Gilded mansions and more
Elaborate coastal estates from Newport, Rhode Island, to Palm Beach, Florida, have been well-preserved and are open for touring.
Intricate detailing from floor to ceiling is apparent in the elegant morning room at The Breakers, a Newport, Rhode Island, mansion. The room has eight distinctive panels, made of platinum, on its walls.
Richard Cheek/Courtesy Preservation Society of Newport County
The East Coast is dotted with extravagant homes that many of the industrialists built, an ode to gilded times of the early 20th century.
Often considered monumental relics to architectural excellence in America, the mansions open for touring include the elaborate Vanderbilt estate in Newport, Rhode Island, simpler cottages on Jekyll Island, Georgia, and Henry Flagler’s historically prominent home in Palm Beach, Florida.
If looking at fabulous houses is among your passions, then a trip to any of the locations will certainly indulge your voyeurism. Traveling from Port Columbus and coordinating a stay—either at an affluent resort or more economical lodging—can be hassle-free if you’re planning a quick getaway and want to make the most of your time. Below is a list of tips that will help. Keep in mind that the best lodging rates will be available during off-season tourist months in any of the following areas.
Newport, Rhode Island
The city that is packed with the most bang for your house-touring buck, Newport has a total of 11 properties to view, including extensive tours inside nine extravagant homes, among them the 70-room highly gilded Vanderbilt home, named The Breakers.
Many of the nation’s top industrialists and their families spent their summers in Newport, a well-preserved island community 30 miles south of Providence. Today, The Preservation Society of Newport County maintains and preserves the properties, which were established during a period, between 1865 and 1914, known as The Gilded Age.
It’s impossible to see all of Newport’s mansions in a one-day tour—the most you’ll probably get through is four houses a day even when accompanied by a personalized audio tour, which is offered by several of the properties.
By the end of an exhaustive trip, though, the stories of renowned architects, parties and décor of the early 1900s will begin to flow together. You’ll find it difficult to remember which family saved which mansion for an extraordinarily low amount of money during poor economic times.
Nonetheless, here are a few of the mansions that you’ll want to see, offering a wide array of styles and architectural designs:
• The Breakers—Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1893, this 70-room home was modeled after palaces of the 16th century. Vanderbilt was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built the family fortune with the New York Railroad as well as steamships.
• Marble House—Built by William K. Vanderbilt, the younger brother of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the marble interior of this home is spectacular. William and his wife, Alva, divorced and after his death she returned to Marble House, making it a landmark location for the women’s right to vote movement. Alva commissioned a Chinese tea house to be built on the estate, and today lunch is served there nearly daily during mild seasons.
• The Elms—Modeled after an 18th century French chateau, it was completed in 1901 by Pennsylvania Coal magnet Edward Julius Berwind, The Elm’s elaborate gardens were added in a Classical Revival design in 1907 and 1914.
• Chateau-sur-Mer—When this early Victorian mansion was completed in 1852, it was the largest home in Newport. Built as an Italianate-style villa, its original owner was trade merchant William Shepard Wetmore, an early importer of Chinese products.
• Rosecliff—Designed similar to a garden retreat for French kings at Versailles, this mansion was completed in 1902 after being commissioned by Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs. In more modern times, it has been used as a setting for movies, including The Great Gatsby, True Lies, Amistad and 27 Dresses. Rosecliff also is a popular site for weddings.
For more information: newportmansions.org
Best ticket deal: Five properties for $31.50.
How to go: Fly into Providence (approximately $300 round trip) and rent a car for the easy drive to Newport.
Park: The Newport Visitor Center and take the trolley around town for a small fee.
Where to stay (luxury): Vanderbilt Grace Hotel, a refurbished mansion ($199-$1,000 per night).
Where to stay (economy): Downtown Providence often has good deals at top hotels, such as the Renaissance, Westin, Wyndham, Marriott and others. Check out kayak.com.
What not to miss: The Cliff Walk at the rear of the mansions’ backyards includes a refreshing hike along the Atlantic’s cooler waters. Lunch in the Chinese tea house at Marble House.
Jekyll Island, Georgia
When winter hit the Rhode Island shore, some of its residents—as well as other northerners—traveled south for the milder season. The Jekyll Island Club National Historic District is located on remote Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia, 70 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida, and 80 miles south of Savannah.
