By Amanda Renkiewicz
The historic town of Newport, Rhode Island, hugs the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean, demurely sprinkled beside the glistening waters. Yachts are as prevalent as the seagulls that caw from above. Despite its unattainable past, today’s Newport is approachable, lovely, and charming. It is the steward of unbelievable mansions, bringing in countless tourists every year. Unlike the Biltmore, which is simply overwhelming in its absurd magnificence, the Newport Mansions were owned by similarly wealthy families (Vanderbilt, Oelrichs, Berwind), and are on a “smaller” scale. Each has its own personality, history, and magic. In the 1960’s, when opulence was shunned and considered gauche, the abandoned buildings were recommended to be demolished, making way for…parking. In a stunning moment of foresight and historical guardianship, the Preservation Society of Newport County began acquiring the properties. With a mission to provide cultural organization, the volunteer group protects, preserves, and presents the best of Newport County’s architectural heritage. Currently, the Society owns eleven historic properties and landscapes – seven of which are National Historic Landmarks – and all of which trace America’s architectural and social development from the Colonial era through the Gilded Age.
As former residents of the East Coast, we stumbled upon Newport when researching exciting weekend getaways. Once we arrived at the coastal paradise, a love that was destined to last struck like lightning. Newport felt like home with its water access, warm residents, and sheer beauty. It’s an architectural mecca, with so much to do that we traveled there often, becoming fluent in the nuances of the town and its people. It was a mere three hours from Manhattan, and a good fifteen hours from Northern Michigan, yet no distance has halted our cherished visits.
It will come as no surprise to our readers that the annual Newport Wine & Food Festival had been a lure to us for years. The stars finally aligned in 2019, as we flew to Providence, Rhode Island, to celebrate our anniversary on the same weekend as the East Coast’s most exclusive event. Sponsored by Food & Wine Magazine, and a myriad of equally fabulous vendors, the weekend boasted Signature Events including the Grand Cru Burgundy Dinner at The Elms, Jazz Brunch on the Marble House Terrace, and seminars with topics from Bubbles and Caviar to Flight of the Oysters. An Opus One Luncheon, a Maritime Wine Dinner, and chef lead demonstrations were also promoted. While difficult to choose, we purchased the Connoisseur’s Package, which included the Wine & Rosecliff Gala, and the Grand Tasting on the Marble House Lawn.
Bellevue Avenue, renowned and remarkable, was the address of note for the wealthiest residents of the East Coast in the early 1900’s. The long brick street looks more prepared for horses and carriages than cars. As one progresses down the tree-lined avenue, the mansions are placed on each side like sparkling gems, set back on acres of green lawn and immaculate landscaping. Largest and most famous of the homes is The Breakers, formerly owned by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made his fortune through shrewd business and the New York Central Railroad. Additional properties include The Elms, Chateau-sur-Mer, and Kingscote. The homes range in unique tours and events, from a look at the servants’ quarters, to a flower show, and Christmas at the Newport Mansions.
The Wine & Rosecliff Gala took place at Rosecliff (my personal favorite). As detailed by the Society, the history of Rosecliff is enthralling:
“Commissioned by Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs in 1899, architect Stanford White modeled Rosecliff after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of French kings at Versailles. After the house was completed in 1902, at a reported cost of $2.5 million, Mrs. Oelrichs hosted fabulous entertainment here, including a fairy tale dinner and a party featuring famed magician Harry Houdini.
“Tessie”, as she was known to her friends, was born in Virginia City, Nevada. Her father, James Graham Fair, was an Irish immigrant who made an enormous fortune from Nevada’s Comstock silver lode, one of the richest silver finds in history. During a summer in Newport, Theresa met Hermann Oelrichs playing tennis at the Newport Casino. They were married in 1890. A year later, they purchased the property known as Rosecliff from the estate of historian and diplomat George Bancroft. An amateur horticulturist, Bancroft grew thousands of roses at Rosecliff and his gardens along the Cliff Walk were famous. The Oelrichs later bought additional property along Bellevue Avenue and commissioned Stanford White to replace the original house with the mansion that became the setting for many of Newport’s most lavish parties.
