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For My Birthday Getaway That Brought Me Back to New England: Part III/Rhode Island Activities

I have a love affair with old, historic, and gorgeous homes. I find it incomprehensible that families lived in them as part of their everyday lives. I find it more unbelievable when these amazing models were only used sparingly as escapes from their main houses. These were merely “summer cottages”. I have never heard anything described more inaccurately in my life. There is no way to look at any of the mansions on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island and mistake them for a cottage.

When I think about these beauties and especially when I look at their pictures I am barely able to breathe. They are enormous and not just in size but in detail. Every last touch has been considered. There is nothing, not one room, not one piece of décor, not one staircase, that isn’t there for a reason. Everything has a purpose. It has a meaning to those for whom the house was built. Even the landscape the house was built on, the lot that was chosen, how the grounds were groomed, and how it is maintained today, have all been carefully plotted and planned. It is this kind of seamless effort all these years that impresses me so. I am overpowered by that kind of talent and forethought when I look at a house from nineteenth century that has been modeled after the great architectures in Europe from that time and consists of extraordinary technology being developed way ahead in modern times.

As I have mentioned before prior to this trip I had only been to one other Newport mansion, The Breakers ( If you only get to see one home that really is the one you should go to. I could see it every day and not get tired of it. I would probably notice something new every single time. The grandeur of that home is really remarkable. At Christmas time I cannot even imagine how beautiful that must be. But since I had been there already and was on a limited schedule I did not choose to go back there this time.

Since this was now day two of my vacation, I was waking up as a thirty-one year old person for the first time. It was quite nice. I was getting lots of texts and phone calls. It was all I could do to get ready on time. Yes, even though it was my birthday I had to stay on track.  I had a delicious breakfast of French toast and a cup of Starbucks Carmel Macchiato. I was in a good mood now. Then my best friend showed up. I was living the dream!

After some much needed girl gossiping time, the next item on our agenda was the mansions. I picked this activity for two reasons. One it is my favorite thing to do in Newport and on my birthday. Two because in December many other attractions are closed in Newport. Luckily besides The Breakers, Marble House and The Elms were open year round. The latter two I had never seen and so that was what we were on our way to see. Especially at this time of year I knew we were in for a treat.

Now besides the joy I felt and the rays of sunshine inside of me, that was to say nothing of the yucky weather outside. It was damp and rainy. It made it miserable getting in and out of the car and taking pictures outside. We also had to use our imaginations a bit with the grounds. Since it was winter nothing was blooming. There were no trees, leaves, or grass. When you are looking at estates that have rolling hills it sort of distracts you for a moment. But they were still impressive and had a serene quality to them.

It was a good thing our tours were inside so they were not canceled. I would have been devastated. Plus knowing what I know now, I would have really missed out. These are some of the most amazing places I have ever seen. And I get out a lot.

Marble House was our first stop. It was the home of Ava and William Vanderbilt, the younger brother of the Vanderbilt who built The Breakers. Ava received house in 1891 as a birthday present but left William in 1895 and moved down the road to Belcourt Castle. After her second husband’s death she reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built in the back grounds along the water. Mrs. Vanderbilt was a great lover of the Asian culture as could be seen in the red bedroom upstairs that had that motif. The Tea House back then was used for political rallies for the women’s movement and right to vote. Nowadays it serves tea and snacks but sadly was closed this time of year. I plan to go back. It seems so exquisite.

The architecture was modeled after Versailles in France which came as no surprise to me. The opulence was everywhere. Every bedroom had its own theme and glory. I could not wait to see what was around each corner.
This house does not let you down. There are three kinds of gold in the ballroom. The staircase alone terrified me. The solid marble that was used on the railing and stairs made me nervous I would fall. On the tour it was said that the housekeepers would start at different points and scrub until it shined. I believe that after that it is amazing how anyone lived.

I must say the Christmas season made this extra special. I loved the trees everywhere and how they were appropriated decorated and color coordinated. They were so large and these incredible rooms were just the right size to display them.

In 2006 Marble House became a National Historic Landmark, as well as it should be.

The Elms was our next destination. We packed ourselves back in the car. It was on the same road back towards our hotel so that was good. You can’t believe how tired you are from walking around and sightseeing. But it is hot in the house and being wet from the rain doesn’t help. I start to wonder how anyone did this just to live here. Actually then I started to wonder how the help did it because they had far more work to do and stairs to climb. The kitchens are always in the basements and their living quarters in the top floors or attics. I would have been dead in two days tops. Actually there is a great tour given from that point of view, “The Servant Life Tour” (see link below). It warns you ahead of time how much walking and stair climbing is involved. I was not up for that but it really did peak my interest.

So now we were at The Elms and here I was going to see one thing I knew I would love- a giant Christmas tree made of over two hundred poinsettia plants. They are one of my favorite kinds of flowers/plants and seeing them all together to create this magnificent structure would be a must for me. When I finally saw it in person, and was allowed to take its photo I mad-cowed! I took more than I knew what to do with but I was afraid I couldn’t quite capture the depth of it. I was right. In person the beauty and stillness was much more overpowering than the way that it is photographed but it is still one of my favorite things to look at.

The Elms claim to fame is the sunken garden inside the home that is laid out and maintained in formal French manner. There is also a carriage house and many terraces. The house is decorated in 18th century décor and has many treasures that were collected from Europe. The house is named for its luscious outside gardens which consist of many trees, fountains, and marble statutes.

The house was completed in 1901 for Mr. and Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind. It remained in the family until 1961 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

On the tour I learned many things. A fun fact about teaching others how to dine probably was exhibited in the dining room. There was a story about how when the children came home they would run around the gardens outside until they rang the butler to bring them milk and cookies. Another great story is how the children played hide and seek and one manage to hide for hours in the dumbwaiter. The house and service staff was that large!

On our way out we passed through the kitchen on the underground room and I heard a woman telling her friend a story. Her grandmother had been a servant at this mansion and now she lived around the corner and had come as a visitor to this house. She noticed her grandmother’s name on a list of staff members on a maintenance list that was still hanging on the wall as we walked out of the final tail of the tour. Wow, talk about coming full circle!

It’s really remarkable how you go from home to home and you think you have seen it all but there is always something else to impress you. There is just too much to take it all in at one time. You are looking around and listening, but there is just too much to absorb and so quickly.

I am consistently surprised and walking around with my mouth open during these tours. I also find myself pausing the audio tour to get the attention of my companions to ask them if they too just heard this. It is like a dream land. A marvelous dreamland you never want to wake from. Rather you want to go back to sleep and back in time to have lived it. But if you can’t have been a part of it at least we get to visit it. I could never pick my favorite house it would be too hard and I still have to see the rest. I do enjoy sharing what I learned and what I saw with everyone though. Each time I remember another room or ornament I get excited again. It revives my trip again.

Not everyone would be comfortable living in the life of luxury but I have always been drawn to it. Something tells me that if and when I hit it rich I will know just what to do. I was born to live this way. I think that is what Lady Gaga was trying to tell me.

For Your Visit to See How the Other Half Lived:

Up Next- For My Birthday Getaway That Brought Me Back to New England: Part IV/ Rhode Island Food………………………………………………………………………………………………


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