The Newport, RI mansions define conspicuous consumption. If gawking at generally tasteless faux grandeur is your thing, you’ll not want for things to do.
On our recent trip, we took in three mansions, the mandatory Breakers, Marble House, and Vernon Court. Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s Breakers, designed by the premiere architect of the period, Richard Morris Hunt, is the grandest of the mansions — called “summer cottages” by their owners. It is characterized by stiff, uncomfortable, almost inhuman splendor. The tour guide was neither interested nor knowledgeable.
Also designed by Hunt for William K. Vanderbilt (Cornelius II’s younger brother), Marble House, too, is resplendent in imported finery — Hunt imported complete rooms from Europe — and includes 500K cubic feet of marble worth $7 million in 1890. The rooms here seem more comfortable than at the Breakers, and reflected the personalities of the owners. The self-paced audio tour, with available “detours” for special interests, was excellent. If you decide to take in just one mansion, this is the one to do if you don’t select Vernon Court (see below). But choose for yourself. Visit the Newport Mansions website of the Preservation Society, which maintains the Breakers, Marble House, and eight other mansions.
Privately maintained and omitted from the usual run of Newport tours is Vernon Court, designed by John Merven Carrere and Thomas Hastings, the architects who created the New York Public Library. Built in 1898 for Mrs. Richard van Nest Gambrill, it’s considered one of America’s greatest mansions. Not as ornate as the Breakers or Marble House, it’s still exquisitely over-the-top, but more tasteful. But Vernon Court is the bonus. The attraction is the museum established by Vernon Court’s owners, Judy and Laurence Cutler, to house their collection of art from the “golden age” of American illustration. The National Museum of American Illustration, housed on the lower floors of Vernon Court (the Cutlers live upstairs when they’re not in New York), includes a wealth of art by such pre-eminent illustrators as Norman Rockwell, Maxwell Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, J.M. Flagg, and J.C. Leyendecker, whose 1930 advertising illustration, Interwoven Socks, for the Saturday Evening Post appears at right. Blessed with unusual wisdom and a handsome budget, the Cutlers are consummate collectors and curators. The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles reviewed their New Treasure in Newport, Rhode Island in its September 2003 issue. Advance reservations “granted at the discretion of the Admissions Office” are required. Plan ahead.