The “Cottages” of Newport, Rhode island

The mansions of Newport, Rhode Island

It was called the Gilded Age, a time when robber barons and their offspring built excessive tributes to their self-proclaimed awesomeness. Newport, Rhode Island was the epitome of this unbelievable excess, aptly dubbed Conspicuous Consumption.

It is certainly something to see, so be sure to check out some Rhode Island vacation packages and deals and prepare for a grand old time.

De La Salle Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island

Newport is chock full of gaudy mansions erected by the more-money-than-class club.

In an embarrassing effort to one-up each other with their “summer cottages” these iconic American families of railroad, mining and steel fortunes, threw ridiculously lavish parties for their pets, sat atop carriages every afternoon to show off their new outfits, had notorious affairs, harassed their overworked staffs and backstabbed one another to get into the society pages.

Oh, to be rich and bored out of one’s mind.

Ochre Court where the Great Gatsby was filmed in Newport, Rhode Island

Many of these cottages, these cozycozy cottages, have become white elephants as family fortunes dwindled or heirs finally came to their senses and are now kept up by historical societies, available for touring by the public — and to be mocked
by The GypsyNesters!

Bizarre fountain in Newport, Rhode Island
This fountain has water coming out of WHAAAT?! Just one of many examples of odd art we saw!

In order to tell the story properly, we must start with Caroline Schermerhorn Astor.

Caroline insisted on being called “The Mrs. Astor,” which in itself tells you a lot about the woman.

Together with her social director, the notorious Ward McAllister, The Mrs. Astor put together The Four Hundred, a list of people considered worthy of their company.

“If you go outside that number, you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease,” proclaimed Ward McAllister.

Although rarely disputed by society columns and social climbers, this list was full of the nouveau riche, which goes a long way in explaining the goings-on of the eight-week long Newport summer season in which these cottages were employed.

The Mrs. Astor's Beechwood in Newport, Rhode Island

Caroline married William Backhouse Astor whose grandfather, John Jacob Astor, made a killing in fur and real estate and in his time was the wealthiest man in America. William, neither a captain of industry nor much into socializing, was nevertheless a big spender and bought Beechwood in 1881.

Two million 1881 gold-backed dollars were spent on fixing the place up and New York’s Four Hundred showed up year after year to attend The Mrs. Astor’s Summer Ball.

Alva Vanderbilt's Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island

Perhaps the most infamous newcomer to The Four Hundred was Alva Vanderbilt. In 1875, Alva, married William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose fortune was built on railroads and steamships. The Commodore amassed wealth, his descendants spent it like there was no tomorrow.

Chateau-sur-Mer in Newport, Rhode Island

Despite the Vanderbilt’s fantastic show of wealth in New York City, Alva could not properly break into The Four Hundred.

The traditional acknowledgment of this honor was to be formally “called on” by The Mrs. Astor.

Apparently the old Commodore had burned a few too many social bridges in his day, but Alva was not to be denied.

In 1883, Alva devised a plan to bust her way in. She put together a masquerade ball to show off her newly finished Fifth Avenue home in New York City.

This little wingding had a guest list of 750 and all the young ladies of quality were feverishly practicing their parts in the much anticipated Quadrilles. Just prior to the ball, Alva banned The Mrs. Astor’s daughter, Caroline, from the festivities, citing Mrs. Astor’s lack of formal calling. Sure enough, The Mrs. Astor came a-callin’ and Caroline attended the ball.

The Vanderbilts were in.

Alva and William arrived in Newport in 1892 upon finishing their eleven million dollar Marble House. A gift from William to Alva for her 39th birthday, the new cottage just happened to be right next door to The Mrs. Astor’s much humbler Beechwood. Oh SNAP!

A fitting piece of art in Newport, RI

A celebrated social climber, Alva was determined to marry off her oldest daughter Consuelo to a European aristocrat.

Lacking the proper pedigree, drastic measures were necessary to make Consuelo into a suitable mate. Among other things, Alva forced the girl to don a contraption made of steel to force her to sit up straight. Luckily, Consuelo turned out to be a renowned beauty (likely helped out by a two and a half million dollar dowry).

The beach in Newport, Rhode Island

Alva shopped her daughter around the European gentry, finally landing the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895.

To convince Consuelo to marry against her will, Alva faked a mysterious fatal illness. The marriage was later annulled with Alva saying, “I forced my daughter to marry the Duke. I have always had absolute power over my daughter.” Nice, Mom.

In 1895 Alva blew everyone’s minds by divorcing William Vanderbilt, something that was just not done. She was granted a huge settlement and retained Marble House.

Belcourt Castle in Newport, Rhode Island

Alva then married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, son of August Belmont and his banking fortune. She moved in to Oliver’s enormous cottage known as Belcourt Castle, just down the road. Her wedding gift? The deed to Belcourt Castle.

