August 28, 2007

A Weekend in Newport, RI

If you've ever seen the 1956 movie "High Society" you'll understand the appeal of a weekend in the town of Newport. So it was with great pleasure that we accepted a very generous invitation to be guests of a dear friend who summers on the Rhode Island shore.

Newport boasts a long and rich history and is one of the Colonial treasures of the Eastern United States. Settled in the 1700's, the town established itself as a political, religious and cultural refuge and attracted immigrants looking for a new life filled with opportunity and freedom. Its fine harbor made it a center for both commercial shipping and later recreational sailing, both industries having a huge impact on the development of the town. The late 1800's saw an influx of wealthy "Barons of Industry" who chose Newport's fabulous location as the sites for their opulent summer "cottages". And in the 20th Century, Newport has become home to The America's Cup and the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

"The Breakers"

A beautiful summer Saturday was the perfect day to explore some of Newport's Mansions. Thanks in large part to The Preservation Society of Newport County a great many of Newport's magnificent mansions are fully restored and open to the public. These summer homes of the ├╝ber-rich and famous present the VERY best that money, and imagination, could buy at the Turn of the Century. A tour of Cornelius Vanderbilt II's 70-room palace, "The Breakers" will leave the visitor in open-mouthed awe. Designed and built in just 2 years, this magnificent building, set on 13 acres overlooking the Atlantic, was decorated by Ogden Codman in a sumptuous interpretation of an Italian Palazzo. Outfitted with the latest conveniences such as an interior telephone system and electricity, it remains the epitome of elegance.

"Marble House"

Another Vanderbilt heir, William K., spent $11 million on a 50-room "cottage" to present to his wife Alva on her 39th birthday. "Marble House" was completed in 1892 and was considered the most lavish home in America at the time of its construction. The quintessential example of "The Gilded Age", Marble House was also the site of Mrs. Vanderbilt's crusade for the "Votes for Women" campaign. Alva Vanderbilt's ambition knew no bounds. She deliberately built Marble House to compete with the Astor's Mansion, "Beechwood", practically next door, and maneuvered her daughter, Consuelo, into a marriage with The Ninth Duke of Marlborough. She eventually divorced her husband, the first in her social set to formally end a marriage, and moved a few houses down the avenue to take up residence with her new husband at Belcourt Castle.

One can spend days visiting these fabulous homes - "Chateau-sur-Mer", "Kingscote", "The Elms", and, "Rosecliffe", to name just a few, but Newport offers other delights. There is, for example, the National Museum of American Illustration with its collection of original works by Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. There is also the Newport Art Museum with its outstanding collection of artists past and present, and the spectacular "Cliff Walk".

Sunday was taken up with a very special event - The International Tennis Hall of Fame, located in the historic Newport Casino, was hosting the First Annual Gibson Guitar Champions Cup. We were the happy occupants of court side seats for the third place playoff between Jim Courier and Pat Cash and the finals match between John McEnroe and Todd Martin.

John McEnroe serving

It was a very warm and humid afternoon, but the stands were full and the atmosphere collegial as these titans of tennis played for the championship on the grass court. It was like a very low key Wimbledon - all that was missing were the strawberries and cream!

The Champion - Todd Martin - serving

Monday morning was time to leave and return to the reality of summer in the city. But I came back to Manhattan with memories of a wonderful weekend in Newport where time stands still in a more elegant age.

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