It’s hard to believe that Newport is one of Rhode Island’s largest cities. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful cities I have visited in the United States. In some ways, it reminded me of Charleston, South Carolina, my childhood home.
“I was in a Newport State of Mind” the minute I crossed over the Pew Bridge into Newport. As I looked down at the calm waters, my mind came to ease, and I entered a different state of mind—literally. The boats below floated away, and so did my daily dilemmas and problems. Now, I understood why some of the nation’s most renowned families spent their summers here.
For more than two centuries, it has been a summer hotspot for New Englanders or those from the North (as us Southerners like to say). Newport is beautiful. It’s filled with an eclectic array of restaurants (a haven for seafood lovers), art galleries, shops, and amazing homes. Did I say amazing? Let’s just say, as a Southern gal who grew up with stories about plantation life and lavish lifestyles of the Southern aristocrats—they could not measure up to these homes and their residents.
Newport’s fame is attributed to its wealthy, infamous residents of the years past like the Vanderbilts, the Astors, and the Berwinds. The who? Though unrecognizable in comparison to the Vanderbilts, the Astors, or even the Gugenheims, the Berwinds were part of this elite circle. Edward Berwind built his fortune around Pennsylvania’s coal industry during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Soaked by the rains that battered the city on this particular Sunday, my friend and favorite travel buddy, Sri, and I found ourselves standing at the steps of the Berwinds’ summer residence. The Elms (as it is called) reminded me of the lavish castles that I had toured in Europe. I later learned that the designs of many of its rooms were inspired by Versaille, the infamous home of Louis XIV.
Each of the rooms had an interesting story, but my favorite had to be the dining room. Gazing at the extravagant dining room table laid with its finest china, I was reminded of the important role of the estate’s hostess. “During the fifteen minutes of the first course, you would speak to the person on your left ,” our docent said, “During the fifteen minutes of the second course, you spoke to the person on your right.”
“Furthermore, the matron of the house always kept her seating charts because it would be disgraceful if she placed her guests next to each other more than once.”
“Who could remember all these rules,” I said to myself. But, then again, things have changed since then, and I think Mrs. Berwind would be appalled by some of them if she was still alive.
Something else interesting I learned—the women of the home had dresses for every hour of the day. According to the docent, they changed at least seven times a day, “A woman would never be caught in her morning dress in the afternoon,” she said.
Other favorite rooms for me included the ballroom where lavish parties were hosted, the hot kitchen where I read a letter from the Maitre D to Mrs. Berwind, updating her on all the preparations being made before her arrival, and the conservatory, which was inspired by Versaille.
We spent more than two hours in the Berwinds’ home, taking in every detail. In the final room, there was a table filled with family photographs. There were photos of Mr. and Mrs. Berwind, their nieces who looked stunning in 1920s fashions, as well as other members of their family.
At the end of my tour, I learned that the Berwinds did not have any children of their own. After their passings, the home was left to Mr. Berwind’s sister who managed it until her death in the 1960s. A somber ending to an era in America’s history.
When we left, I was reminded by how much life has changed over the century. The importance of etiquette, the appreciation for beauty and the love of entertaining—it’s all faded away over the years. Hasn’t it?
We re-entered the twenty-first century, and headed back into town for a leisurely dinner on the harbor. I hated to say goodbye. But, then again, I can always go back to Newport.