Chateau-sur-Mer, Newport, Rhode Island

Chateau-sur-Mer on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1903. Image from Seventy-five Photographic Views of Newport, Rhode Island (1903).

The scene in 2018:

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Newport underwent a dramatic transformation from a sleepy colonial-era seaport into one of the most desirable summer resort communities in the country. Bellevue Avenue, and the surrounding area here at the southern end of the island, would eventually become famous for its many Gilded Age mansions, which served as summer residences for prominent families such as the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Belmonts.

Among the first of these grand mansions was Chateau-sur-Mer, which was located on the east side of Bellevue Avenue, near the corner of what is now Shepard Avenue. Its Italianate-style design was the work of local architect Seth Bradford, who designed several other mid-century summer homes in Newport, and the exterior was constructed of granite from nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. The original owner of the house was William S. Wetmore, a prosperous merchant who had made his fortune in the Old China Trade. Wetmore had retired from active business in 1847 when he was just 46 years old, and by this point he had accumulated a net worth of around a million dollars, or about $27 million today.

Wetmore lived here at Chateau-sur-Mer until his death in 1862. He and his wife Anstiss had three children, although their oldest, William, Jr., had died in 1858. Of their two surviving children, their son George inherited this house, while their daughter Annie received a parcel of land on the southern side of the estate, where she and her husband William Watts Sherman would later build a house of their own.

George Peabody Wetmore married his wife Edith in 1869, and beginning the following year the house was renovated and expanded by prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt. His work was inspired by the French Second Empire style, which was popular in America during this time, and it reflected his training in France at the École des Beaux-Arts. By this point, Hunt was already a well-established architect in Newport, but he would subsequently go on to design some of its largest, most opulent mansions, including The Breakers, Marble House, Ochre Court, and Belcourt.

Wetmore went on to have a successful career as a politician. Unlike most of the other wealthy Newport residents, who only lived here during the summer months, he was a year-round resident, and was a prominent figure in Rhode Island politics. He served as governor from 1885 to 1887, and represented the state in the U. S. Senate from 1895 to 1907, and 1908 to 1913. In addition, he was involved in a variety of civic organizations, including serving as a trustee of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale and the Redwood Library and Athenaeum here in Newport, and as president of the Newport Casino.

In the meantime, Chateau-sur-Mer would continue to see renovations to both the interior and exterior, including work by noted architects Ogden Codman and John Russell Pope in the early 20th century. George Wetmore lived here until his death in 1921, and his wife Edith died in 1927. Their two daughters, Edith and Maude, also went on to live here for the rest of their lives. Like her father, Maude was also involved in politics, and although she never held elected office, she was very active within the Republican Party, including serving as president of the Women’s National Republican Club and as a delegate to several National Conventions. She and her sister Edith were also advocates for historic preservation here in Newport, and worked to help preserve several important historic buildings.

Chateau-sur-Mer was one of the first of the grand mansions, and it was also one of the last to still be owned by its original family. Maude Wetmore died in 1951, leaving the house to Edith, who died in 1966. Neither of the sisters had married, so there were no other Wetmore heirs to inherit the property. Even if there had been, these types of summer homes had long since fallen out of fashion, and were generally regarded as expensive white elephants from a bygone era.

Many of the grand Newport mansions were demolished during the mid-20th century, while others were converted into institutional use, such as the nearby estates that now form the campus of Salve Regina University. However, Chateau-sur-Mer was ultimately preserved in its historic appearance, both on the interior and exterior, and in 1969 it was acquired by the Preservation Society of Newport County. It is now one of nine historic properties that are owned by the organization and open to the public for tours, and, as these two photos show, very little has changed in this view since the first photo was taken nearly 120 years ago. Because of its historic and architectural significance, the house was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2006, becoming one of 18 individual buildings in Newport to be recognized as such.

Belcourt, Newport, Rhode Island (2)

Belcourt, seen from the west side along Ledge Road in Newport, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in more detail in the previous post, Belcourt was completed in 1894 as the summer home of Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a banker from the prominent Belmont family of New York. It was the third-largest mansion ever built in Newport, and like many of the others it was designed by noted architect Richard Morris Hunt. However, its design was unusual in that Belmont – a young, divorced man with a penchant for horses – dedicated the entire first floor to storage space for carriages and luxurious stables for his horses.

The first photo was taken within about a year after Belmont moved into the house, but it would soon undergo significant changes to the interior, after his 1896 marriage to the recently-divorced Alva Vanderbilt. She was much more interested in using the house for entertaining people than for stabling horses, so after moving in she converted much of the ground floor into a banquet hall, among other alterations to the house.

