Decadence, Income Inequality, and Fried Chicken in Newport, RI

Sure, the yachts and mansions of Newport, Rhode Island were pure, unadulterated opulence and reminiscent of a New England F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, but I was also overcome by an undercurrent of sadness which stemmed from the “Us and Them” mentality of the income inequality that I observed. As we wandered through the marble hallways of The Elms and The Breakers, I pondered the Gilded Age of today–one not made of innovation, baroque gaudiness and lavish interpersonal relationships, but rather corporate monopolies, hyper-minimalism, and artificial intelligence.

A Sparknotes Worthy Recounting of the Battle of Rhode Island

In the 1600 and 1700s, Newport was a coastal trading town that had been blockaded by British General Henry Clinton in 1776. It was not until 1779 that the British relinquished control of Newport following a battle with the French. 

The Inception of Newport’s Gilded Age

Newport attracted many wealthy, blue-blooded families who chose to “summer” (as WASPy as my high school was, I’d never heard anyone use the verb “summer” unironically) on the coastal Rhode Island town for its cool, windy air and proximity to the ocean. Southern planter George Noble Jones was the first to build the Kingscote mansion in 1839, which catalyzed the trend of “summer cottage”/mansion building in Newport. Affluent individuals who hailed from Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, and Providence began building their own villas on the high land that overlooked the water. During the Civil War, however, Newport’s residential development came to a temporary stall, but families like the Vanderbilt’s, Astor’s, and Morgan’s reinvigorated the town post-war. The Gilded Age flourished from the 1880s until the Great Depression. 

The Elms, Paraphrased from Wikipedia

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were only able to see two mansions, one of which was The Elms. The Elms had been commissioned by coal baron Edward Julius Berwind and was built from 1899 to 1901. The $1.5 million dollar “summer cottage” was designed by architect Horace Trumbauer and was modeled after the 18th century Château d’Asnières. The sprawling and ethereal gardens were landscaped by C.H. Miller and E.W. Bowditch. The sunken garden, statues, fountains, and weeping beeches of the great lawn were positively Alice in Wonderland-esque. 

What struck me most about The Elms was the servants’ quarters. Returning to the theme of income inequality, I wondered if I would more likely have been downstairs in the servants’ quarters pouring flutes of champagne for wealthy dinner guests or whether I would have been imbibing. Enter the birth of the American Middle Class. 

The Breakers, Also Paraphrased from Wikipedia

The Breakers is the arguably most well-known mansion in Newport (it receives approximately 450,000 visitors per year). The building belonged to Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and was designed based on the “architectural style of the Italian Renaissance.” Architect Richard Morris Hunt worked with interior designers Jules Allard and Sons and Ogden Codman, Jr. to perfect the 125,339 square foot mansion. 

I was again caught off guard by the striking juxtaposition between the African and Italian imported marble interiors, coffered ceilings, and rose alabaster Corinthian columns of the mansion’s interior with the sparseness of the staffs’ quarters. Cue again the “Us and Them” mentality. 

Cuisine

  • Winner Winner Chicken Dinner on 677 Thames Street for insane fried chicken, biscuits, and myriad sides including gigantic tater tots, slaw, and mac & cheese (amongst others!). 
  • White Horse Tavern on 26 Marlborough Street for excellent service and an authentic colonial experience. The White Horse Tavern opened in 1673 and continues to offer beautifully plated and fresh local cuisine. 
  • The Roof Deck at The Vanderbilt on 41 Mary Street has an old school New England charm, Instagrammable views, and refreshing cocktails.
  • The Safari Room on 65 Ridge Road was heaven in a restaurant. We were fortunate enough to glimpse the sprawling lawn of the OceanCliff hotel while on a yacht tour, and were even more fortunate to be able to make a reservation for a sunset dinner. The pinks and blues and purples of the sky falling over the water were breathtaking, and the food, drink, and service were stellar. 

Source: https://www.njcharters.com/newport-rhode-island-gilded-age/#:~:text=The%20Gilded%20Age%20in%20Newport,Newport%20came%20to%20a%20halt

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