Rhode Island: From Ivy League to Guilded Mansions

Newport Mansions from the Cliff Walk
Newport Mansions from the Cliff Walk in Rhode Island. Shelley Seale photos.

By Shelley Seale

Though Rhode Island is the smallest state in the US, it’s rich in both history and wealth. From Providence at the northern border down to the Newport at the southern coast, there is much to discover in its 1,200 square miles.

Providence

Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island
Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island

The capital city is home to prestigious Brown University, a member of the Ivy League founded in 1764. Brown’s main campus is in the College Hill Historic District, with a dense concentration of Colonial era buildings. On the western edge of the campus, Benefit Street is home to one of the largest, and finest, collections of restored seventeenth- and eighteenth-century architecture in the United States.

A stroll along Benefit Street — called A Mile of History — is a fascinating and peaceful way to discover old Providence and its stories. From the grand estate of the John Brown House, namesake of the university, to the “Shunned House,” so-called after an H.P. Lovecraft story set there, this area offers up jewel after jewel of exquisite, historical pieces of architecture.

For a complete introduction to Benefit Street, check out this GoNomad story. The Rhode Island Historical Society also offers wonderful walking tours, many of them with a special theme such as Designing Women, Something’s Upstairs and A Literary Life. You can even book accommodations in the district; try the lovely Old Court Bed & Breakfast, built in1863 by Alpheus Morse and originally a rectory.

Providence by Water
Providence by Water

Another fantastic way to explore the city is by water. The Providence River is a tidal river that flows for eight miles, and provides a unique perspective for touring. The Providence River Boat Company offers small tours that glide the river, through downtown, the waterfront district, and out to the bay, as the captain and guide narrate the sights as they pass.

No visit to Providence would be complete without taking in the Roger Williams Memorial. Williams was the founder of Providence in 1636 and a champion for religious freedom. He came to the area after being banished from Massachusetts for his beliefs, founding the colony that served as a refuge where all could come to worship as their conscience dictated without interference from the state.

These ideals are still an important part of Rhode Island. The memorial also serves as a visitor center, where you can get information about all things Providence, and is situated in a lovely park.

Federal Hill in Providence
Federal Hill in Providence

Afterwards, the perfect follow-up is to go down the street to the Rhode Island State House, which is open for touring weekdays, excluding holidays. Tours include both self-guided, or a free guided tour.

Here you get a chance to see the Rhode Island Charter Museum, which features the Royal Charter of 1663 and other historical documents and artifacts; the State Room, where Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington hangs; and the Rotunda, where you can gaze upward at one of the world’s largest, self-supported marble domes. For a fun evening, head over to Federal Hill for an international dining scene and lively courtyards.

Newport

Playing polo on the lawn in wide summer hats; hosting the social events of the summer from high teas and picnics to the most extravagant balls. Such was life for families such as the Vanderbilts at their summer “cottages” in Rhode Island; these grand scale mansions and lavish parties ushered in the Gilded Age of Newport.

The Breakers, a Vanderbilt mansion in Newport
The Breakers, a Vanderbilt mansion in Newport

Gilded Age mansions and sailing are two of the main things Newport is famous for. Mansion Row lines the sea cliffside, showing off one incredible estate after another from one of America’s wealthiest, most over-the-top periods. From the Vanderbilt’s Breakers and Marble House to Chateau-du-Sur and The Elms, I have never seen a more condensed and spectacular collection of homes from one of the grandest, most opulent American eras anywhere. Five of these homes are open daily by the Preservation Society of Newport County, with audio self-tours and guided tours, as well as several other homes available to see and the Green Animals Topiary Garden.

Inside The Breakers at Newport
Inside The Breakers at Newport

The stories of the families who lived in these “summer homes” are equally fascinating. For example, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (Breakers) was on the steamship Lusitania in 1915 when it was sunk off the coast of Ireland at the start of World War I. As the ship went down, he gave his life jacket to a woman who could not swim, and as a result, he lost his life.

William Vanderbilt (Marble House) and his wife, Alva, divorced in 1895. Alva then married Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to another of the grand mansions, Belcourt. However, after her first husband William’s death, she reopened Marble House, where she hosted rallies for women’s right to vote.

Guests stroll through the opulent rooms of Newport Mansions
Guests stroll through the opulent rooms of Newport Mansions

The “behind the scenes” stories include not only that of the illustrious family residents of the homes, but also of the servants, who occupied a whole other world within this society.

From immigration, employment and labor disputes, to their own families, happiness and heartbreak — theirs are as compelling stories as those of their employers, available in the Servants Life Tour.

Christmas is an especially magical time to be here. From mid-November through New Year’s, the houses sparkle with silver and gold, and rooms are filled with decorated trees, thousands of poinsettia plants, wreaths, garlands and flowers.

On Saturday evening open houses in November and December, guests can stroll through the house in the evening while enjoying live music, with a stop for Christmas sweets, eggnog and cider.

Oysters at The Mooring Seafood Kitchen & Bar
Oysters at The Mooring Seafood Kitchen & Bar

Taking a walk along the cliffside is an easy stroll from which to admire these mansions, as well as the town and stunning sea. Don’t miss eating at one of the waterside restaurants with incredible, fresh seafood — I loved The Mooring — and strolling through Bowen’s Wharf for shopping, dining and more.