I recently visited Marble House, one of the famous Newport mansions, built between 1888-1892 for Alva Vanderbilt as a 39th birthday present from her husband, William K. Vanderbilt. William originally gave Alva full control over the design of the house but she only agreed as long as he gave her the house outright. Alva was interested in issues of women’s rights and she saw her home as a reflection of herself and her role as a woman in a patriarchal society. Her home was essentially her branding; her way to make a mark on society the way businessmen and others great men became known.
Alva declared Marble House her “temple to the arts.” The house, designed by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt in the Beaux Arts style, is a showcase of the Vanderbilt wealth. According to the Newport Preservation Society, Hunt drew his inspiration from “two famous historic buildings dedicated to women: the Parthenon (5th century B.C.E., Athens, Greece), temple to Athena the goddess of wisdom and war, and the Petit Trianon (1760-1764, Versailles, France) built by Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour, a powerful figure in shaping 18th century European art and culture.” It was the first of the grand summer “cottages” that transformed Newport into the social center of the summer season.
A semi-circular fountain with grotesque masks spouting water spans the entire western facade. Around the exterior walls are various friezes inspired by classical mythology.
Guests enter the house through French Baroque-style bronze doors featuring monogram “WV” set into an oval medallion. The doors were made at the John Williams Bronze Foundry in New York and on display before the house opened. The public was eager to get a glimpse of the elegant mansion but plans were kept secret and only the most sneaky of reporters could gleam details through underhanded methods.
The inside of the house is the very definition of opulence. Designed after le Petit Trianon by Jules Allard and Sons of Paris, the ground floor walls are made of the finest creamy Siena marble (with matching painted faux marble upstairs). The matching staircase features a wrought iron and gilt bronze staircase railing based on models at Versailles.
Alva Vanderbilt collected classical interiors from Europe. The stair hall features an 18th-century Venetian ceiling painting featuring gods and goddesses on the ceiling. The classical theme continues throughout the house, even into Alva’s lilac silk wallpapered bedroom, where the ceiling features a circular painting of Athena.
See some sample photos of the interior (not my personal photos) at My Pinterest Site
The back of the house features a marble portico with classic arched windows. More classical friezes adorn the exterior walls. The theme of women and children is prominent throughout.
The grounds slope down to the Cliff Walk and the ocean below.
When Alva Vanderbilt divorced William in 1895 and married his best friend, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont in 1896, she closed Marble House (except for the laundry) and relocated to Belcourt Castle. After Belmont’s death in 1908, Alva reopened Marble House and added the Chinese Tea House and hosted rallies for women’s suffrage. These women’s suffrage rallies were a place where working women could sit shoulder to shoulder with socialites and well-known figures such as Julia Ward Howe. For $5 they could tour the house.
In 1914 Alva Belmont erected a Chinese tea house designed after ancient Chinese temples and guarded by stone lions. The tea house was used to host special events and features Chinese antiques.
Alva Belmont closed Marble House permanently in 1919, and later sold the house to Frederick H. Prince. In 1963, her son Harold provided funding for the Preservation Society of Newport County to buy the house from the Prince Trust. The Trust donated the furniture for the house directly to the Preservation Society.
The architectural details are stunning. Every little thing is exquisitely designed.
To see more of my photos please visit my Flickr album Marble House