Instead, The Elms, is the name of the last mansion toured during our Newport, RI, road trip. This grand mansion was once the summer home for a U.S. coal magnate and his wife. (This is the final long-ish post about some very over-the-top and quite ostentatious mansions.)
|The Elms, Newport, RI, mansion of Sarah and Edward Julius Berwind
While these are certainly some major differences, The Elms is definitely a grand house in what was a time of a very opulent life style. It houses an outstanding collection of paintings, statuary and tapestries. The landscaping features formal gardens, terraces, pavilions and fountains.
|Edward and Sarah Berwind
Berwind's company was the largest owner of coal properties in the country and traded prominently throughout the U.S. and Europe. He was a member of an influential circle of industrialists, sharing newspaper mentions with the likes of J.P. Morgan.
Unlike the Vanderbilts, Astors and others, Berwind was new money (his parents were middle-class German immigrants). Sarah Berwind grew up in Italy; her father was the American counsel to Livorno, Italy. She spoke several languages and was a patron of art and music.
The Berwinds began summering in Newport in the 1880s and in 1888 paid $50,000 for an Italianate-style house, The Elms, on Bellevue Avenue, the summer home of George W. Merritt. Starting in 1890, Berwind spent up to $100,000 buying land and soon his summer estate was 14-acres. By 1898, the house was too small for grand parties they were hosting, so they had it torn down to build a new mansion in its place, keeping the original name. (The original American elms on the grounds succumbed to Dutch elm disease.)
Trumbauer also had Jules Allard & Sons of Paris design and furnish the interior. (The same French firm responsible for furnishing the Vanderbilt mansions.) The Elms also housed 18th century French and Venetian paintings, Renaissance ceramics and Oriental jades that the Berwinds had amassed in their travels.
Built of white limestone, The Elms was constructed from 1899 to 1901 with 50 rooms. It took two years to finish and cost about 1.4 million dollars, now 49.9 million dollars. Like most Newport Gilded Age houses, it house was built with non-combustible materials and around a structural steel frame. The interior partitions, plaster over terra cotta blocks, sit on reinforced concrete floor slabs; the exterior walls are made of brick masonry and clad with limestone.
|Back views of The Elms: top (1916) and bottom (2023)
Over the next 20 years, Sarah Berwind would spend the summers in Newport, the season being from the July 4 to the end of August. Berwind visited on weekends as his coal-mining interests kept him in New York during the week. Although the Berwinds had no children, their nephews and nieces would visit regularly.
Thanks to Berwind's interest in technology, The Elms was a very sophisticated house of the time. It was one of the first houses in the U.S. to be wired for electricity with no backup system, it also included one of the first electrical ice makers. When The Elms was done, the Berwinds held a huge party. It wasn’t unusual for their summer entertainment bill to top $300,000.
Nearly all Newport mansion owners hosted grand parties to showcase their new digs, but The Elms opening was very spectacular. There was 400 guests, roses adorned every corner of the mansion's interior and vines reached to the second floor, lights were spread throughout the estate, two orchestras provided music in the ballroom and the Newport Band played in the grounds. But, the evening's highlight was monkeys brought in to play in the palm trees. Many were found swinging in trees around Newport days later. Two orchestras provided music in the ballroom and the Newport Band played in the grounds.
|Entrance Foyer at The Elms
On the main floor, the principal axis leads from the eastern entrance porch, into an entrance hall with a grand staircase and a marble floor, then into the ballroom, and then out to the garden beyond. The wing to the South contains a dining room, breakfast room, and serving pantry (the kitchens were in the basement), while the wing to the North contains a drawing room, library, and conservatory.
|The Elms Conservatory
The Conservatory was inspired by orangeries (greenhouses) popular in 18th century France, but the Berwinds filled it with palms and exotic plants. The conservatory is decorated with four marble statues representing the seasons of the year. The fountain continued the theme of bringing the garden inside. The room's tall windows provide natural light.
|The Ballroom hosted the mansion's 1901 grand house party
The Ballroom done in the Louis XV style was decked out with rose trees, palms, orchids and lotus flowers for The Elms housewarming party in August 1901. The ballroom is has carved wood painted in cream and white and is considered to be one of the finest in Newport. A single elaborate crystal chandelier helps anchor the space in this room along with a 1900 Steinway gold-leaf grand piano. The portrait of Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, a leader of Newport society, was painted in 1905 by Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. Her house once was across the street from The Elms.
