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For Life, When in Newport: “Servant Life Tour”


Usually when we speak about how the other half lives we mean those doing all of the living and none of the chores. When in Newport those other halves spent a good part of their summers at one another’s mansions for afternoon teas, “casual” dinners, and evening galas. The entire point was to be seen and show off your collections of art, foreign bought goods, and just how well you were doing. Clearly you knew who you should be in business with just by pulling up to their homes. 

But, I am sure, those who marveled at their friends and neighbors success did little to marvel at how much work was behind an average day at maintaining these so called Summer Cottages. However this fact has never been lost on me ever since I first began visiting Newport, Rhode Island, way back in 2011.

On my most recent trip there it was time to allocate an afternoon to the other half, the half that kept Newport up and running, which is why I took the Servant Life Tour at The Elms.




What you need to know before I begin is what The Elms is all about. It was the Summer Cottage of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Berwind. The couple had no children and lived alone except for their over forty servants. Mr. Berwind’s business was coal and it served him quite well. So well in fact that the couple had to build this mansion just to display their art and collections. Originally they were staying in a small home that was on the grounds that was more like an actual cottage you'd see reading a fairy tale. But that is no more.

I first visited The Elms and took the standard home tour, about five years ago (http://bit.ly/2ngfYWH) during a birthday I spent in Newport. It was during that visit when I fell head over heels for this home especially its poinsettia Christmas tree that is now a goal of mine as soon as I have space for one.

The home is quite magnificent even just from what you see on the Servants Life Tour. In fact I have a whole new appreciation for it. This tour though clearly focuses on the staff and their numerous roles. 






We begin by going walking through the foyer on the first floor to the private staff staircase. From there you climb the eighty-two stairs it takes to reach the third floor which acted as a dormitory for employees. Single employees, I should say. Both women and men slept and showered on this floor although clearly not together. This was a proper house and was run and lived as such by all. 



I thought the rooms were desirable. In fact I think they were bigger than my college dorm room. There were doubles and singles and one bathroom. I believe there were about sixteen bedrooms available. Showers had to be kept on a strict schedule otherwise you had to climb those eighty-two stairs up and down to boil some warm water for washing up. No allocated time in the bathroom would also mean resorting to using a chamber pot, one of the cruelest indignities I believe ever existed. 














The Elms was way ahead of its time. It was one of the first homes to have electricity. Being able to live here, even as a servant must have seemed like a privilege.    

For those of us who are lovers of the PBS series Downton Abbey, you will have an idea of the types of behaviors that would have been acceptable and how the servants would have reported according to the established hierarchy. The Elms was no different. In real life it was a man named Ernest Birch who was doppelgänger to the role of Dowton’s Mr. Carson. Similarly staff was largely unseen and unheard unless they had a formal role like footman or butler. I would have been done in on the first day once I had to climb those stairs more than once. I was exhausted just watching them do it on Downton Abbey.

During the early 1900s the most common ethnicities immigrating to America were from Whales, England, and Ireland just as those characters on TV were. As with all immigrants they arrived here with the hope of better lives. What most of them faced was very much the opposite. 

Jobs at a place such as The Elms were the dream jobs. Despite the laborious work and numerous hours; you were paid, had a clean and safe place to live, along with dependable employment. For someone new to this country, heck to anyone who needed a paycheck and a place to live, this was an ideal situation. But despite the conditions that does not mean it was without its difficulties. 

During the first summer The Elms opened the Berwinds through numerous affairs. Their first season in town had to lay the ground work for all of those to come. However this meant the staff had to work around the clock, nearly twenty hours a day. Performing their daily chores, as well as preparing for elaborate dinners and parties for hundreds of guests, without additional help, quickly led to an uprising. When they could take no more they asked Mr. Birch’s predecessor to speak with Mr. Berwind. The result led to a scandal for Newport society. 

Mr. Berwind promptly fired all of his employees and had them on the train back to New York City the next day. The following afternoon arrived forty new employees to take their spots. Like I said they were very desirable positions. 

Once the Berwinds were established in Newport society a normal work week was much more reasonable. Since it was not the norm for Mr. and Mrs. Berwind to have a quiet dinner alone and retire to the library, they either had a dinner or party at home or went out to dinner at a friend’s place. On those nights the Berwinds were out staff were allowed free time as soon as they finished their regular duties.

Aside from the servants in the home there was a separate team responsible for the landscaping and gardens with their own set of daily duties and reporting classes. 








From the third floor we were led out a doorway to the roof! I had no idea this would be part of the tour. Apparently staff would be allowed to step outside for some air or conversation, again as long as they were done with their tasks. As we walked on the roof to the backside of the house the view was divine. You could see the gargoyles that surround the top of the house up close, the gardens down below all the way to their natural end, and the river all the way to the Newport Bridge! The fact that the roof was able to be walked on and was as flat in most parts as any floor indoors made you feel on top of the world without feeling any danger. It was intoxicating. 

From the roof you could also see the enormity of the carriage house in the distance, another impressive building. I learned that the carriage house was home to both horses and eventually automobiles but that is not all. There was a staff there as well and numerous rooms including its own dining room!! A dining room in a building for animals and cars!!! It sounds like it was up to par for the likes of Doris Duke’s camels too (http://bit.ly/2qXjECF). Only in Newport.