Vanderbilt's The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island

The new Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont’s castle/cottage was soon trumped by her former kin, brother-in-law Cornelius Vanderbilt II, when he built The Breakers in 1895.

You just can’t win in Newport.

The Breakers is so out of control, as our tour guide informed us, that Vanderbilt descendent Anderson Cooper of CNN fame won’t even visit because he is “too embarrassed by his ancestor’s self indulgence.”

Much of this insane self indulgence was planned by the social directors. Perhaps the job to have in Newport, one social director of particular note was Harry Lehr. Harry took over The Mrs. Astor’s schedule
after Ward McAllister wrote a tell-all book, fell from grace and died alone.

But it wasn’t until Harry Lehr was hired on by Mamie Fish that his true colors could shine. He had discovered his true partner in crime.

Mamie Fish, wife of Stuyvesant Fish, president of the Illinois Central Railroad, was not your typical Newport hostess.

Mamie and Lehr hosted some pretty outlandish parties at the Fish’s cottage Crossways — a dinner where everyone had to speak baby talk and bring dolls, a three-course dinner party for one hundred dogs, some dripping with diamonds, and an extravagant ball for the Prince del Drago, who when announced, turned out to be a monkey.

The simian prince then was seated in The Mrs. Astor’s usual seat of honor, causing quite a stir.

As The Mrs. Astor‘s influence fell out of fashion, The Triumvirate emerged. Alva Vanderbilt and Mamie Fish had climbed to the top of the social ladder, and with Theresa Fair Oelrichs, The Triumvirate was completed. The trio became Society’s reigning dowagers.

Rosecliff in Newport, Rhode Island

Theresa, aka “Tessie” was the daughter of James Fair, a silver magnate. She and husband, Hermann Oelrichs built Rosecliff, a cottage with twenty-two master bedrooms in 1902. Tessie could throw a mean, themed shindig including a fairy-tale dinner and a circus.

Her magnum opus was the thirty-thousand dollar Bal Blanc, put together by Ward McAllister before his demise.

All attendees wore white from head to toe, including the powder in their hair. Rosecliff was strewn with white flowers, the fountain full of white swans. But the pièce de résistance was the twelve white ships Tessie bought as decoration to float in the ocean.

Newport, Rhode Island

Life was hard for these ladies as Alva Vanderbilt famously said, “I know of no profession, art or trade that women are working in today as taxing on mental resource as being a leader of society.”

Well, honey, you should have thought of that before you decided to take on The Mrs. Astor.

Dear, brave Alva.

The deck on Aquidneck Lobster Company in Newport, Rhode Island

Needing to get away from the mentally taxing work of looking at huge houses, we decided to head down to the marina to relax and take in the scene on the water.

We found the Aquidneck Lobster Company where we picked out a lobster from their multiple tanks, had it steamed and ate it out of a paper bag on the beautiful back deck while watching the sailboats go by.

Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island

Diving off the sea cliffs in Newport, Rhode Island

To burn off our seafood, we took a long walk/hike along Newport”s famous Cliff Walk.

This beautiful trail alongside the majestic cliffs of the Atlantic gives a view of the sea-facing sides of the most ostentatious cottages.

Yes, it meant more opulent mansion — sorry — cottage viewing but no trip to Newport is complete without it, it is truly spectacular.

Alva Vanderbilt’s famous Chinese Tea House is along the cliffs. Tucked away behind the Marble House, she used it to hold meetings for the Women’s Suffrage movement.

Apparently, later in life she wanted a vote that really counted.

Alva Vanderbilt's Chinese Tea House in Newport, Rhode Island

Flo's Clam Shack in Newport, Rhode Island

After working up a new appetite on the Cliff Walk, we figured a full 180 from Newport’s lavish luxury was the right choice for dinner.

We hit Flo’s Clam Shack on First Beach for mounds of clam strips, decadent chowder and a fiery hot quahog. As far as we knew, Quahog is the town where the famous Family Guy lives, but always up for a culinary adventure, we ordered one anyway.

Clam strips and Quahog in Newport, Rhode Island

Luckily, it turned out that a quahog is a type of clam, served stuffed with spicy clam stuffing and held together with a red rubber band. Excellent when washed down with an ice cold beer.

Flo’s was well worth the trip, if only to hear “Veronicer! Yuh chowda is up!”

Gotta love Rhode Island.

David & Veronica,

Explore the mesmerizing cottages of Newport and seamlessly work from anywhere with a cloud hosted desktop from a DaaS provider along office 365 from, Add MS office to the same desktop by visiting

This post contains sponsored links.