Founded in 1885 by J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William H. Vanderbilt and others, the Jekyll Island Club was a hunting, fishing and recreational entity that encouraged women also to participate in such sports. Affected deeply by the Great Depression, the club went downhill until it was evacuated in the 1940s and purchased by the state of Georgia.
Today, tours of the 240-acre Jekyll Island Club National Historic District include some of the homes among the 33 structures on-site. Among the cottages of the Jekyll Island Club are:
• Sans Souci—An early condominium building featuring six units built for the J.P. Morgan family in 1896. The units now are part of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel accommodations.
• Crane Cottage—Built in 1917 by Chicago industrialist Richard Teller Crane, this mansion was constructed in the Italian Renaissance style, featuring 20 bedrooms and 17 baths. Today it provides bed and breakfast accommodations for the Jekyll Island Club Hotel.
• Goodyear Cottage—Completed in 1906, this home was owned by lumber and railway tycoon Frank Henry Goodyear of Buffalo, New York. It serves as an art gallery and gift shop.
• Moss Cottage—This shingle-style home was completed in 1896 as the home to William Strothers, a retired owner of a Philadelphia marble works.
• Indian Mound Cottage—Built by William Rockefeller, co-founder of Standard Oil, with his brother John D. Rockefeller, this home was named for a nearby Indian mound. It includes nine bedrooms and nine bathrooms.
For more information: jekyllisland.com
Best deal: 90-minute tram tour, including interiors of some cottages, for $16.
How to go: Fly into Jacksonville, Florida (approximately $250 round trip), rent a car and drive to Jekyll.
Park: The Jekyll Island Museum.
Where to stay (luxury): Jekyll Island Club Hotel, $199-$479 per night. On nearby Sea Island, consider the Cloister, an historic landmark hotel, and associated others, including The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club and the Beach Club, a family-oriented resort featuring a series of dramatic swimming pools, open air dining and beachfront cabanas. All resorts are $395 per night.
Where to stay (economy): Jekyll and nearby St. Simons islands have several other hotel options. Check out the oceanfront King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort.
What not to miss: St. Simon’s Island pier area. A horse-and-buggy tour of the Jekyll Island Club.
Palm Beach, Florida
As soon as his Florida East Coast Railway was completed, Henry Flagler was the first to build a mansion in Palm Beach. In 1902, the 75-room, 60,000-square-foot Beaux Arts-style home, known as Whitehall, was completed as a gift to his third wife.
New York architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, who trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, designed the mansion in a style similar to the New York Public Library and New York City’s Frick Collection, a museum in the former residence of industrialist Henry Clay Frick.
The facade of Flagler’s extravagant Palm Beach home features massive marble columns and a red tiled roof. With its marble entry hall and double staircase, the home includes several grand first-floor rooms for entertaining, which the Flaglers did nearly every weekend during their Palm Beach winters. Twelve guest rooms are on the second floor, in addition to a master suite. Several small rooms on the second floor and in the attic were dedicated to servants, both those of the homeowners as well as their guests.
Before building the Florida railroad, Flagler had extensive Ohio roots, moving to Bellevue from his hometown of New York City at the age of 14 and eventually entering the grain business. Through his work there, he became acquainted with John D. Rockefeller and was a partner in Standard Oil. He then moved his family back to New York.
Prior to building Whitehall, Flagler also built The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, which was completed in 1896 and is still considered to be the city’s top accommodation.
For more information: flaglermuseum.us
Best deal: $18 adult admission, includes access to Flagler’s gilded personal railroad car.
How to go: Fly into West Palm Beach, Florida (generally less than $250 round trip), rent a car and drive 10 minutes to Palm Beach. Or, taxi to your Palm Beach hotel, then walk or rent a bicycle while on the island.
Park: The Flagler Museum.
Where to stay (luxury): The Breakers Palm Beach, Flagler’s original hotel ($269 and up per night).
Where to Stay (economy): The Palm Beach Hotel Condominium ($125 and up per night for various suite sizes). This restored 1926 building is within two blocks of the city’s beaches.
What not to miss: The city of Palm Beach has many—still private—mansions that once belonged to the Kennedys, the Pulitzers, John Lennon and others. A drive along Ocean Boulevard will provide a peek over tall hedges to view some of the best examples of Mediterranean architecture on the East Coast, including Donald Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago Club, built in 1927 as the private estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post. End the day with a cocktail at The Seafood Bar at The Breakers, which features ocean views and a long, unique aquarium that serves as the bar’s counter.
Sherry Beck Paprocki is the editor of Columbus Monthly Homes.