Oliver Belmont died in 1908, and in 1916 Alva sold the house to his brother, Perry Belmont. He owned Belcourt for the next 24 years, before selling it for just $1,000 in 1940. The house would go through several more owners in the mid-20th century, before being purchased by the Tinney family in 1956. By this point, the house had suffered from serious neglect, but the Tinneys worked to restore it, and opened part of the house for public tours. It would remain in their family until 2012, when it was sold to Carolyn Rafaelian, the founder of the Alex and Ani jewelry company.

Today, it is not possible to photograph Belcourt from the exact same spot as the 1895 photo, as the previously-vacant land in the foreground is now occupied by houses. However, the 2018 photo shows a very similar angle of the west side of the house, seen from Ledge Road. The photo also shows some of the major restoration work that Rafaelian has done, including the replacement of the deteriorated roof. As a result, the exterior looks as good as it did when the house was completed some 125 years ago, and the only noticeable difference between these two photos is the garage door in the foreground, which was added sometime in the 20th century.

Belcourt, Newport, Rhode Island

Belcourt, seen from the corner of Lakeview Avenue and Ledge Road in Newport, around 1894-1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2018:

During the second half of the 19th century, Newport became one of the most desirable resort destinations in the country, and many of the wealthiest families in the country built summer homes here. This particular house, named Belcourt, was owned by Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a New York banker and socialite who inherited a significant fortune from his father, the prominent financier August Belmont, Sr. The elder Belmont died in 1890, and the following year the 33-year-old Oliver began construction on this 50,000-square-foot mansion.

The house was designed by noted architect Richard Morris Hunt, who designed many of the Gilded Age homes here in Newport, including The Breakers, Marble House, and Ochre Court. However, Hunt’s design for Belcourt was very different from those of the other houses. Despite its size – it was the third-largest Newport mansion after The Breakers and Ochre Court – it was, in many ways, the antithesis of a typical house here. Belmont disliked the garish houses of the people whom he saw as the nouveau riche, so his house deliberately rejected many features that were customary here in Newport.

One notable example of this is the location of the house. Although its address is on Bellevue Avenue, the main entrances are on these two small side streets, as shown in this scene. It is also on the less-desirable west side of Bellevue Avenue, further away from the ocean, so it does not have a waterfront view. Perhaps its most unusual feature, though, was the ground floor, which originally housed stables for Belmont’s prized horses and storage space for carriages. As a result, the rooms for entertaining guests were all on the second floor. This was the same floor as Belmont’s bedroom, which was seen as another major faux pas within Newport society.

As his house demonstrated, Belmont was not particularly bothered by what others thought of him and his behavior. By the time he moved into this house, he was already divorced after a very short marriage to his first wife, Sara Swan Whiting. However, he caused further controversy in 1896, when he married Alva Vanderbilt, the recently-divorced wife of William K. Vanderbilt. In the divorce, Alva had received the palatial Marble House, located nearby on Bellevue Avenue, and her wedding gift from her new husband was the deed to Belcourt, giving her ownership of two of the largest, most opulent mansions in Newport.

Alva’s arrival here at Belcourt quickly brought changes to the original design. Most significant was the ground floor, where the carriage room was converted into a banquet hall. During this time, she lived here at Belcourt, but she continued to own Marble House, although she only used the $11 million home for its laundry facilities, which were better than the ones at Belcourt. However, Oliver Belmont died of appendicitis in 1908, at the age of 49, and she later moved back to Marble House, eventually selling Belcourt in 1916 to Oliver’s brother Perry Belmont.

Perry owned the property until 1940, but by this point the opulent summer mansions such as Belcourt had fallen out of fashion. Newport was no longer the exclusive resort that it had been at the turn of the century, and these houses were seen as outdated white elephants. As a result, Perry Belmont sold Belcourt for just $1,000, a mere fraction of the $3 million that it had cost his brother to build the house less than 50 years earlier. The new owner, George Waterman, hoped to turn the house into an antique car museum, but he was prevented from doing this by zoning laws. He did, however, perform some restoration work on the house before selling it in 1943.

After changing hands several more times, the house was purchased by the Tinney family in 1956 for $25,000. They performed restoration work, filled the house with antiques, and opened it for public tours, while also maintaining it as a residence. They owned the house until 2012, when it was sold for $3.6 million to Carolyn Rafaelian, the founder of the Rhode Island-based Alex and Ani jewelry company. By this point the house was again in need of significant work, and Rafaelian has spent several million more in order to restore it. The house is still open to the public for tours, but it has also been used for other events, including Jennifer Lawrence’s wedding in the fall of 2019.

