Put on your walking shoes and prepare to be awed! A day trip to Newport, Rhode Island can be packed with sights and history with a visit to several of the magnificent mansions that once were summer “cottages” to the wealthiest families in the country.
One can include any of the mansions for a day trip, but our itinerary included the new “Beneath the Breakers” tour, followed by an audio-guided tour of the Breakers mansion itself. We then drove to The Elms, followed by a lunch break at Sayers Wharf, where many dining options await any preference such as The Mooring, a local staple.
After lunch, we visited Chateau-su-Mer and Marble House on Bellevue Avenue. Each mansion on our itinerary included self-guided audio tours which allow visitors to move at their own pace.
First experience of the day was the underground tour of the utilities that run The Breakers mansion at 44 Ochre Point Avenue. This tour is newly opened to the public this spring, and is definitely a must for any visit to Newport!
The original mansion on this property burned to the ground in 1892 and Cornelius Vanderbilt was determined that the new home would be absolutely fireproof. One of the ingenious ways to ensure that was to have all the boilers far away from the house. And so a huge underground facility was built out under the front lawn. The “Gilded Age” mansion was finished in 1895, and was the largest and most opulent house in the area. The mansion tour is a must, but we took the underground tour first, and it made such a difference in the way we viewed the house later.
Join the tour guide at the caretaker’s cottage inside the main gate and prepare to see some of the finest technology of that era. First stop on the tour is the boiler room which heats the entire 70-room, five-floor mansion. The boilers are huge, and are not the originals, but they are authentic and the same models that would have been seen in the boiler room in 1896. Finding those boilers was a joint effort between the Preservation Society and several companies. Thanks to the Pawtucket School Committee, these boilers were found – still in service – at Potter Burns Elementary School!
The tour guides are knowledgeable and willing to answer any and all questions. Descriptions of exactly how the heat is transferred to the mansion, as well as the methods for delivering water and electricity are covered in detail during the tour.
The tour continues down a 360-foot brick-walled tunnel to the area beneath the mansion. As you walk the tunnel, the guide points out historic photographs of the construction of Breakers. These photos are dated and show the progress of each phase.
The Breakers had elevators! And they were working wonders of the times. Once under the main house, you’ll see the motors and other components of the original elevator.
The final part of the tour includes the laundry area, the elaborate electrical system, the carpenter’s room, a storage area where garden sculptures are repaired, and a view of the 4-foot thick brick walls of the mansion – another of Vanderbilt’s requirements for fireproofing.
The tour ends in the gift shop – but not for the suspected purpose. The servants’ living area and cooking area have been converted to house the gift shop, but remnants of that original use are visible: a dumbwaiter, scullery, pantry, and communal dining area. But the gift shop is filled with gorgeous things that will help you tarry a bit.
The Elms is located at 367 Bellevue, and was the summer home of Mr. & Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind with a fortune in the coal industry.
Chateau su Mer is located at 474 Bellevue Avenue, an example of High Victorian architecture built for William Shepard Wetmore, a China trade merchant.
Marble House is at 596 Bellevue Avenue was built between 1888 and 1892 for Mr. & Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, an heir to steamship and New York Central Railroad fortunes.
In-depth information about each of the mansions is available on the Newport Mansions website.