Newport, Rhode Island: Gilded Age or Gilded Cage (New England)
5 Oct 2012 - It was Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner who first coined the phrase the "gilded age", referring to the period just after the American Civil War. Usually applied to the period extending from the late 1800‘s to the turn of the twentieth century, the term was not meant to be complimentary. Rather, it referred to a time when America's economy grew at such an extraordinary rate that it generated unprecedented levels of wealth, leading to the emergence of a society increasingly divided between the haves and have nots —a society in which many poor workers, such as farmers and factory workers, struggled to survive while the emerging industrial and financial aristocracy lived in palatial homes. And like it or not, the industrial and financial aristocracy all had their summer mansions here, in Newport, Rhode Island.
Based on the manner that this wealth was created, on the backs of the poor and underprivileged, I had mixed feelings about seeing the “Newport Mansions”. My moral side was at war with my love for the beautiful. Which side would win? Eventually, I figured that we were in Newport, and these mansions were an integral part of this region’s, and country’s, history. As my moral side went along begrudgingly, my aesthetic side did a backflip.
The Breakers: The Vanderbilt Mansion
Buying our entry into 3 of the mansions at $25 per person from inn host Darlene, we drove 2 minutes down the road to the Cliff Walk. The Newport Cliff Walk is considered one of the top attractions in Newport. It is a 3.5-mile (5.6 km) public access walkway that borders the shore line as well as some of these majestic mansions. It was from here where we could access “The Breakers”, summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II.
As I was not allowed to photograph inside this mansion, let me paint you a vivid picture. This summer estate had 70 rooms, included a two and a half story high Great Hall and a Morning Room adorned with platinum leaf wall panels. Every room featured rare marble, solid alabaster, gilded wood and priceless works of art in every room. My mind struggled for superlatives: It was mind blowing, it was exquisite, it was obscene. But wait for it.... Cornelius Vanderbilt II only spent one summer in this palatial mansion before his death.
At the end of a solid hour surrounded by indescribable wealth, as well as a good hike on the Cliff Walk before hand, we didn’t have the energy for another mansion. Not just yet anyway. We followed Darlene’s suggestion to take a drive along Ocean Avenue, which skirts the Newport coastline, culminating with lunch at Castle Hill Inn, a very exclusive Relais & Chateaux property. Set in a mansion that sits on its own 40 acres, it has an outdoor eating area that offers a more relaxed dress code and more casual dining. Making the most of a glorious day, Peter and I enjoyed an incredibly delectable Surf and Turf Burger (with Lobster!) and a glass of wine as we watched the boats sail by.
Rough Point: Doris Duke’s Newport Home
“Okay, we’ve got to see another mansion. After all, we’re here in Newport.”, I said, enjoying the sunshine and glass of Chardonnay far too much. In a minute, I’d be hanging out for a nap back at the inn.
“Yeah, okay. Let’s head over to Doris Duke’s.”, Peter said, like we were just popping over to the neighbors. I guess at Newport, Rhode Island, we were doing just that. Back at the car, with trusty map in hand, we drove for 5 minutes to “Rough Point” on Bellevue Avenue, summer home to once the richest girl in the world.
On a slightly smaller scale to The Breakers, Rough Point was no less impressive. With a sweeping ocean view and expansive grounds designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Doris Duke’s mansion showcased her love for fine art: stunning collection of priceless paintings by Gainsborough, van Dyck, Reynolds and Renoir, original Louis XVI chairs, Turkish carpets and Aubusson rugs, Belgian tapestries and Charles X ormolu mounted mother of pearl furniture. It was enough to make any art collector weep in ecstasy.
After an hour with our guide, Peter and I were “mansioned out” and ready to return to our inn for that nap. There’s only so much conspicuous consumption that 2 tourists from Sydney can take.
Dinner at Anthony’s:
After a day of touring mansions, tonight we wanted to eat with the locals. No tourists, no fine dining, no dress ups, and no frou frou. Just some great seafood at honest prices. Joining us tonight were fellow guests at the inn, Bonnie and Carol, some great ladies we met over breakfast.
“You’ve got to go to Anthony’s. You can’t make reservations, but it’s where all the locals go for the best seafood. It’s nothing fancy, but trust me, you’ll love it.”, Darlene said.
Putting our faith in Darlene - she hadn’t let us down yet - the four of us set forth in search of Anthony’s with the help of our trusted GPS. Within 15 minutes we were pulling into their driveway.
“What’s this! It looks like a fish shop! And do they even have any seating?”, I cried in panic.
“If Darlene says it’s where all the locals go, then it’s gotta be good.”, Peter said.
And Darlene was right. The deal with Antonio’s is that you line up, place your order - of fish, crustacean, salad and beer/wine/beverages - then wait to be seated by the attendant and await your order. What followed was fabulous seafood served simply in a no frills setting, surrounded by real people. Having started the day in such a surreal way at the mansions, it ended in as grounded a way as it could possibly get. And you know what? It was such a relief to get down to Earth.