Old Colony House, Newport, Rhode Island

The Old Colony House at Washington Square in Newport, around 1885. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The building in 2017:

In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, Newport was one of the most prosperous ports in the American colonies, and perhaps no building better symbolized this than the Colony House. Located at the eastern end of the Parade, now Washington Square, it was constructed between 1739 and 1741 to house Rhode Island’s colonial legislature, which at the time alternated sessions between the colony’s five county seats. It was designed by architect Richard Munday, who had previously built Newport’s Trinity Church, and the exterior was heavily inspired by Christopher Wren, the British architect who had transformed London in the aftermath of the Great London Fire of 1666. On the interior, the first floor consisted of an open hall, while the second floor had three rooms, including a Council Chamber on one side and a Chamber of Deputies on the other side, where the colonial legislature met.

The Colony House remained in use until the American Revolution, when the British occupied the city from 1776 to 1779. During this time, the building was used as barracks for British soldiers, and following the occupation it was used by the French as a hospital. Both the war and the British occupation caused considerable harm to Newport’s commerce, and the city never fully regained its prewar prosperity. However, Newport remained one of the state’s five capitals, and the Colony House continued to be used by the state legislature.

One particularly important meeting occurred in May 1790, when delegates to the state’s ratifying convention gathered here to vote on whether to ratify the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution had been written nearly three years earlier, and had gone into effect in 1789, but Rhode Island was the last of the original 13 states to hold out on ratifying it. Here, the delegates met for three days before moving to the larger Second Baptist Church for the last three days of the convention, where they ultimately voted to join the union as the 13th state, by a razor thin margin of 34 to 32.

Rhode Island’s unusual arrangement of five state capitals continued until 1854, when Newport and Providence were designated as the two capital cities, with legislative sessions alternating between the Colony House in Newport and the Old State House in Providence. Dual capitals were not unheard of during this time – Connecticut had a similar arrangement with Hartford and New Haven until 1875 – but Rhode Island continued this practice until 1900, when the state government was consolidated in Providence and a new State House was built there a few years later.

Although no longer a state capitol, the Colony House was used as the Newport County courthouse from 1900 to 1926, with the District Court on the first floor and the Superior Court on the second floor. After its use as a courthouse, the building was renovated by Norman Isham, an architectural historian and Rhode Island native who was responsible for restoring a number of historic buildings in Newport.

The Colony House was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and today it still stands here as one of the best-preserved Colonial-era public buildings in the country. Unlike some of its more famous contemporaries, such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Old State House in Boston, it has not undergone significant changes, and survives as a masterpiece of Georgian-style architecture. The building is still owned by the state of Rhode Island, and it is currently operated as a museum by the Newport Historical Society.

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.

Ochre Point Avenue Gates at The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The western entrance to the driveway of The Breakers, seen from Ochre Point Avenue at the corner of Victoria Avenue in Newport, around 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

These imposing gates stand at the Ochre Point Avenue entrance of The Breakers, which was built as the summer residence of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Constructed over a two-year period from 1893 to 1895, at a cost of $7 million, it was the largest of the many Gilded Age homes that were built here in Newport as seaside “cottages” for some of the nation’s richest families. The house is situated at Ochre Point, on a 13-acre lot that is bordered on three sides by a 12-foot-high wrought iron and limestone fence. The fence is broken by two gates, one here and one on Shepard Avenue, that rise 30 feet above the driveway. They were manufactured by the William H. Jackson Company of New York, and are flanked on either side by smaller gates for pedestrian access to the property.

Together, these two main gates weigh more than seven tons, and feature intricate details, including Cornelius Vanderbilt’s initials in a monogram at the top of the gate. Other decorative features include acorns and oak leaves, both of which served as important symbols for the Vanderbilt family. Reflecting the saying that, “from little acorn a mighty oak shall grow,” the symbols represented the life of Cornelius’s grandfather, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, who rose from humble beginnings as a teenage Staten Island ferry operator to become the wealthiest man in America. As a result, acorns and oak leaves can be found throughout The Breakers, along with other Vanderbilt buildings such as New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

If the 1899 date for the first photo is accurate, it would have been taken sometime during Cornelius Vanderbilt’s last summer at The Breakers. He had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1896, only a year after the completion of the house, and he never fully recovered. He left The Breakers for the last time on September 11, 1899, to attend a railroad board meeting in New York, and he died the next morning from a cerebral hemorrhage. His widow Alice inherited both his mansion in New York and The Breakers, and she went on to own the latter until her death 35 years later.

The Breakers would remain in the Vanderbilt family until 1972, when it was sold to the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1972, and it is now open to the public as a museum. Very little has changed in this scene except for the trees, which now hide more of the property than the newly-planted ones did in the first photo. The house is now the centerpiece of the Preservation Society’s many historic properties in Newport, and it is the most popular tourist attraction in the state, drawing over 400,000 visitors through these gates each year.