Clarendon Court was later purchased by Claus von Bülow and Martha Sharp Crawford, who was known as “Sunny von Bülow”. Sunny was worth over $75 million and updated the mansion and grounds to exceptionally elegant conditions. It was known that Sunny and Claus had a rough marriage, but it came to a head when on December 26, 1979, after the family had come together for Christmas at their mansion, she was found unresponsive and was rushed to the hospital where she slipped into coma but was revived. After days of testing, doctors determined the coma was the result of low blood sugar and diagnosed her as hypoglycemic, warning her against overindulging on sweets or going too long without eating. No foul play was suspected at the time. One year later, on the evening of December 21, 1980, while celebrating Christmas with her family at their mansion, she again displayed confusion. She was put to bed by her family, but in the morning she was discovered unconscious on the bathroom floor. She was taken to the hospital where it became clear that this time she had suffered severe enough brain injury to produce a persistent vegetative state. A hypodermic needle was found in a black bag in Bulow’s study and coupled with their maid’s testimony he was subsequently charged with her murder, accused of injecting his wife with insulin so he could live at Clarendon on her money with his mistress. His mistress was the actress Alexandra (Moltke) Isles, better known as “Victoria Winters” in Dark Shadows. In 1982, in a sensational case that gripped the country, Bülow was convicted. But, he appealed in 1985 and was acquitted. His stepchildren then filed a $56 million law suit against him, which was dropped two years later: Bülow agreed to divorce his comatose wife, relinquish all rights to her fortune, leave the country and never to profit from the story. Bülow moved to London where he kept a low profile for the rest of his life while Sunny remained in a vegetative state in New York until she eventually passed away in 2008.
Completed in 1880, the Newport Casino building is one of the best examples of Shingle style architecture in the world, and despite its name, it was never a gambling facility. Planning for the casino began a year earlier in August, 1879. Per legend, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the influential publisher of the New York Herald and a summer resident of Newport, bet his polo partner, Captain Henry Augustus Candy, a retired officer of the Queen’s 9th Royal Lancers and skillful British polo player, to ride his horse onto the front porch of the exclusive gentlemen’s-only club, the Newport Reading Room. Candy took the dare one step further and rode straight through the clubrooms, which disturbed the members. After Candy’s guest membership was revoked, Bennett purchased the land across the street from his home, on Bellevue Avenue, and sought to build his own social club. Within a year, Bennett hired the newly formed architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, who designed the U-shaped building for the new club. The Newport Casino was the firm’s first major commission and helped to establish MMW’s national reputation. The building included tennis courts, facilities for other games such as squash and lawn bowling, club rooms for reading, socializing, cards, and billiards, shops, and a convertible theater and ballroom. In the 20th century, the casino was threatened with demolition as Newport began to fall out of fashion as a summer resort. Saviors Candy and Jimmy Van Alen took over operating the club, and by 1954, had established the International Tennis Hall of Fame in the Newport Casino. The combination of prominent headliners at the tennis matches and the museum allowed the building to be saved. The building remains a National Landmark for its connections with gilded age society and possibly the first commission by McKim, Mead and White, who became one of the most prominent architectural firms in American history.
Ochre Court, one of the grandest mansions in America was built in 1892 for New York banker and real estate developer Ogden Goelet (1846-1897) and his wife, Mary Wilson (1855-1929). In 1879, Ogden and his brother, Robert, inherited a real estate empire in Manhattan of 259 houses then worth a combined $40 million which was second only to the Astors. In 1892, Goelet and his wife Mary were included in Ward McAllister‘s “Four Hundred“, purported to be an index of New York’s best families, published in The New York Times, a position only solidified after his summer “cottage” was completed that year in Newport, Rhode Island. Named Ochre Court, the 50-room chateau overlooks the Cliff Walk and Atlantic Ocean and is the second-largest mansion in Newport (after The Breakers). Ochre Court was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, who also designed The Breakers, and summered in town himself. Shockingly, the Goelet’s only occupied the home during an eight-week summer season, and they spent the rest of the year in their homes in New York City, France, or London. The operation of Ochre Court usually required twenty-seven house servants, eight coachmen and grooms for horses and their carriages, and twelve gardeners for the grounds. In 1947 the Goelets’ son, railroad, hotel, and real estate developer Robert Goelet IV (1880-1966), gave ‘Ochre Court’ to the Religious Sisters of Mercy to establish Salve Regina College after it became too expensive to maintain. ‘Ochre Court’, which housed the entire college during its first years, is still in use and remains the heart of the greatly expanded Salve Regina University.
One of the more architecturally modest and refined Gilded Age summer cottages of Newport sits on one of the most picturesque pieces of land at the southeastern point of Aquidneck Island and is aptly named Land’s End. The cottage was built in 1864, Land’s End was designed by John Hubbard Sturgis for Boston banker, Samuel Gray Ward, his father’s business associate. The home features a refined Italianate style base with a roof comprised of a variation of the Second Empire mansard style called a “turtleback roof”. Land’s End is probably most famous as the residence of Edith Wharton (1862-1937) after she acquired the property in 1889. She worked with Boston designer Ogden Codman, Jr., to experiment with a style of subdued classical interiors and a remodel of the exterior, which was later featured in their book, “The Decoration of Houses”. Wharton was inspired to show what good taste is after the influx of Vanderbilts and other newly moneyed summer residents of Newport. The book focused on how to build and decorate houses with nobility, grace, and timelessness. It would, they hoped, lead its readers out of what Wharton called (pace the Vanderbilts) a “Thermopylae of bad taste” and into an aesthetic Promised Land. Wharton only lived at Land’s End for a decade, when the “stuffiness” of high-society there led her to move to the Berkshires in Massachusetts, where she worked with architect Ogden Codman to design her new home, The Mount. It the monstrous Lippitt Mansion, Breakwater was built at the time, just next door! did not help that Sadly, many of the interiors have been altered since Wharton’s time there, but with more recent interventions, but the book did help shift some of Newports later homes to a more refined, classical taste.
