Wednesday, June 2, 2010

White Elephants

On Monday, a dream that I've had for more than a year was finally realized. I went to Newport, Rhode Island. My desire in going had always been to see the mansions. The beauty of the day and friendship that came with it was bonus.

With the car picked up by 7am, Michael, Tynan, and I were on the road by 7:15am trying to acquire the GPS signal that would provide us with the directions to take us to one of America's most famed cities. During the Gilded Age (1865-1901) many of America's wealthiest families built summer "cottages" in Newport. The word cottage is almost laughable. I think of a cottage as a little house with maybe two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living area, and a bathroom. They thought of a summer cottage as a grand excuse for marble, gold leaf, chandeliers, and finery. Each trying to outdo the other in excess and size. The idea is simple, the wealthy Vanderbilts, Astors, among others, would come to Newport for the summer and entertain other families of their wealth and position. Each wanted to provide the most lavish setting for the entertaining.

The Breakers, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was/is the grandest of them all. Knowing anything about the Vanderbilts, it's easy to imagine the family not wanting to be outdone by anyone. Wanting the best and biggest. And why not. If you have the money and can afford it...go for it!!

Let me get back to my trip to the wealthy little piece of land with my two friends. Roughly 30 minutes outside of the City, we hit Greenwich CT. It seemed the perfect time to stop for breakfast. When traveling, it is okay to forget one's good eating habits and just have a good time. That said, we stopped at McDonald's. Actually the one in Greenwich was the newly-minted, high-end cousin of McDonald's called McCafe. Whatever, still the same egg mcmuffin and bacon, egg, & cheese. Throw in the hash browns and you've got our breakfast. Champions we were. No judgement allowed.

Back on the road, we were looking for a place to stop and purchase an adapter for my ipod. We asked Lolly, our rental agent, if the car had an ipod port. We had chosen to upgrade to a Lincoln and that being said, she assumed it did for, as she put it, the car was "luxury, luxury." It took us the better part of an hour to actually find that port hidden in the second, deeper compartment of the console. There was no adapter though. So we kept our eyes peeled for a Walmart, Target, or Radio Shack. Eventually, we found a Target and even though it was merely 9am, it was open. A few minutes later with $14.99 less in my pocket, we headed out of the store and back to the car. Tynan, who was looking for a hat, left without the hot pink floppy she would've rocked all day. But I digress. The adapter worked, and the play list I had prepared was no longer stuck on my ipod, but a thumping, dancing, jamming reality. We resumed our drive to Newport. Michael was tired, having not slept well the night before and asked if one of us would drive. Tynan look the wheel while Michael took to the backseat to take a nap. I sat shotgun and gaged the volume of the ipod and sang along. I do enjoy a road trip on occasion. It truly depends on the people I'm with. These two were the right choice.

As we got closer to our destination, we were told by our GPS, Minny, to turn off the interstate. We found ourselves on two lane roads that can lead to anywhere. Lucky for us, ours led to the Claiborne Pell Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in New England. We rolled the windows down and turned the music up. It was amazing. So high above the water looking down at the boats as they lazily sailed or sped by to our right and left. My excitement was thumping in my chest. I couldn't wait to just be there, breathing the air and existing.

Minny led us right into the heart of the downtown area. Of course this is where all the tourist were, but I guess we had to acknowledge the we, ourselves, were tourist for the day. It didn't take much giving in. We found a place to park the car and got out and began to walk. It had been about three hours since that breakfast stop in Greenwich, so we were hungry. There were many choices from the sidewalk on which we found ourselves. Restaurants between art shops, and clothing stores, and the not surprising, but out-of-place Starbucks. We chose the Gas Lamp Grille. We were the first customers. Michael actually asked if they were open before we proceeded inside. With our pick of tables, we were seated in an open door opened onto the sidewalk. We were able to feel the breeze and watch the people all the while enjoying our meal.

With hunger assuaged, we headed to the Museum of Newport History. We didn't actually walk through the museum, we went into the gift shop looking for a map. Even though our GPS could get to the mansions, we wanted to walk and a map would help us identify where we were in connection to what we wanted to see. It's just like an amusement park. Map in hand, we headed back to our car. We walked up an alley called Brick Alley. It was at that point that my old soul nostalgia came out. I was giddy with the thought of the people who once walked on those bricks. An Astor or a Vanderbilt. Someone who summered there during the Gilded Age when Newport was a grand, social destination.