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island (3)

The view of The Breakers in Newport, seen from the south side of the property, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was apparently taken around the same time as the one in the previous post, and shows the southeastern and southwestern sides of The Breakers, around the time that it was completed in 1895. The Classical Revival-style mansion was the work of noted architect Richard Morris Hunt, and the grounds of the 14-acre property were designed by landscape architect Ernest W. Bowditch. Some of this landscaping is visible in this scene, including the south parterre, which was planted with a variety of flowers in its formal garden.

The Breakers was the largest of the many opulent mansions that were built in Newport during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was originally the summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice. Cornelius had inherited a substantial fortune from his father, William Henry Vanderbilt, and his grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and upon his death in 1899 he had a net worth of about $73 million – equivalent to about $2.2 billion today. The house would remain in the family for several more generations, with their daughter Gladys Széchenyi inheriting the property after Alice’s death in 1934, and Gladys’s daughter Sylvia inheriting it in 1968.

During this time, the house itself remained well-preserved, but the grounds underwent some changes. The 1938 hurricane caused only minimal damage to the house, but it significantly altered Bowditch’s landscaping. Over the years, the landscaping also suffered from neglect, and by the late 1950s the garden here on the south parterre were replaced with turf. Beginning in 1948, The Breakers was leased to the Preservation Society of Newport County for the nominal sum of $1 per year, and it was opened to the public for tours. The family continued to occupy the third floor of the house, but in 1972 Sylvia sold the property to the Preservation Society for $365,000, with the stipulation that she be allowed to use the third floor apartment for the rest of her life.

Today, the grounds look very different compared to their appearance over 120 years ago. However, the garden on the south parterre was replanted at some point after the Preservation Society acquired the property, and it now features a symmetrical design similar to what Bowditch had envisioned. In the meantime, the house itself has remained well-preserved on both the exterior and interior, and in 1994 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark. It is also the most popular tourist site in Rhode Island, drawing around 400,000 visitors each year.

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island (2)

The Breakers in Newport, viewed from the southwest corner of the property, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2017:

As discussed in an earlier post, The Breakers is the grandest of all the Gilded Age mansions that were built in Newport in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The 70-room, 125,000-square-foot “cottage” was built between 1893 and 1895, and was the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice. The Vanderbilts had purchased the property in 1885, which at the time included a smaller house that was also named The Breakers. This house burned down in 1892, and the Vanderbilts quickly commissioned noted architect Richard Morris Hunt to design its replacement.

The first photo shows The Breakers around the time of its completion. This is actually the side of the house, and it features a portico outside of the first floor music room. Directly above it is the rounded exterior wall of Alice Vanderbilt’s bedroom. At the time, mansions such as The Breakers were typically built with separate bedrooms for the husband and wife, and Cornelius’s was located directly to the left of hers, on the western corner of the house. On the left side of the house is the porte-cochère at the main entrance, and around the corner to the right is the terrace on the southeastern side of the house, which faces the ocean.

Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1899, only a few years after The Breakers was completed, but Alice continued to own the property until her death in 1934 at the age of 89. She had not only outlived her husband and four of her seven children; she had also outlived the Gilded Age and the philosophy of conspicuous consumption that had led to the construction of The Breakers. The house, like many of the other mansion in Newport, had become an expensive white elephant, with astronomical operating costs from the property taxes, utilities, and the nearly 60 servants who were required to run the house.

Of Alice’s three surviving children, only her daughter Gladys had any interest in the property. She was the wife of Hungarian count László Széchenyi, and she inherited The Breakers after her mother’s death. She continued to own the house until her death in 1965, but starting in 1948 she leased it to the Preservation Society of Newport County, which opened it to the public for tours. Her daughter Sylvia would subsequently sell The Breakers to the organization in 1972, for $365,000, although she was allowed to retain a third-floor apartment for the rest of her life.

Sylvia died in 1998, but her children – the fourth generation to spend summers here in the house – were allowed to continue to use the third floor until early 2018, shortly after the second photo was taken. In the meantime, the first two floors have been open to the public for many years, drawing over 400,000 visitors annually. It is one of nine historic houses owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County, and in 1994 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its historical and architectural significance.

Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island

Marble House on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The house in 2017:

The Industrial Revolution, and the Gilded Age that followed, brought about the rise of vast personal fortunes, and perhaps no family better exemplified this than the Vanderbilts. The family’s wealth originated with Cornelius Vanderbilt, a working-class ferry operator from Staten Island who went on to become the richest man in the country through ruthlessly competitive practices in the steamboat and railroad industries. By the time he died in 1877, his estate was valued at nearly $100 million, almost all of which went to his son William.

However, despite their enormous wealth, the Vanderbilt family struggled to gain acceptance into New York society. Perceived by established New York aristocrats as being an uncouth, ill-educated member of the nouveau riche, Cornelius Vanderbilt had cared little for society’s approval, or for ostentatious displays of wealth. However, subsequent generations of the family, particularly his grandchildren, craved this acceptance, and spent vast amounts of money to attain it.