From this vantage point you had only to look to the right to see the several homes the Berwinds also owned for when they had additional guests or even the servants families were in town. One thing is for sure, they were generous hosts. 









After descending down all of the those stairs and then some we were in the basement or ground floor. Here we saw the water heaters and the three furnaces it took to heat the home and hot water. We also got to view (not in this order) the wine cellar, the room dedicated solely to luggage, the cabinets designed for packing and traveling back and forth to N.Y.C. including several pieces of furniture with cutouts inside each shaped for the object that belongs such as silverware, vases, etc. We walked through the large darkened cool room where vegetables, fruits, and other foods were stored year round. But I was most impressed by the huge wooden closet object built into a wall in the basement. It looked like a wardrobe but was actually an enormous freezer! It was incredible. 

Each and every summer the servants arrived about six weeks before the Berwinds to open the home and get it ready. During the winter, while the majority of the staff returned to N.Y.C. along with the Berwinds, the house did not remain completely unoccupied. There was a caretaker that came by everyday to check on the home, as well as a small grounds crew who remained nearby in order to maintain the necessary upkeep. 

By far the most fascinating parts of this tour for me revolved around laundry and coal.

The laundry had to be the hardest job in the house. Harder than scrubbing the chandeliers, mopping the marble floors, or cooking the vast meals. The laundry was done by hand. There were no washers and dryers around except for the people who acted as such. Most dumbfounding was that each button, every bit of lace, any detail on all garments had to be removed in order for clothing to be washed and dried, then reassembled. Since this was a home of American nobility you can imagine there were not a single plain white t-shirt among them. The amount of time and work behind the laundry makes me feel bad about how much complaining I do about emptying the dryer. A luxury I am sure those folks would have killed for. 

Years later when Julia Berwind moved in and the technology was available neither washers nor dryers were ever installed in The Elms. It remained locked in the ways of laundry’s past. Considering The Elms was one of the first homes to have electricity it seems that much depressing. 













Now for the pièce de résistance—— how the coal used in the home got there. 

Drumroll please……………………………………………

In order that no guest or Mrs. Berwind, who would sit out on the porch on warm summer days, be disrupted by seeing the delivery trucks pull into the driveway, the path was disguised and covered by winding plants and flowers. The trucks drove straight underground (under where the parking lots are now) and had the buckets full of coal sent on a line directly to the furnaces. There is still the circle in the center of that room where the buckets could be turned around and sent back out once emptied. Extra coal was stored in the corner and what was needed was shoveled into the three furnaces, one for each of the floor of the home. 

Any needed groceries were also delivered via this discreet system. 






Standing there in the midsts of both the past and the present was like being cast in a made for TV movie. I haven't seen anything cooler than that in any historic or famous home I have ever toured. 



The kitchen, which is the last room of both tours coincidently, you are able to view the enormous stove and appliances used by the French chef that had been employed. As per French cuisine standards there were only cooper pots and pans used. I liked that our guide made us note the cooper pole that ran horizontally in front of the stove. Its placement was to prevent anyone passing by from bumping into hot items cooking. Genius.

After Mrs. Berwind’s death in 1922, Mr Berwind has his younger sister Julia move in to serve as the hostess of events at The Elms. Upon Mr. Berwind’s own death in 1936 the estate was left to Julia and subsequently Mr. Berwind’s own nephew. On the tour I learned he was an elderly man at that point and had no real interest in keeping the home. It was sold to developers in the 1960s who were going to tear down the historic home in favor of new construction projects. Thankfully, the Preservation Society of Newport stepped in. 

For the stellar price of one hundred and sixteen thousand dollars The Society scored The Elms, its carriage house, as well as the surrounding homes that had also been owned by the Berwinds. That sounds like the deal of the lifetime to me especially considering just the home itself originally cost a million and a half dollars to build in 1901. Poor Mr. Berwind must have been rolling over in his grave. 

After the tour drew to a close, I took a final stroll through the gift shop, and stepped outside. The rain remained at bay although it was quite dreary and damp out. I was the only one at that spot and as I looked up I realized I was standing beneath the area where my tour had only begun one hour earlier. I was standing in the direct path of what used to be the entry way for vehicles making deliveries. The plants and flowers that would have normally disguised this view in thew summer months were not currently in bloom so my view remained unobstructed by such landscape. It was at this moment that I could actually appreciate the entire home and its functionality perfectly. 

This had been an afternoon well spent. 

The “Servant Life Tour” isn't the only gig of its kind in town. There is also “Beneath The Breakers” tour at The Breakers, which is I believe is also the biggest Summer Cottage in Newport. Though I have no immediate plans to take this tour as I am now well versed in this topic, should I return to Newport and it is still around I am not against giving it a spin. 

Perhaps at that time I would begin by retaking the standard Breakers tour (http://bit.ly/2mDtmr0). I now see that in order to really appreciate the work behind a masterpiece it is best to have all of the home’s many details fresh in your mind.


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