While nearly all Newport mansion owners hosted grand parties to showcase their new digs, The Elms opening was over-the-top with 400 guests. Roses adorned the mansion's interior and vines reached to the second floor, lights were spread throughout the estate, two orchestras provided music in the ballroom and the Newport Band played in the grounds. The evenings highlight was monkeys brought in to play in the palm trees. Days after, many were found swinging in trees around Newport.
|The Dining Room is full of Venetian murals
The Dining Room of carved walnut and oak with Venetian murals is lit by four chandeliers and the antique fireplace's mantel of green marble, onyx and bronze nearly reaches the ceiling. Breaking with the French design of other rooms, this room displays the largest collection of 18th-century Venetian murals in America. Jules Allard designed the room around the cycle of paintings depicting Roman generals. The oak paneling is reflected in the ceiling (not captured), which is painted to look like oak. The ornate doors are of Santo Domingo mahogany adding to the room's richness.
|Breakfast Room features black and gold Chinese lacquer panels
The Breakfast Room features black and gold Chinese lacquer panels and is an example of Chinoiserie, a western interpretation of Chinese decoration.Three of the wall panels in this room are 18th century Chinese; one is a 20th century copy created by decorator Allard. The room is one of the few surviving lacquer rooms in the world and it would have been destroyed when The Elms was threatened with demolition in the 1960s (more on that later).
|Butler's Pantry and knife cleaner
The Butler's Pantry was the final stop for meals before being plated, warmed and delivered to the dining or breakfast rooms. The round wooden object is a knife cleaner. Before stainless steel, knives needed to be polished. Knives were inserted into one of the slots and the hand crank was turned as brushes scrubbed off any rust.
The second floor houses bedrooms for family and guests as well as a private sitting room. The third floor contains bedrooms for the indoor servants.
|Bedroom & bath of Sarah Berwind
Sarah Berwind's Bedroom also served as her office since as lady of the house, she was responsible for managing the estate and its social functions. She organized both the lavish entertainments and the inner workings of The Elms and its household staff of 42. This room was featured on HBO's The Gilded Age series. The bathroom was modern white tile like all the other bathrooms, the high point of luxury in that time. White tile was a relatively new hygienic material, popular for its easy upkeep.
|Bedroom & bath of Edward Berwind
Edward Berwind's Bedroom is smaller than his wife's. Gentlemen of Newport's summer colony worked primarily in New York during the week, traveling to Newport on weekends to rejoin their families. They required less change of clothing and preparations. In his bathroom, the sink is white onyx. A caned chair placed over the commode would have been moveable.
|Sitting room used by family and guests
The Sitting Room was a private gathering place for the Berwinds and their guests. Tables in this room held photos of the couple's four nieces who often summered at The Elms with their aunt and uncle.
The Main Kitchen was heated by wood and coal and would have been operational non-stop during a party. A chef brought in from France was the star of kitchen, hired to create lavish meals served during Gilded Age society dinners hosted by the Berwinds.
The Garden Showcase
The 14-acres of French and Italian landscaped gardens of The Elms are among the most spectacular in Newport, RI. Architect Trumbauer was helped in their design by Ernest William Bowditch known for his work at The Breakers (another Vanderbilt connection).
|Vintage postcard showing The Elms garden
|The Elms garden as it looked during our visit
The elaborate gardens were developed between 1907 and 1914 and include terraces displaying marble and bronze sculpture, a sunken garden, numerous split level terraces, gravel walkways, balustrades, boxwood hedges, sweeping lawns, sculptured fountains, statues, busts and two octagonal gazebos with domed roofs serving as teahouses. These gardens were recently restored.
|1910 garage replaced carriage house & stables
After the Berwinds replaced coaches with automobiles, the original carriage house and stables were replaced in 1910 by an enormous two story garage. It was clad in limestone, 125-foot long by 70-foot deep and one of the largest private garages in America, with an indoor track, and two gas tanks. (The Berwind's head coachman became the chauffeur, but couldn't learn to back out of the garage, so an automobile turntable was installed.)
While high society members tended to reduce extravagant lifestyles due to the depression and WW II, Julia maintained a full staff of 40 servants; her social season remained at six weeks. She was noted for driving herself, unusual for women generally and for women of her class especially. She was also known to invite local children to the estate for cookies and milk.
When Julia died in 1961, aged 96, the house and most of its contents were sold at public auction. Childless, like the Berwinds, she willed the estate to a nephew, Charles Dunlap, who couldn't maintain it with little attachment to the mansion. An auction was held and furnishings were sold with several of the more valuable paintings going to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
After the contents of the estate were auctioned off, it almost fell victim to the wrecking ball as a syndicate of New York developers wanted to demolish it. But that plan went awry as did the money when the stock market tumbled in 1962. This enabled the Preservation Society of Newport County to buy The Elms for $116,000 with help from a few others. Within weeks, the house was ready for a gala ball attended by 800 people celebrating its survival.
Almost all of the original art hangs in the house and much of the furniture has returned. It took five years, but the entire home was rewired, allowing the Society to finally install hardwired fire and burglar alarms.
Since it was opened as a house museum in 1962, The Elms has remained one of Newport's most popular attractions. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.
This post ends our visits to three Newport, RI, mansions — The Breakers, Marble House and The Elms. All three were spectacular in terms of money spent and furnishings. Marble House was as beautiful as The Breakers was massive; but, The Elms was my favorite. Its interiors and owners' lifestyle were just as opulent and extravagant as the others, but the fact that it was saved from possible demolition made it a bit more special.