Visit the Newport, RI Mansions

Among many of its quaint shops and coastline, you can find the Newport, RI mansions, a reminder that some of America's wealthiest families use this town for their summer cottages.

Newport also conjures up images of  world-famous music and arts festivals; streets of trendy and quirky shops; antique architecture; and yachting with a capital "Y." And that's just a taste of what this island community has to offer.

Yes, it's an island town that focuses on the ocean, but it's one that's easy to get to. It's located on the southern end of Aquidneck Island in the middle of Narragansett Bay, accessible by automobile over bridges from Mount Hope, Tiverton, and Jamestown.

Aquidneck was home to Native Americans for centuries, and quickly settled upon the arrival of the Europeans. Newport itself was founded back in 1639, although there is an old stone tower, located in the city's Touro Park, that speculation holds was built by Norse explorers a thousand years ago.

Narrow, tightly packed streets of old wooden houses make it evident that Newport has been a busy urban center for centuries. It depended on the sea, on trade and the fisheries, and also became one of the centers of the U.S. Navy, which put an indelible stamp on the town. It's still the home of the Naval War College.

Just offshore, under the looming presence of the gracefully arched suspension bridge to Jamestown, is Rose Island. At the southern tip is Rose Island Light, a once-abandoned lighthouse and keepers' dwelling that's now a bed and breakfast, but the rest of the heavily vegetated island contains the scattered ruins of abandoned military structures-rain-filled concrete gun emplacements, roofless brick munitions storehouses,, the fallen water tower that once supplied the island's needs. Now the island is a wildlife preserve, home to nesting seabirds who loudly defend their domain.

Another Newport military relic is the massive granite bulk of Fort Adams, which dominates the entrance to Newport's inner harbor. Besides standing on its own merits as a museum of fortification (its grounds also house the Newport Yachting Museum, a 10,000 square foot collection of yachts, artifacts, and interpretive exhibits), its ample grounds have offered generations an ideal location for some of the most famous and long-lived musical events in North America: The Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival. There's also a Newport Music Festival of classical music, which takes place each year in the ballrooms and great halls of selected mansions.

The fabled mansions of Newport weren't even the homes of their wealthy owners-they were simply the summer getaways of the upper class in what was a very class-conscious society. You can't tell that by looking at them, however; these are grand houses that European nobility would kill for.

While plenty of the rich still come to Newport, eleven of the great properties of Newport's Golden Age now belong to the Preservation Society of Newport County and are available for tours. Among these elegant relics are "The Breakers," the 70 roomItalian Renaissance villa built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and "The Elms," a French chateau owned by coal millionaire Edward Berwind. (Visit the Society's web site, www.newportmansions.org, to learn about available tours.)

One of the pastimes of the wealthy was yachting. In those days, as J.P. Morgan once noted, "If you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it." It was this atmosphere of unlimited funds, professional crews, and galloping egos that won and kept the America's Cup, sailing's most prestigious trophy, in Newport for a century. Some of the old Cup defenders-12-meter sloops and even the massive J-boat "Endeavour"-still remain amidst the more modern vessels in the crowded yacht anchorage, and can be seen gracefully racing each other in the bay just outside the harbor.

With so much history, and so much of interest to see, Newport attracts summer crowds, but they're the kinds of crowds it's enjoyable to join-and to watch. Join the throngs strolling the eclectic shops of Thames Street, walk the Cliff Walk along the rocky shore just as the original mansion owners used to do, grab something to eat in a waterfront restaurant, and simply soak in the flavor of a bustling, attractive place that's been luring people for centuries. You'll be glad you visited!

Article provided by Homesteader

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