Less than 20 minutes from North Kingstown on Aquidneck Island sits Newport, a city of about 25,000 people that once hosted the summer residences of some of the country's wealthiest people.
Starting in the mid-1800s, mansions began popping up in Newport, a trend that continued into the 1900s when famous families like the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Wideners commenced building "cottages" in the region.
The majority of these impressive homes are located on Bellevue Avenue and extending east to Easton Bay, although there's a secondary area featuring mansions on the western side of the island, as well.
Many of these historic mansions remain standing to this day and are open for public exploration and tours. If you're looking to investigate a little more of Rhode Island once you buy a home in South County, Newport is an excellent option.
Here's a look at some of Newport's most famous sites from the Gilded Age of American History.
Perhaps the most notable mansion in Newport is The Breakers, a 70-room, Renaissance-style home built in 1895 by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the Chairman and President of the New York Central Railroad. The mansion features 45-foot high ceilings in its Grand Hall, in addition to 13 acres of land overlooking the ocean. The home was inspired by the 16th-century palaces found in Turin and Genoa, and you won't be disappointed if you visit this National Historic Site.
The Breakers is open daily throughout the year, and there are audio tours available. You can also have lunch in the mansion with a premium ticket or attend special events on various dates throughout the year.
Slightly inland from Easton Bay on Bellevue Avenue is The Elms, another National Historic Landmark that was built using French-style architecture in 1901. The estate, which was constructed for Edward Julius Berwind, features a stunning garden with bronze statues and marble pavilions on its 10-acre plot of land. The Elms was unique in its day because it contained several new technologies of the time, and was one of the first homes in the entire city to have electricity.
The Elms is open all year-round and even hosts some special dinners that are worth buying tickets for if you want to spend an evening living like the elite of the early 20th century.
One of the better examples of Newport's Gilded Age architecture is Rosecliff, which features elements of Baroque and Baroque Revival architecture and was designed to imitate the style of the Grand Trianon, a Versailles retreat used by French royalty. The property was built in 1902 by a silver mining heiress named Theresa Fair Oelrichs and has been used in the filming movies like The Great Gatsby and Amistad.
There are regular dinners and wine and food events at Rosecliff, or you can visit for an audio tour almost any day throughout the year.
Another Vanderbilt family gem, Rough Point is an oceanfront home that sits on the southern end of Bellevue Avenue and overlooks the Atlantic. The mansion was built for Frederick Vanderbilt in 1887 and purchased by James B. Duke in 1992. When Duke died in 1925, his 12-year-old daughter, Doris, took control, eventually filling the home with rare art and antiques. These treasures remain in the residence to this day, as it has been mostly untouched since her death in 1993.
Today, the home is a public museum offering guided and self-guided tours. It's open between April and November and often hosts special art exhibitions, as well.
The house that started the explosion of mansions in Newport and brought the Gilded Age to the city was Marble House, which was completed for William K. Vanderbilt in 1892 as a gift to his wife, Alva. The house quickly made Alva a leading socialite in Newport, as she would host gatherings and wished to turn her house into a local temple for the arts. The inspiration for Marble House was the Petit Trianon at Versailles, and the home got its name from the over 500,000 cubic feet of marble it contains.
The home is now a National Historic Landmark and hosts various wine tastings, brunches, and dinners throughout the year. There's even the odd concert at Marble House, should you want to take in some music in one of the country's grandest environments.
More Than a Dozen Mansions to Experience
Other famous mansions in Newport include Chepstow, Ochre Court, Chateau-Sur-Mer, Isaac Bell House, and Kingscote, many of which are National Historic Landmarks and open for tours. There's also The Breakers Stable and Carriage House, a secondary home on The Breakers property featuring memorabilia from the Vanderbilt family's private collection.
If you wish to visit any of these historic mansions, you can purchase a single-day ticket to a particular home, buy two or five house passes, or go with a seasonal passport that provides unrestricted access to all of the residences. Purchasing a membership also grants you unlimited admission to all of the homes.
Dinners, brunches, and concerts, and wine tastings require separate tickets that you'll have to purchase through The Preservation Society of Newport County website.
Rhode Island has a rich history that you'll learn a lot about once you buy a house in South County. Visiting Newport allows you to see and experience the homes of some of the wealthiest people America has ever seen.