Newport County consists of a cluster of islands in Narragansett Bay as well as the state's southeasternmost mainland, a relatively undeveloped section situated between the Sakonnet River, the sea and the Massachusetts state line.
History combines with water and wealth to make Newport probably the single most varied town in New England. Here in one roughly ten-mile-square area are seashore, history, architecture, culture, affluence, shops and restaurants in both quantity and variety that are the envy of cities many times its size.
As an early and prosperous seaport dating to 1639, Newport contains more pre-Revolutionary buildings than any other in America more than New York, Boston and Philadelphia combined. The quaint Point and Historic Hill sections hold an unrivaled array of Colonial houses. There are some of the nation's oldest public buildings and edifices as well: the 1763 Touro Synagogue (the oldest house of Jewish worship), the Redwood Library and Atheneum (the oldest lending library), the 1739 Old Colony House (the third oldest capitol building), the Old Stone Mill (believed to have been built as early as 1100 by the Vikings.
Newport's second heyday followed the Civil War. Along fabled Bellevue Avenue the Astors, Vanderbilts, Morgans and others of America's 400 built their summer "cottages," palatial mansions designed by the nation's leading architects. Here near the Newport Casino at the turn of the last century was a society summer resort unrivaled for glitter and opulence. The Cliff Walk along the ocean leads past most of the Gilded Age mansions. Today's mansions (some strikingly contemporary) are revealed along Ocean Drive, the New England version of California's Pebble Beach and Seventeen-Mile Drive.
Mansion Tours. The Preservation Society of Newport County offers guided tours of its eleven properties. The most visited is the 72-room Breakers, the 1895 seaside summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt and the most opulent of Newport's "cottages." It resembles a northern Italian palace and the vast lawn stretches down to the Cliff Walk. From its upper loggias, you can see the Elizabeth Islands far out to sea on a clear day. Included in tours are the kitchens and butler's pantry an area larger than most houses. A private collection of Vanderbilt memorabilia is on display at the recently opened Breakers Stable and Carriage House.
Other choices are romantic Rosecliff of "The Great Gatsby" fame, whose living room doubled as a ballroom; William K. Vanderbilt's Marble House, where the hostess once gave a ten-course dinner party for 100 of her friends' dogs, and the museum-like Elms, with the finest of Newport's grounds. Also open are the 1852 Chateau-Sur-Mer, the 1866 Italianate villa Chepstow, the 1881 Isaac Bell House (a restoration work in progress), the 1748 Hunter House in the historic Point section and Green Animals in nearby Portsmouth, considered the best topiary garden in the country. If you've seen them all, you may find refreshing the 1839 Kingscote, a charming early Victorian that looks lived-in and eminently livable.
www.newportmansions.org. Mansions open daily 10 to 5, May-October; limited schedules in April and November. Breakers, Elms and Marble House open daily from Thanksgiving to New Year's. In winter, Breakers is open daily and The Elms and Chateau-sur-Mer on weekends. Admission: Breakers (including Stables), adults $15, children $4. Any other single property, adults $10, children $4. Various combination tickets available.
Several other mansions are open under private ownership. The Astors' Beechwood, 580 Bellevue Ave., is the most extravagant. It's an 1851 Italian-style seaside villa that was home to the woman who coined the term "400" for the number her New York ballroom would comfortably hold. The 60-room Belcourt Castle, 657 Bellevue Ave., is the home of the Tinney family, whose collection includes art and antiques from 33 countries. The newest mansion to be opened to the public is Rough Point, home of Doris Duke, near the end of the Cliff Walk. It contains her extraordinary collections of fine and decorative arts.
The Museum of Newport History, 177 Thames St., Newport.
Lately housed in the stately 1762 Brick Market building, the museum of the Newport Historical Society provides an overview of varied aspects of local history in interactive displays on two floors. Pick up a telephone speaker to hear about religious history. View the locally made Goddard-Townsend furniture on display in a middle-class parlor, not far from a printing press that belonged to Benjamin Franklin's brother, James. Climb aboard the reproduction Ocean House omnibus for a nine-minute audio tour down turn-of-the-century Bellevue Avenue, accompanied by the clip-clops of horses' hooves.
www.newporthistorical.org. Open daily except Tuesday, 10 to 5, Sunday 1 to 5, to 4 November-March. Adults $5, children $3.
International Tennis Hall of Fame, 194 Bellevue Ave., Newport.
A gracious Victorian air lingers around the historic Newport Casino, built in 1880 by Stanford White and considered the cradle of American lawn tennis. The National Men's Singles Championships were held here from 1881 to 1914, and major tournaments are still held on the grass courts each summer. The world's largest tennis museum includes the Davis Cup Theater, where old tennis films are shown. Visitors can test their tennis trivia in new interactive video displays and, for a fee, play tennis on thirteen grass courts or three indoor courts.
(401) 849-3990 or (800) 457-1144.
www.tennisfame.com. Open daily, 9:30 to 5. Adults $8, children $4.
The Museum of Yachting, Fort Adams State Park.
Housed in a 19th-century granite building on a point at the end of Fort Adams in Newport Harbor, this museum showcases the history of yachting and yacht racing. Costumes, memorabilia, photos, paintings and models trace the history of sailing inside what was once an Army mule barn. The photo exhibit called "The Mansions and the Yachts" focuses on the sailing roles of the Vanderbilts, Astors and Morgans ("while the women were here for the social life, this is what the men did," our guide explained). The Small Craft Gallery displays old wooden boats beneath a model of the boat that won the first America's Cup perched near the ceiling. Located in the museum's boat basin are classic yachts dating from the late 1800s to 1965, restored by the museum and actively sailed by volunteers throughout the summer. Among them is the flagship Courageous, winner of the America's Cup in 1974 and 1977.
www.moy.org. Open mid-May through October, daily 10 to 5. Adults $4, children $3.
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