Due to its accessibility to the sea and lovely climate, Newport has been considered a summer resort destination for the wealthy since before the American Revolution.
Longstanding trade relationships with Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, always gave the City-by-the-Sea a bit of genteel southern flair. During the Gilded Age, wealthy families from New York, Boston and Philadelphia chose Newport as the place to gather in the summer months.
That was especially true after William Backhouse Astor Jr. and his wife, Caroline, purchased Beechwood in 1881. With that, Newport became the place for the “old money” to summer, and the “new money” quickly followed. In the 40-year period between 1870 and 1910, hundreds of large “summer cottages” (some three times the size of the White House at the time) were built in what had long been a relatively quiet and elegant summer outpost.
Some of these enormous Gilded Age properties are still in the hands of the families that have been part of the “Newport Summer Colony” for generations. This extraordinary circumstance, where people are living in grand homes that were built by their ancestors, is unusual in America, where people tend to be mobile, moving both in location and social status.
The Bellevue Avenue establishment is captured in a new book, “A Newport Summer,” by photographer Nick Mele and designer Ruthie Summers. This lovely, oversized book is full of behind-the- scenes photos by Mele, who has often been called the “New Slim Aarons” for his access and ability to capture the American “old guard” at play in their natural settings of Newport and Palm Beach, Florida.
Mele is the grandson of Marion “Oatsie” Charles, who was one of Doris Duke’s closest friends. Three generations of his family have lived in “Land’s End,” where Edith Wharton once resided. Summers, a designer and writer, is part of three generations who have summered in Beachmound, a grand 20,000-square-foot Classical Revival mansion overlooking Bailey’s Beach.
The book is divided into four chapters, one for each month of the Newport season. In a pithy introduction to each chapter, Summers shares an insider’s perspective and the mindset for each month. Mele’s photos (sometimes humorous, sometimes irreverent, sometimes grand, but always insightful) are a striking and original view of a world often hidden from public view.
What is remarkable is how comfortable and even nonchalant the inhabitants of these Gilded Age mansions were, whether it is dogs lazing on 100-year-old antiques, women in heels and gowns lounging on lawns or children running playfully in front of an enormous mansion. The photographs capture people who are as comfortable in these spaces as fish are in water. It is amazing that so many of these extraordinary mansions still exist in Newport. It is perhaps even more amazing how many remain in the same hands after three and four generations.
Mele and Summers have called the book a “love letter” to the grand and gracious Newport summers they have known and enjoyed. And yet there is also a wistfulness about the book. Many of the photographs show the “grand dams” of Newport who have passed on in the past five or 10 years. They capture elegant, gracious ladies who never had to earn a paycheck in their lives.
As Mele observed in an interview, “It is our generation that is now having to go to work to earn our keep.”
He added, “Newport has always held on to it history, past traditions and heirlooms that are being passed down. I wanted to capture all of that in photographs before it is gone.”
This book demonstrates the stunning artistic eye of someone who has lived in these elegant settings their entire life. It is a vision that others can appreciate and admire from afar, but which cannot be easily replicated by the uninitiated.
In the past 10 years, Newport has been undergoing its third Renaissance as some of the country’s wealthiest families rediscover the city. These families have seen that many of these extraordinary houses (although much more expensive than they were 30 years ago) are still selling for less than their replacement value.
A technology billionaire has purchased
Beechwood, as well as the properties on either side of it that were carved from that estate more than 50 years ago. Recently, prominent New York and Californian financiers have reportedly bought adjacent mansions just a few houses down from Beechwood.
And last year, when Lord Julian Fellowes (who famously created the “Downton Abbey” series) filmed an American equivalent series, “The Gilded Age,” he selected Newport, which he called “a village of palaces,” using more than a dozen of the city’s extraordinary buildings as the setting for the first season.
Trudy Coxe, CEO of the Preservation Society of Newport County, said traffic to the organization’s website jumps after each episode.
The publication of “A Newport Summer” seems perfectly timed to capture a part of the city’s history that remains very much present. The future of the city and its great houses is perhaps less clear as the world rediscovers Newport’s beauty and grandeur, and it is no longer able to hide from the spotlight behind its well-trimmed hedges.