No trip to Rhode Island is complete without touring at least one of the magnificent mansion museums owned and operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Now is a wonderful time to visit, since the mansions are decked out for the holidays in true Victorian style!
Newport was once THE summer retreat location for the richest of the rich, and their summer "cottages" reflect all of the wealth of the Gilded Age, when men made fortunes in banking and railroads and there was no income tax.
At The Breakers, built by industrial magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, visitors marvel at the grand entry hall – which is 50 feet wide, 50 feet deep, and 50 feet high! Every surface is covered with rich sculptures, stylized paintings in the Greek and Roman style, and elaborate mosaics on the walls and ceilings.
Marble House, built by another branch of the Vanderbilt clan, offers one of the best audio tours available in any house museum. The electronic tour has options for more information at each "stop," but no more than two or three. The visitor is not overwhelmed by too many choices, and yet has the option of learning more about a variety of subjects, including the role of the servants, Victorian dining, and leisure activities. When you are in the ballroom, the audio tour features chamber music, and you can see graceful couples dancing before your very eyes. In the Dining Room, you can hear the clatter of sterling silver forks and knives on plates of delicate porcelain. Ironically, this exemplary audio tour brings the spaces of the house alive in a way that a real tour guide never could!
Almost all of the mansions are built by the ocean and offer spectacular views for picnicking or taking a photograph. Formal gardens grace many of the homes, providing a rich setting in which to relive the by gone days of the Gilded Age.
Limit your visit to no more than three mansions in a single day. It is easy to get overwhelmed and feel "mansion fatigue"! If you visit too many at once, soon a 50 foot x 50 foot x 50 foot great room starts to feel unimpressive!