Back in the Lincoln with Minny hooked into the lighter, she took us closer to our destination: 44 Ochre Point Avenue, Newport RI 02840 - The Breakers. We didn't actually drive to The Breakers, we chose instead to park the car on Narragansett Avenue and walk to Cliff Walk which was located at the dead end in front of us. That was the best choice we could have made. Cliff Walk is a 3.5 mile walkway that borders the shore line. It runs behind many of the mansions so even if you're not paying to tour them, you can see their magnificence. Imagine waking up in the morning and the view out your window being the vast ocean at the bottom of the cliff at the end of your backyard. Breathtaking! There was a stairway called The 40 Steps which led down to the rocks and water. We went down those steps and climbed down onto the rocks. It was amazing. The water flowing in between the rocks, pounding the rocks. The breeze coming off the water. I couldn't stop smiling. And why should I? I was loving every second of it. I'm sure the water was freezing, but that didn't stop a group of people from swimming in it.

Back up The 40 Steps, we started our Cliff Walk journey. With bushes at the top of the cliff to our left and the water below on the same side and wild roses growing in places on the right, it was a beautiful walk. It was all about the ocean at that point of my journey. I would say our journey, but I'm not sure what Michael and Tynan were feeling at that moment. I was anticipating The Breakers and soaking up the sound of the water below.

A mansion came into view. I'm, again, giddy. I'm thinking it's The Breakers. I pull out my Blackberry and start taking pictures. I've got an image of the mansion in my head, but I think the image was a little cloudy. Maybe it was sepia toned and the sepia was beginning to fade. I'm not sure. It took walking up to the mansion and looking inside to realize that there was no way this could be The Breakers. I felt like such a fool for being so positive it was when it wasn't. I hate making a fool of myself. We found out later that this particular mansion was called Ochre Court and is now used by Salve Regina University. Turns out the university converted several of the mansions into academic building back in the 30's when the owners could no longer afford the taxes. So, slightly embarrassed, we headed back to Cliff Walk, and in search of The Breakers.

And without warning, there it was. Just beyond the wild roses growing along the fence - The Breakers. Grand and glorious. It was right there in front of me. The physical manifestation of the pictures I had stared out for so long. The large backyard to my right and the water to my left. The house looming just out-of-reach. Of course the out-of-reach part didn't last very long. We made our way onto that yard. Can you imagine the lawn parties held on the gorgeous lawn? I can. We made our way to the front of the mansion, paid the $19 admission, went inside, received our headsets and started our self-guided audio tour.

Our tour began in an area where guests were received. A large, ostentatious room with a red carpeted grand staircase. There was a fountain at the base in the back of the staircase. There was marble everywhere. Marble walls and columns. Gleaming crystal chandeliers. Gold leaf. The music room contained a Steinway piano and platinum leafing on the wall. Everything was ornate. Looking down at the receiving room from the second level I could almost hear the violins playing for the party guests. The bedrooms were decorated more simply compared to the rest of the house. The bathrooms were large. Mr. Vanderbilt's bathtub was made of marble and had to be filled with hot water and drained multiple times before the marble was warm enough for use. His tub also had four knobs. Living on the ocean, two of the knobs ran with hot and cold salt water. It was the utmost in luxury. Lolly would probably say "luxury,luxury." What a place to spend the summer. Those of you who read this blog know that I've posted a couple of entries concerning characters I've created from a piece called "Glass Houses." Well, one of the reasons I wanted to see The Breakers so badly was because it was exactly the image I had in my mind for the mansion of one of my families in that piece. As soon as I stumbled upon a photo of it on the internet, I had the image in front of me of what I had only been imagining. It was complete joy to actually see it in person.

