Christmas at the Newport Mansions: The Elms

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The Newport Mansions, cared for by The Preservation Society of Newport County, are by far my favorite thing about Rhode Island. These Gilded Age homes were built by some of the nation’s wealthiest between 1870 and the early 1900s, and acted as the “Summer Cottage” for these families. The humor is not lost on guests who tour these “Summer Cottages”, as they are some of the most decadent, over the top, richest homes I’ve visited to date.

While I have been to a handful of the mansions in the past, I had never been during their “Christmas at the Newport Mansions” event and took advantage this past weekend. I was excited to see that The Elms was on the list, as it was one that I had not yet visited, so off we went!

I will include a mixture of Christmas décor (it was stunning) and some other rooms of the home, but I have to admit, the holiday décor was secondary to me. I left with glitter in my eyes, but a desire to know more about the family who lived there. I’ll simply have to make another trip! (Twist my arm!)

Historical Highlights

  • Edward Julius Berwind was born in Philadelphia, the son of Germany immigrants. After spending some time in Naval Academy, he made his way into the very lucrative coal industry, and eventually became known as world’s largest individual owner of coal mining properties at that time. He decided to build himself and his wife, Sarah, a summer cottage in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1901 Edward Julius Berwind spent approximately $1.4 million dollars on the home – which translates to approximately $28 million dollars today.
  • Mr. & Mrs. Berwind were famous in Newport for their lavish parties, which often carried late into the night. The entire first floor of the mansion lends itself to entertaining – the library, the ball room, the conservatory, the dining room and more. Member of the “High Society” in Newport were certainly in for a treat when visiting The Elms!
  • I am always curious to know how the house became to be a museum of sorts. Edward & Sarah had no children, and after Sarah passed away in the early 1920’s, Edward invited his sister Julia to summer at the home and take over as socialite of the house. Edward passed away in 1936, and Julia remained a summer resident until her death in 1961 – meaning, she was using the house not all that long ago! Apparently Julia was not as big a fan of new technology in the home (her brother Edward was, he was very quick to convert the home to electricity), therefore what you see today is fairly close to how Julia summered in home up until her death. The home was slated for demolition and most of the furniture inside was sold at auction (I can’t even imagine!), but thankfully the Preservation Society of Newport County stepped in and purchased the home in 1962 for us to visit and tour today!

Favorite Spots

Butler’s Pantry

I’ve always been fascinated by “real” life in these homes – that being of the servants. While Edward & Sarah were certainly living their own version of real life, the constant buzz that took place behind the scenes is the “real” part of living in the home to me. The two story Butler’s pantry inside The Elms was one of the prettiest I’ve seen. Located off the dining room and above the kitchen, architect Horace Trumbaue created a thoughtful design and layout to avoid any inconvenience (or more likely, delays caused by going up and down stairs) for the staff. Trumbaue created three stories which worked seamlessly together – the kitchen in the basement, the butler’s pantry on the first floor adjoining to the dining room, and an open balcony above the pantry to the second floor where all the serving dishes, china, and silver would be kept. All three floors were serviced by a dumb waiter, therefore avoiding any need for the stairs. An icebox was also located inside the butler’s pantry on the first floor, with special panels at the top of it to insert flat sheets (versus blocks) of ice. The flatware used to dine with was so valuable that it usually traveled with the family from home to home, and there is a large safe located on the second floor with the china, specifically for the silverware. The filigree in the balcony railing caught my eye, but it truly was a beautiful space of “real life” that made an impression on me.

Ballroom

ball roomn

Any house with a ballroom is a house that I’ll love. Always so over the top and glittering with gold leaf and massive chandeliers, a beautiful ballroom speaks to the little girl inside me. The Elms does not disappoint – and this was by far the most gorgeous display of Christmas trees I’ve seen. While looking through my photos afterwards, I thought to myself “this is the most beautiful picture I’ve ever taken!” – all the glitz, glitter and sparkles made it easy. The huge mantel in this room was also decadently dressed for the holidays – see my Top Photos below, along with the Instagram or Facebook pages for more! The photos do not do it justice.

Conservatory

conservatory

Meant to bring the outdoors in, this conservatory does just that. Floor to ceiling windows allow for sunlight to flood in, and all the greenery brings so much life into the otherwise starkly white room. Fountains and other marble statues adorn this room, and offer an up close look at all the detail & master carving work that went into making the pieces. It’s a room that I would love to grab a good book and a glass of champagne, and spend the day in!

Dining Room

dining room

One city sold me on this room: Venice. My husband & I went to Italy in 2016, and admittedly I left a large chunk of my soul there, and Venice captured a large part of that chunk. Before the audio-tour guide revealed the inspiration for the room – the ceiling had captured my attention and the hundreds of gold foiled winged lions already told me their story. I can only assume that it is this same inspiration that also brought about the two lion statues in the backyard gardens, especially one that is on top of a crocodile, similar to the man standing on the crocodile in the Piazza di San Marco in Venice, Italy. I was so enamored with the ceiling that I barely got any photos of the actual dining table before moving onto the next room!

Eye Spy

  • I love a good bathroom – new or old! I loved finding the “Valet” button on the door case in Edward’s bathroom, help was truly only a ring away. I also loved the wicker toilets – doesn’t seem very comfortable to me, but it sure did pretty them up quite a bit!
  • The Chandeliers & Wall Sconces in The Elms were extraordinary. Many of them were modeled after flowers, with glass petals as the shades and huge, crystal clear globes hanging from the base of the chandeliers. Simply beautiful at every turn!
  • Again, I’m a sucker for details, and door knobs & hinges are high on my list these days. It seemed as though every room had a different design for a door knob, and I must’ve taken over 20 photos throughout my visit! All so pretty and all so different.
  • The huge lion statues that guard the backyard were easily visible from every room one the first floor. While I don’t remember hearing anything about them during the tour, with the nod to Venice, Italy in the Dining Room I can only assume that these were another way to honor that beautiful city.
  • In order to avoid Edward & Sarah Berwind from the terrible sight of the staff coming & going or receiving deliveries, a huge wisteria canopy was grown to completely cover the staff entrance. While it was interesting to see in hibernation in December, it must be simply magnificent come the spring & summer. That alone would be worth another trip to see!
  • The staff staircase was also a treat – with the same matching filigree as found in the Butler’s Pantry balcony, it made a perfect spiral to the bottom where you could see the pretty tile which was the floor of the kitchen in the basement.

Visiting Tips

  • For some reason I found this the most overwhelming of all the homes I’ve toured since November. I’m not sure if it was simply the size of the home and all the intricate detail, or the fact that all the other tours have been a bit more “personal” where I could ask questions (this was an audio-tour, which is optional, as you can also just wander without any guidance). But, my suggestion is to take your time w/the audio tour – there are options to hear more stories & facts about the room you are in, and I wish I had done so.
  • Ask questions! There are tour staff throughout the house, who are more than happy to answer any questions that you have!
  • The “Christmas at the Newport Mansions” event runs thru New Year’s Day, and there is a special for $30 which would give you access to all three homes that are decorated, which makes sense if you have the full day to spend!

Top Photos

Truth be told, I have so many photos of The Elms – there was simply so much to look at! Below are some of my top choices, but I’ll be sharing more on the Facebook & Instagram pages as well! Hope you enjoy!

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