William H. Vanderbilt died in 1885, only eight years after his father, but in the interim he had managed to double his inherited wealth. It had been Cornelius’s intention to keep the family fortune intact by not dividing it between multiple heirs, but William ignored his father’s wishes and left the bulk of his $200 million estate to his two oldest sons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William K. Vanderbilt. As the oldest son, Cornelius received slightly more, but William inherited around $65 million, equivalent to around $1.8 billion today.

In 1875, a few years before his grandfather’s death, William K. Vanderbilt had married Alva Erskine Smith, a socially-ambitious southern belle whose family had lost much of their fortune in the aftermath of the Civil War. Once married, she wasted little time in working to bring social respectability to the Vanderbilt family. She and William built a massive Châteauesque mansion on Fifth Avenue, and held a lavish costume ball to celebrate its opening in 1883, with guests from New York’s most prominent families, including former president Ulysses S. Grant. Along with their primary residence, Alva also built a summer home, Idle Hour, on Long Island.

However, Alva’s truly lavish spending did not begin in earnest until after William inherited the $65 million from his father in 1885. The following year, she ordered the construction of a yacht, which was, of course, named the Alva. It was the largest private yacht in the world at the time, and its 285-foot length was comparable to some of the largest ships in the US Navy at the time. However, even the yacht, plus the Fifth Avenue mansion and Long Island summer home, did little to satisfy Alva, who aspired to join the many other prominent New York families who had seaside “cottages” here in Newport.

The elder Vanderbilt brother, Cornelius, had already joined Newport society, purchasing The Breakers, a large wood-framed mansion that had been built by tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard IV in 1878. With this in mind, Alva hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a house that would surpass anything that had previously been built in Newport. The house was a birthday present for Alva from William, and money was no object in its design or construction. The result was a Beaux-Arts style design that was influenced by Hunt’s early years at the École des Beaux-Arts in France, and was based on both French and classical Greek architecture. Hunt was the first American to graduate from the École des Beaux-Arts, and Marble House was among the earliest examples of the Beaux-Arts style in the United States.

Named Marble House, for its prolific use of its namesake stone, the house was completed in 1892, at a cost of $2 million ($55 million today) for the structure itself, plus another $9 million ($250 million today) that Alva spent to decorate the interior. It was the finest house in Newport, and among the finest private homes in the country, but it would soon be upstaged by the other side of the Vanderbilt family. Only months after Marble House was completed, The Breakers was destroyed in a fire, and the ashes had hardly cooled before Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt hired Richard Morris Hunt to design a new house of their own. The new Breakers was completed in 1895, becoming the ultimate symbol of Newport’s Gilded Age elegance and surpassing Marble House in every way except for the price; at $7 million it actually cost significantly less to build.

Notwithstanding William’s $11 million birthday gift to Alva, their marriage was not happy. In 1895, only three years after Marble House was completed, Alva divorces William, citing infidelity. At the time, such extramarital dalliances were certainly not unheard of among wealthy men, and were passively tolerated by New York society, but divorces were considered to be major scandals. Despite this, though, Alva retained her prominence in society, and also received a significant settlement in the divorce, including ownership of Marble House.

In the same year as her divorce, Alva’s oldest child, Consuelo, married Charles Spencer-Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. Alva had long envisioned Consuelo marrying a member of the European nobility, in order to solidify the family’s social status. In that regard, the marriage was a success for both parties, with the cash-poor Duke of Marlborough receiving a sizable dowry, while Vanderbilts now had a duchess for a daughter. However, Consuelo’s marriage was as loveless as her parents’ had been, and she and the duke separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921.

In the meantime, Alva remarried in 1896 to Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a prominent New York banker whose Newport home, Belcourt Castle, was located nearby. After his death in 1908, Alva was in possession of two Newport mansions, and retained ownership of both until 1932, when she sold Marble House shortly before her death the following year. By this point, Newport’s ostentatious Gilded Age mansions had fallen out of fashion, and she sold the house to Frederick H. Prince for just $100,000, less than one percent of its original construction costs 40 years earlier.

Frederick H. Prince was a stockbroker from Boston, and he owned Marble House for over 20 years, until his death in 1953. A decade later, his family sold the property to the Preservation Society of Newport County, who purchased it with funds provided by William and Alva’s youngest child, Harold, who was nearly 80 years old at the time. Today, very little has changed in the house’s exterior appearance, and it is still owned by the Preservation Society, which operates it as a museum along with several other Newport “cottages,” including The Breakers. Because of their historical and architectural significance, both of these iconic Vanderbilt homes are now designated as National Historic Landmarks, and they are both part of the Bellevue Avenue Historic District.