Moving on, we left The Breakers and went back to Narragansett Avenue to rest our tired legs and drive to 548 Bellevue Avenue, Newport RI 02840 - Rosecliff. Rosecliff was built by a Nevada silver heiress named Theresa Fair Oelrichs. I was not nearly as impressed with Rosecliff as I was with The Breakers. Honestly, there is no comparison, but I was hoping in its own way it would be outstanding. What I adored was the ballroom. This mansion had the largest ballroom in Newport. It was stunning with two gorgeous chandeliers, a gold grand piano, and fabulous ornate moldings. It was truly a beautiful room. Both sides had french doors that ran the length of the ballroom. The front side opened into the garden while the back side open onto the terrace with a view of the ocean. While in that room we were told the story of Mrs. Oelrichs' most famous ball. It was called Bal Blanc. She wanted everything to be white and silver. She asked that the ladies even wear powdered wigs. The flowers were white. White swans were in the fountain. As the date of the party neared, lore has it that her butler asked if she was happy with how things were proceeding. To that question she replied that she needed white boats to be moored in the ocean so that when people looked toward the water they would be visible and continue the theme of her party. The butler was said to have commented that it was impossible to which she replied that she had commissioned them and they would be ready in time for the party. And Newport history shows that on the occassion of the party, white boats with twinkle lights were moored in the ocean. There are details and then there are details. She had a vision and had the money to see it realized.

Another beautiful element to Rosecliff was the heart-shaped opening on the landing of the staircase. Red carpeted stairs led up through the opening, then split into two sets of stairs which took you up to the second level.

Out the back of the ballroom, across the terrace and down the stairs that led to the backyard was a fountain. This fountain was prominently featured in "The Great Gatsby" starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Another reason I wanted to see Rosecliff.

The final reason I wanted to see Rosecliff is because there was a display of gowns from the Gilded Age. Actual gowns from the era. Along with the gowns was information about haute couture and how the women would go to Paris and order from the couturiers. That was right up my alley. I loved it.

As for the mansion as a whole, I think my disappoint lied in the fact that none of the furniture or paintings were original to the house. The descendants of the original owner, having little interest in the mansion, sold everything at auction. It just didn't have the rich history in front of my eyes like The Breakers.

With the two mansions we wanted to see nothing but swirling images and memories in our heads, we headed back to the car. We just wanted to drive around and look at the other mansions. We drove down Bellevue Avenue. It must have, at one time, been the wealthiest street in Newport, if not America. As we drove down the street we found no where to park the car so that we could walk by the mansions we weren't paying to tour and at least take a photo from the sidewalk. While looking for a place to turn around, we saw the roof and chimneys of what looked to be a very large home just above the trees. We decided to drive down that road and see what it was. The road dead ended at another area where one could walk onto the large rocks at the ocean's edge. I found myself fearless as I jumped and climbed from rock to rock. I made my way to a large rock a small distance from Michael and Tynan. I stood facing the breeze as it blew against me. Hearing the waves break on the rocks and feeling the breeze, all I could do was lift my arms into the air with my face toward the sky. I felt as though my soul was being cleansed. That's the only way I can describe it. The energy of the water is so different that the energy of the City. I just let it all wash over me.

We drove back through Newport proper in search of a restaurant for a nice meal that would complete our perfect day. We went to The Spiced Pear at The Chanler at Cliff Walk. According to the hostess, The Chanler was the first mansion built on what is now called Cliff Walk. We had no reservation, but they were able to seat us at a table with a beautiful view of the ocean. We were indulgent. I ordered lobster poached in butter. Michael ordered steak and I believe it was sea bass for Tynan. I had a glass of Pinot Noir, Michael a Malbec and Tynan a Cabernet Savignon. It was lovely. Reminicing about the day and enjoying each other with good wine and food. It only got better when our cinnamon souffle's with amaretto and apple compote arrived. Indulgent to the max and worth every penny.

In 1907, author Henry James described the mansions in Newport, Rhode Island as being "white elephants" and "witless dreams" because they were summer homes for the wealthy and were unoccupied for most of the year. Well, Mr. James, there is something to be loved even in a white elephant. I was reminded of a lyric from the song "All This Beauty" by The Weepies.

All this beauty;
You might have to close your eyes
And slowly open wide
All this beauty;
We traveled all night
We drank the ocean dry
And watched the sun rise...

I can't help but wonder how pleased the Vanderbilts would be knowing that the home they built for summer entertaining in the late 1800's is still drawing crowds that marvel at its grandiosity over 100 years later.

There's also a little thing about dreams. If you can dream it you can do it. One day Paris and California, but for now, at least there was Newport.

Newport photo album