. “But then, eventually, many ended up marrying into them, bringing the ‘old’ and ‘new’ together,” she laughed.

The Clouds Hill Museum building dates from the 1870s

The Clouds Hill Museum building dates from the 1870s

I finished my journey across Rhode Island with a stay on one of the state’s famed beaches, at the historic Ocean House resort, built in 1868. While it has welcomed many a Gilded Age socialite, it’s a more private and understated property, mirroring the character of Watch Hill, the town it’s part of. Its hefty price tag, however, means that it remains rather exclusive and a special treat for most travellers.

“Watch Hill was always the more family-orientated, discreetly wealthy community compared with flashy Newport and its ostentatious displays of wealth,” confirmed South County local
Faye Pantazopoulos.

Private though it may be, Watch Hill was still mansion-heavy territory and very much a resort of choice for the well-to-do and celebrities. I drove past historic homes belonging to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Henry Ford.

From my hotel room window my attention was drawn to a palatial home perched atop a hill opposite. It wouldn’t have been out of place among the mansions of Newport, and it was uniquely fenced off with barbed wire.

Perched elegantly atop the bluff of Watch Hill, Ocean House peers out over the beach below

Perched elegantly atop the bluff of Watch Hill, Ocean House peers out over the beach below

“This is the holiday home of Taylor Swift,” smiled Faye as we drove past it the next day, cheekily disclosing the rumoured value the star paid to acquire this historic property.

More than a century after its Gilded Age apogee, Rhode Island continues to attract the newly wealthy, who swell its members’ clubs and harbours. But there is still a glamour to that earlier age, when even among the fabulously rich there was a desperation to impress. It lends their stories a pathos ripe for the TV shows that now draw on their lives. And even as you stand amid the marble floors and magnificent ballrooms, it’s a wonderful reminder there are still some things even railway magnates and Taylor Swift can’t buy.

About the trip

The author travelled with on-the-ground support from Discover New England, Rhode Island Tourism Division, Discover Newport and South County Tourism Council.