‘The Reef’ a fabulous Gilded Age estate in Newport was built in 1885 for Theodore M. Davis by the Boston architectural firm of Sturgisand Brigham. The elegant shingle and stone Queen Anne villa was erected as both a summer house and to house some of Davis’s vast collection of paintings and Egyptian artifacts, collected during his excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings between 1902 and 1913. Besides the architecture of the home, the Reef Estate was also famous for its walled gardens, greenhouses, and outbuildings, sitting upon eighteen acres. overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Following Mr. Davis’ death in 1915, Milton J. Budlong of Providence purchased the estate. Milton divorced from his wife Jessie in 1928, and it was MESSY. Their Newport summer estate was placed in contention. The house, never again lived in by the family. During World War II, anti-aircraft gun emplacements were set up around the grounds, with the mansion housing gunnery personnel. After the War, the estate was given back to the Budlong heirs, who did not reside there. Vandalized throughout the 1950’s, the villa was set on fire in 1961 and demolished two years later in 1963. In 1969, the waterfront property came under the control of the State of Rhode Island and in 1976, became a state park. The old carriage house/stable and a later observation tower (possibly converted from a former water tower) stand today.
While the Breakers Mansion in Newport is one of the most opulent buildings in the United States, a tiny cottage on the grounds always gives me feelings of whimsy. Predating the larger mansion by two decades, this cottage was constructed on the grounds of the original Breakers House, owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, which was destroyed by fire in 1893. The cottage was built as a children’s playhouse around the time the original Breakers mansion was built in 1878. The Boston architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns built the mansion and adjacent cottage for Pierre Lorillard IV, a New York cigar manufacturer and millionaire. The Queen Anne Revival style elements, including the half-timbering and shingles and asymmetry, were in keeping with the style of the original Breakers, and complimented it well. My favorite part of the cottage is the open porch facing the ocean, which has four wooden posts, carved in the shape of figures from Dutch folklore, a sort of caryatid, supporting the roof. The house contains a living room and kitchen separated by a huge red brick chimney, which would be maintained by servants for the children while they play.
You know you’ve “made it” if you have a music room, especially if you have one in your summer mansion in Newport! The Music Room in The Breakers evokes the opulent Parisian interiors of the Second Period and when inside the room, you just feel sensory overload (in the best way possible. The room is located off the Great Room and Morning Room, at the southern end of the house. The Music Room was used for recitals and dances for the Vanderbilt Family and guests. The room displays ornate woodwork and furnishings designed by Richard Van der Boyen and built by J. Allard of Paris. The room looks like it was plucked out of a French building and dropped into the mansion, and that is because it was! The room’s interior was constructed completely in France and then sent to America where it was installed at The Breakers by French craftsmen. My favorite parts of the interior are the bay window at the end and the gilt gold coffered ceiling.
Possibly my favorite room in The Breakers mansion is the Morning Room, found on the first floor, just off the Great Hall and lower loggia. The Morning Room is executed in a late Renaissance style and faces east to catch the morning sun and provides sweeping views of the Atlantic. It served as a family sitting room at all times of the day. The interior design, including the fixtures, woodworking, and furniture, were designed by French architect Richard Bouwens van der Boijen and designer Jules Allard. The predominant grey, and gold colors of the Morning Room are echoed in its fireplace which is made of Campan marble. On the walls, you will find the most stunning shimmering silver wall panels, depicting ancient Greek goddesses. It was originally believed that these features were silver leaf, but the Newport County Preservation Society investigated further, determining it is actually platinum! The Vanderbilts clearly wanted this room to shimmer with the sunrise, so the use of platinum, which never tarnishes, was a great solution!
Merry Christmas from The Breakers! This 1895 Gilded Age mansion is the best to explore during December, when the halls are decked and stunning Christmas trees adorn the lavish rooms (learn more about the mansion in my last post) When you walk into The Breakers, you enter the Great Hall. Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the Great Hall after the open-air courtyards in Italian villas, but enclosed due to the tough New England winters. The palatial space (measuring 50 foot square), even if crowded by tourists trying to get the perfect shot on their smartphones, feels spacious yet somehow welcoming given the art museum-like detailing. The walls are made of carved limestone from Caen on the coast of France and adorned with plaques of rare marbles. Elaborately carved pilasters decorated with acorns and oak leaves support a massive carved and gilt-cornice which surrounds a ceiling painted to depict a windswept sky, further expressing the open-air courtyard feeling envisioned by Hunt, the architect. Four bronze chandeliers dangle from the gilded ceiling, and flood the room with warm light, evoking warm summers in Italy.