Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Mansions of Newport, Rhode Island - Rosecliff by Stephanie Burkhart

The Back of Rosecliff

Ah, America's Gilded Age! It was a time of substantial growth in America, not only population, but in wealth. It reigned from between 1865-1901. America's rich upper class only got richer and one of the status symbols was to build an extravagant mansion.

The upper class settled in Newport, Rhode Island on the seacoast and several mansions were built. One of my favorites was Rosecliff, built between 1898-1902.
I discovered the mansions of Newport when I was 16 years old and a student in my high school "American Studies" class. American studies was for honor level students and it took an indepth look at not only America's history, but American literature. In April 1985, our teachers took us to see the mansions of Newport. It's a visit that still resonates with me today. For me, seeing the mansions is like having history coming alive and I'm a self-professed history nut.

Me, in the back of Rosecliff, 1985. Blurry, huh?


Rosecliff was built by Theresa Fair Oelrichs, a silver heiress from Nevada. Her father, James Graham Fair was one of the four partner in the Comstock Lode. She married Hermann Oelrichs, American agent for Norddeutscher Lloyd steamship line. She and her husband, together with her sister, Virginia Fair, bought the land in 1891 from the estate of George Bancroft, and commissioned the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White to design a summer home suitable for entertaining on a grand scale.

The principal architect, Stanford White, modeled the mansion after the Grand Trianon of Versailles, but smaller and reduced to a basic "H" shape, while keeping Mansart's scheme of a glazed arcade of arched windows and paired Ionic pilasters.
Rosecliff stayed in the Oelrichs family until 1941, then went through several changes of ownership before being bought by Mr & Mrs J. Edgar Monroe of New Orleans in 1947.

The Front of Rosecliff

Mr. Monroe, a southern gentleman who had made his fortune in the ship building industry, came to Newport with his wife Louise every summer to escape the summer heat of the Deep South. The two became well known for the large parties they threw at Rosecliff; many of which had mardi gras theme, the Monroes loved dressing up in fancy costumes for these parties.

Unlike Mrs. Oelrichs' parties, which were stiff and formal, the Monroes' parties were laid back and easy going. Because Hermann Oelrichs Jr had sold off all the furnishings in 1941, nearly all the furnishings visitors see at Rosecliff today are from the Monroe period of occupation.

In 1971, Mr. and Mrs. Monroe donated the entire estate with its contents and a $2 million operating endowment to the Preservation Society of Newport County, who opened it to the public for tours. Mr. Monroe often would come back to the estate for charity events up until his death in 1991.


During this time, we were reading "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the literature teacher, Mrs. Hussey, wanted to take us to see Rosecliff. The ballroom scenes of the 1974 film, The Great Gatsby were filmed there. Other movies filmed at Rosecliff include "True Lies," and "Amistad."

I remember it was a cold day, the wind was blowing, and it was overcast. Still, Rosecliff looked regal, standing in quiet testament next to the sea. It was majestic. Incurable romantic I was even back then, I remember closing my eyes while I stood on the back patio overlooking the sea, smelling the salt, imagining a gay party at the turn of the century. The scene played out vividly in my head – so vividly, I can still remember it today.

Me & my friend, Idgy, circa 1992.

If you ever get a chance to go to New England, Rhode Island specifically, I highly recommend a visit to the mansions. While the Gilded Age has past, the mansions echo with history and gala from the turn of the 20th Century.

Information from this article was taken from:

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