Marble House was built between 1888 and 1892 as a summer “cottage” retreat for Alva and William K. Vanderbilt. It was the first of the Gilded Aged mansions that transformed Newport from a relatively lazy summer colony of wooden houses to a high-society resort of opulent stone palaces. Upon completion, the most lavish house in America of its day boasted fifty rooms and required a staff of 36 servants. It was given to Alva by her husband as her 39th birthday gift, and deeded to her name.
Architect Richard Morris Hunt was the first American educated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In his design for Marble House, Hunt drew upon two famous historic buildings dedicated to women: the Parthenon temple to the goddess Athena and the Petit Trianon at Versailles built by Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour. Interior decorations was done by Jules Allard and Sons, a Parisian firm that catered to the American elite.
The reported cost was $11 million (equivalent to $293 million in 2016) of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet (14,000 cubic meters) of marble.
On full display in the grand entrance is yellow Siena marble. The wrought iron and gilt bronze staircase railing is based on models at Versailles.
The door on the left of the stairs opens to the dining room, which features pink Numidian marble and gilt bronze capitals and trophies including two stag heads and a boar head. Don’t be fooled though, the ceiling is made of plaster painted to look like marble.
From the dining room, one crosses back through the grand entrance to enter the Gothic Room, designed specifically to house the medieval and early Renaissance collection that Vanderbilts had bought from Emile Gavet in Paris in 1890.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, Émile Gavet – a Parisian architect-decorator, real estate speculator, part-time curator, and art collector – amassed a large and comprehensive collection of medieval and Renaissance works of art which he displayed in his Gothic-style apartment, considered a private museum, near the cathedral of Notre-Dame. In 1889 Gavet commissioned the renowned medieval curator from the Louvre, Emile Molinier, to catalog his collection and publish it with an appreciative essay. During the summer of 1889, the Vanderbilts and their architect Richard Morris Hunt had visited Paris to search for furnishings for Marble House and were introduced to Gavet’s collection by either Hunt or Allard. A catalogue was procured and the principal works praised by Molinier were quickly purchased and sent to Newport.
For the first time in America, medieval and Renaissance art was displayed in an architectural context referencing the same time period. In particular, the Gothic Room was inspired by the iconic Hotel Jacques Coeur in Bourges, France, constructed in 1453. The collection and its setting became renowned throughout the US and internationally, with access granted to the public, mostly for scholarly and research purposes, on a limited basis.
The collection was sold in 1927, with the bulk being bought by John Ringling (of the circus empire) for his planned winter residence and art museum in Sarasota, Florida where it can be found today.
What remains at Marble House are the original decor and furnishings that once housed this tremendous collection.
Continuing along the intended tour route, one reaches the Gold Room – so named as the wall panels of Roman gods and goddesses are covered in hand-applied 22 carat gold leaf.
I admit, it was fascinating to learn how the gold leaf was applied – a four step process.
Once recovered from being awestruck by the sheer display of excessively lavish wealth, what I found most fascinating were the fancifully delightful details found throughout the room.
Dolphins on the door handle – ; the same motif also at the base of the wall panels, with water dripping over the edges.
And not to mention the cupids nestled in the chandeliers – some heralding their trumpets, others seemingly taking a nap. All this added a light playfulness to an otherwise overwhelmingly solemn room.
Intrigued, I kept my eyes tuned in for more “surprises” as I continued along the tour path.
At the entrance to the library study, I found door handles shaped in the lost city of Atlantis, capped by the quintessential Rhode Island shell.
And servant’s staircases which seemed to hint of waves washing ashore on the beach.
My absolute favorite though has to be the crystal birds enclosed in the hanging lights up on the second floor landing – elegant and timeless, as if harkening to the beloved French fairy tales of yore and foretelling of a happily ever after.
Yet that was not to be the story of the Vanderbilts whom divorced three years later, in 1895.