Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Cottages of Newport RI - how the original 1% lived

This weekend, we had a date to go down and drop wreaths off at my mom's house, but Doug wanted to parlay a visit over to Newport to see the famous "cottages" built by the wealthiest of Americans in the early 1900s, all decked out for Christmas.

Now, for those of you who know me, or think you know me, you're right in thinking I'm not a huge fan of watching "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" or any of those shows. I do not care who has a G6, what kind of castle they bought, if they own a small island, or if Luxembourg is their personal playground. Excessive wealth and display aren't that interesting to me. But I do like art and architecture, and I was sure that seeing how the buildings were displayed for the holidays was going to be nice, so I agreed that it would be fun to do.

We bought a three house tour, and went to see The Breakers, Marble House and The Elms. Essentially, it was two houses too many when it came right down to it, but we had a really nice day.

Let me get my complaints out of the way right off the bat.

First, I was horribly disappointed when we got there that absolutely no photography allowed indoors, to "preserve the integrity of the collections for future generations." Really? How does making a policy of not allowing pictures protect the integrity of stuff hanging on walls and staircases and pianos and sculptures? If it is an old carry over about flash photography, that's stupid - just tell people not to use flash. I have a great low light camera, and in all honesty the places were brightly lit by the SUN, which totally damages stuff far more than a camera flash can.

What the hell. I wanted pictures of the trees and poinsettias and the halls all decked out. I don't want to buy a 30 dollar high definition DVD, or book, or postcards. I want my own photographs of stuff I see.
 This is an absolute bullshit rule right off the bat. I find I enjoy looking at things if I study them with my eyes and then also through the camera lens later. My brain processes things better, I retain more information if I have photos that I've taken myself.

Thanks for denying me that enjoyment, Newport Mansions CEO, board of directors and Controlling Freaks.

Second, there were people taking photos the whole way through all three houses. So nice to make that a policy, and then do nothing about it. The "staff" in most areas were dullards, slack-jawed and disinterested. At Marble House, there was a guy with a camera under his jacket, and it was like he was some Nazi Spy or something sneaking shots, and then laughing about it with his wife. I wanted to ask him who the hell he thought he was, that rules don't apply to him, thanks buddy. But then I lost any sort of righteous indignation because I'm one who follows rules and he is one who thumbs his nose at them. Whatever.

It still pissed me off.

I took some nice exterior shots of each of the buildings. The weather was delightful, so it made for being outside very nice. And that made up for the stupid inside rules.

Third big complaint was the whole take a tour with the audio headset thing. So impersonal, and also ... so creepy. To be walking through a building with hundreds of other people and not have a shared experience really bothered me. People walk into a room and stop in the doorway to press buttons and press their kids' buttons and try and figure out what audio track they're supposed to be hearing. Uh, please MOVE INTO THE ROOM because there are 20 people behind you. The creepy quiet of having people in their own little headspaces, in the same physical space, but having a totally non-connected experience was a bit unsettling. I felt uncomfortable when Doug and I whispered to each other and people looked at us disparagingly.

How hard is it to get students from Salve Regina to intern and do real guided tours? And on some of the audio track systems, I lost my place and had to just start over at the beginning, and that was just a freaking waste of time. There were all these peripheral branch-off discussions that you could listen to, but I only listened to one or two because they honestly went on and on. It took us four hours to tour three houses.

It felt so impersonal, and so "here, guide yourself. Whatever." Again, thanks CEO, board people and control freaks.

On the flip side of that, Geoff LOVED the MP3 player tour and went through at his own pace. If he was in a room that he didn't care to learn more about, he skipped to the next track and walked into the next room. When I tried to talk to him at one point he shusshed me and said "I AM LISTENING TO THE TOUR!"

So we all obviously process things differently.

Okay, so my two major gripes are out of the way. Did they ruin my day? Not quite. Did they make my day slightly less enjoyable? Yeah. Will I survive? You bet.