Did you enjoy what you just read? Then you'll LOVE our book!
Going Gypsy: One Couple's Adventure from Empty Nest to No Nest at All Going Gypsy One Couple's Adventure from Empty Nest to No Nest at All 

- See how it all began!
ORDER NOW - Wherever Books Are Sold!
Amazon - Barnes & Noble - IndieBound - Books-a-Million
Also available as an audiobook from

35 thoughts on “The “Cottages” of Newport, Rhode island”

  1. I just wanted to say that I love every time visiting your wonderful post! Great information you shared through this blog. Keep it up and best of luck for your future blogs and posts.

  2. This is a good posting, I was wondering if I could use this write-up on my website, I will link it back to your website though. If this is a problem please let me know and I will take it down right away

  3. This is one of the most fascinating history articles that I have ever read on the internet. It is so fascinating that it sometimes starts sounding like a story and makes it difficult to believe that it is actually all real. Thanks for making the internet a more informative place with such articles.

  4. As an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow we just finished taping at Rosecliff this past Tuesday. We all had a great time and I think have some shows everyone will enjoy after the first of the year when they will be scheduled to air. I thoroughly enjoyed your journey through the local history. However, I am left with one question that no one seems to be able to provide a definitive answer. What is the history behind the use of the word cottage for such imposing mansions. My thoughts are that this must be an English evolution of the concept of a summer cottage. One would think that someone had tongue firmly planted in cheek when this expression became tradition. Thanks JB

    1. We don’t know how “cottages” became the norm, but it seems that they thought of these as little getaways from their homes in the city. Guess they figured these were just small summer homes.

  5. What a fascinating history lesson! Love the way you’ve written this, it reads just like a story – difficult to believe it was all real life! I would swap lives with Alva in a second, despite how hard she claims it is! The novelty would probably wear off after a couple of weeks though..

  6. Being part of that elite social scene sounds really stressful … funny how even when you have a lot of money, people still care way too much about what others think of them…!

  7. We tasted a bit of this world with visits to the Winterthur and Biltmore estates on our last big mainland roadtrip. It’s hard to imagine the staggering wealth. I’ve always wanted to visit Newport, though, and enjoyed your narrative. This type of thing does live on: Modern periodicals such as Vanity Fair (aptly named), Town and Country, and Vogue predictably feature similar vapid personalities on ridiculous display with hilarious editorial fawning. Or there’s always the NYT wedding section. 😉

  8. You mean stuck-up stuffy Anderson Cooper is actually embarrassed because of someone else’s self indulgence? Sounds pretty self righteous. Anyway, I thought the article was shallow, and showed a rather rush-to-judgement attitude.

  9. Golly what a total waste of good money, but the irony is that they were called cottages and used only 8 weeks in the summer. I understand that the craftsmen were brought in from abroad to create these homes were paid a pittance for theit labor.

  10. Whew, entertaining post! White swans in the fountain, twelve white ships floating offshore; it’s all so hard to believe. Whenever I’m confronted by this type of excess, I remind myself of the army of craftspeople, stonemasons, decorators, artists and artisans employed for decades. Money paid to craftspeople and artists is always money much better spent than simply losing it all at the gambling table. Even today, how many visitors are trooping to Rhode Island simply for a walk along the shore and the scrumptious seafood? Those monster(ous) homes are still bringing tourism dollars into the local economy. Craftsmanship of a bygone era is keeping more than one increasingly industry-less destination afloat afloat these days.

      1. Pittsburgh, Buffalo – both building an exciting new creative life on the architectural bones of their 19th-century past. Even my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, has a thriving film industry based on its remarkable heritage core unchanged since it was hailed as “Chicago of the North” with over 70 vaudeville theatres featuring acts like Groucho Marx…

    1. I think of all the artisans and craftsman stiffed through the decades working for Donald J Trump

  11. Wow! Thanks for this lesson in Newport history and your very entertaining portrayal of New Englands Rich and Famous. Isn’t it amazing what some people consider important? I have bookmarked it for my next visit to Newport and will definitely have a look at more of those “cottages” next time I’m there. Oh, and I also linked to your story from my daily ePaper

  12. LOL! Think of what brilliant CEOs these women could have been had more outlets been available to them. . .

    I just spent some time in Bristol, RI, just a few miles away from Newport. Same beautiful ocean, and quite a lot of money there, but a lot less flamboyant.

  13. My husband grew up in the Newport area, and we have visited many times. Fascinating how much money these folks had and spent. By the way, did you know that they call a milkshake in RI a "cabinet?" momo

  14. Wow! Thanks for the juicy history lesson and the resources. I may not have time to read the books, but a movie could be in order.

    Having worked as the Events Coordinator (until my recent retirement) at an historical gilded mansion in Wisconsin, (see Fairlawn Mansinon at, I confess to a bit of envy and empathy for the famed social directors. How often did I bemoan the lack of those socialites' funds when compared to the resources of a poor non-profit. It's tough to throw good parties that compete for attendance when working with a limiting budget. LOL

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.