Friday, August 13, 2010

The Gilded Age

I love a crook who knows his business. That description certainly applies to the so-called Robber Barons of the "Gilded Age" (1870 to 1900) in American History. Men like John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbuilt, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie amassed vast fortunes in such industries as railroads, oil, gas, coal and steel production, banking and commercial shipping, not always caring about the methods they used. They preferred to think of themselves by the more flattering term: "Captains of Industry", and since they made their money in the glorious days before income taxes, they got to keep every dollar...sweet. It's no wonder these men had a little extra spending money to build "summer cottages" in a seaside town off Narraganset Bay called Newport, Rhode Island.

The word "cottages" is misleading based on our current understanding of the term. America was still a relatively new country during the Gilded Age, and looked to Europe for social and cultural enlightenment. Consequently, the palaces and grand homes in Europe became the models for these summer cottages in Newport. No expense was spared as each wealthy family tried to outdo the others. The most renown architects were hired and given unlimited budgets; the best and richest building materials were used; and because the Gilded Age coincided with the first waves of European immigration to America, a plentiful supply of master craftsmen and domestic workers was available as well. In many cases, European castles were simply dismantled, crated and reassembled in Newport. Elaborate fireplaces, marble columns, rare wooden paneling, statuary, Renaissance artwork...nothing was too good for the Robber Barons.

Although these Newport mansions were magnificent, they had their critics who felt that such over-the-top homes were not only vulgar and ostentatious, but had no aesthetic or architectural merit. Architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler said that the style was "...completely classicized and purged of its great Gothic heritage." Another critic moaned about The Breakers that " strikes the observer as a pretentious family hotel rather than an elegant, luxurious family home." Also, such excess was frowned upon by the common man in a time when many Americans were struggling to put food on the table. The term "Gilded Age" came from a book title by Mark Twain, and means covered with gold on the outside, but not really golden on the inside.

Soon after the enactment of the 16th Amendment authorizing a national income tax in America around 1913, even wealthy families had difficulty finding the funds needed to modernize and maintain these vast homes. Many employed domestic staffs of 30-50 people who had to not only be paid, but housed, fed and cared for. Since the mansions were occupied only in the summer, many were allowed to fall into disrepair. Their owners had elaborate homes elsewhere and just stopped coming to Newport for summer vacations. As hard as it is to imagine, the city of Newport thought about buying up these magnificent homes, tearing them down, and building such needed infrastructure as schools, and not-so-needed shopping malls!

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Preservation Society of Newport for saving "America's Castles" from the wrecking ball. They worked out agreements with many of the owners to sell the mansions to the Society for a nominal sum on the condition that they be preserved for posterity. Many owners also provided an annual stipend for maintenance which was supplemented when the Society opened the mansions to the public. Some may not like the mansions or the people who built them, but these spectacular homes deserve to stand as a monument to a unique period in American history. In a day when flip flops and tank tops pass for casual attire, the mansions evoke a way of life when elegance, gentility and breeding were greatly valued.

During our visit this week I found the Newport homes to be as beautiful inside and out as I remembered them from our last visit many years ago. One could only imagine what it must have been like living in these palaces. On the guided tour of The Breakers we were told that the Vanderbuilt children would have fun by sitting on silver trays and sliding down the grand marble staircase. Hey, didn't we all! As we walked through the terraced gardens I could almost hear the music of the society orchestra, as impeccably dressed ladies and gentlemen danced away on a warm summer evening.


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