For those of you who do not know, the Breakers and Marble House were owned by Vanderbilts and The Elms belonged to the Berwinds. All three sets of families made millions on the backs of hard working men and women who never saw anything close to the beauty they were all exposed to, being inspired by the arts of France, Italy and England. Filthy coal mines and long hot days in the sun driving spikes into the railroad beds to hold the rails down were the "art" and "literature" these employees saw.

Alright. Back to stuff that isn't whiny and bitchy. The houses were lovely and amazing. I loved the concept that you could have hot and cold running pure water and ocean water for your bath. I loved that the toilets had wicker seats all around them. I loved the art and the furniture, and the flowers and decorations for Christmas. They had these GIANT poinsettia balls hanging from the ceilings that were just outstanding. Trees of poinsettias and gorgeous arrangements of lilies and roses grown in the greenhouses on the properties.

I found that listening to the story of Alva Vanderbilt and her daughter Consuelo to be fascinating. They lived in the Marble House, and Alva was a suffragette, a crusader, in her own words a "knight" leading women to their liberty. If they want to divorce, why shouldn't they! SHE will get a divorce and SHOW them that it is possible! You may know her from her famous quote "Well behaved women rarely make history."

Meanwhile, she denied her daughter any life choices of her own.

Alva controlled every aspect of Consuelo's life, from her hairbrushes to her bed sheets, denying her any opportunity to develop her own style. Consuelo was rigorously home schooled while her brothers sailed boats. They were schooled as well, but ... Alva was on a mission with Consuelo.

Fluent in three languages, forced to wear a brace to keep her back poker straight, she was engineered by her mother to be the perfect woman. After all, Alva was an "artist," and her daughter would be her finest work, her best and most beautiful creation.

Alva orchestrated Consuelo's marriage to the Ninth Duke of Marlborough, the cousin of Winston Churchill, and of course Consuelo was miserable. She wanted to be married to the man of her choice, not used as a pawn to get into higher society, or give her mother bragging rights such as "My daughter, the Duchess..."

Eventually, after two children and a number of years in her marriage, Consuelo did exactly what her mother did -- she got a divorce. Her mother was an advocate for women making such decisions for themselves so what could she say? Consuelo eventually did marry the man of her heart, while her mother continued to fight for the right for women to vote, and held giant soirees in her mansions with plates bearing the words "Votes for Women" on them...

which her maids and female dishwashers scrubbed after each meal.

I found we actually have a tie to the Marble House. In the gothic room, which looked more like a church than a sitting room, there are beautiful stained glass windows along two of the walls. Doug immediately recognized them while I simply found them as "familiar."

After the Vanderbilts owned the Marble House, Frederick Prince owned it. And he was the man who donated the estate and building that became Gordon College. The windows in the gothic room are almost the same as the windows in Prince Chapel, where Doug and I got married. I found some nice articles online about the connection between Prince Chapel and the Marble House windows. Knowing that while Consuelo was proposed to under the same windows that Doug and I were married under, and realizing her misery in her marriage is nothing like my happiness in mine gives me deep pause.

I discovered that in all of the three houses, my favorite rooms were the kitchens, the butler's pantries, and the places that the tony socialite women would never dare tread. I especially loved the kitchen in the Marble House, with its nearly floor to ceiling windows, even though it was in the basement. The deep delivery "holes" of stone out the window crowned with trees and sky would have been beautiful in the mornings.  Being drawn to these kinds of spaces means I most likely wouldn't make a good socialite. Not that I ever thought I would.

We wrapped our visit to Newport up with dinner at a little place called Pour Judgement, which I picked off a list on Foursquare just because of the funny name. It was fantastic, and a wonderful way to end our day, with the 99% and some good beer. I wrote it up in the Shenanigans blog if you're looking for more blather to read to get you through your day.  And... of course, the pictures from the exterior that I was allowed to take. Enjoy...

The Breakers

Marble House

 The Elms

No comments:

Post a Comment