Rosecliff is now preserved through the generosity of its last private owners, Mr. and Mrs. J. Edgar Monroe, of New Orleans. They gave the house, its furnishings, and an endowment to the Preservation Society in 1971.
Scenes from several films have been shot on location at Rosecliff, including The Great Gatsby, True Lies, Amistad, and 27 Dresses.
The splendor and light of the ivory colored mansion make it a luminous star. It gently shines in its symmetry and delicate design. For the Gala, the serene setting of the Rosecliff Ballroom and Terrace was transformed into a food and wine extravaganza. Guests meandered around the ballroom tasting exquisite wines from around the world, and seasonal dishes from local, regional, and nationally acclaimed chefs. Champagne and caviar, spirited concoctions, decadent desserts, and an ambiance of endless summer fun culminated into a night that will live forever in our memories. Dressed in cocktail attire and holding thin stemmed wine glasses, we strolled around the mansion feeling as though we were a part of one of Teresa Oelrichs’ infamous parties.
The ballroom ceiling was painted as if it opens to the heavens, and the beautiful, artistic blue sky and scattered clouds add dimension and a sense of stillness, bringing the outdoors to the fantastic space. It was deliciously surreal to dance to the exuberant Perry Rossi orchestra, who ranged in their offerings from classics to a hilariously misplaced, but no less enjoyed, variation of Pitbull’s “Fireball”.
The evening was a reflection of a time of great civility and glamour. We feasted on Lobster Newburg, lobster poached with truffles, wagyu beef, duck, and everything one could desire. The delicacies abounded, the wine pours were generous, and the dessert buffet exorbitant. Such opulence is rarely seen, yet had no better place than the Rosecliff Gala. The mansion was an enchanting, exceptional backdrop to a fabled past. It was a journey through time, where we were able to revisit the parties of a bygone era, where dining and dancing were grandiose and a common occurrence in the Newport Mansions each season. The event was befitting to the elegance and refinement of Rosecliff.
As the evening came to a close, we had our last toast to the most perfect event we’d ever been a part of. We followed the laughing guests who were making their way out to the starry night, and before we left behind our evening of extravagance, I glanced at the immense red velvet stairway, looking up to where Teresa Oelrichs’ and her friends would make their entrance in a striking descent to their gentlemen escorts, showing off their beauty, jewels, and gorgeous gowns. I smiled at the vision, and mouthed a simple “thank you” to Teresa and her life, certain that she would approve of our modern attempt to recreate her daily greatness.
Wineries for the evening included (listed name first, location second):
Abadia Retuerta | Castilla y Leon, ESP
Alpha Estate | Florina, GR
Belpoggio | Brunello di Montalcino, IT
Bret Brothers | Burgundy, FR
Ca’ del Bosco | Franciacorta, IT
Canard Vineyard | Napa Valley, CA
Cantine Le Grotte | Puglia, IT
Champagne Palmer | Reims, FR
Chappellet Winery | Napa Valley, CA
Château d’Esclans | Côtes-de-Provence, FR
Chateau Musar | Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Cotarella | Lazio, IT
Covenant Israel Winery | Israel
Craggy Range | Hawkes Bay, NZ
DeLille Cellars | Red Hills, WA
Domaine Skouras | Peloponnese, GR
Kir-Yianni | Naoussa, GR
Domaine La Soufrandière | Burgundy, FR
Famiglia Pasqua | Veneto, IT
François Carillon | Burgundy, FR
Gail Wines | Sonoma, CA
Gran Moraine | Willamette Valley, OR
Hirsch Vineyards | Sonoma Coast, CA
Mas de Daumas Gassac | Languedoc, FR
Maxime Blin | Reims, FR
Nino Negri | Valtellina, IT
Overture by Opus One | Oakville, CA
Planeta | Sicily, IT
Segal Winery | Galilee, Israel
Sequoia Grove | Napa Valley, CA
Tulip Winery | Israel
Viña Montes | Colchagua Valley, Chile
Learn more about the Preservation Society of Newport County and the mansions they protect at www.newportmansions.org