Jan 12, 2008

Returning to the Scene of the Crime...

In 1962, I was assigned to my first active duty Navy assignment. I reported aboard the USS Hugh Purvis (DD-709), a destroyer homeported in Newport, Rhode Island. I left that ship in 1964 and rarely returned to Newport in the years that followed. I think my last visit was in 1965. So it was a no-brainer when Paul (my fearless leader) and Camille asked if I'd like to visit Newport with them this weekend. We drove up Saturday morning and drove straight to The Breakers. The Preservation Society of Newport County describes it this way,
"The Breakers is the grandest of Newport's summer "cottages" and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family's social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad, which was a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation during the late 19th century. The Commodore's grandson, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, became Chairman and President of the New York Central Railroad system in 1885, and purchased a wooden house called The Breakers in Newport during that same year. In 1893, he commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a villa to replace the earlier wood-framed house which was destroyed by fire the previous year. Hunt directed an international team of craftsmen and artisans to create a 70 room Italian Renaissance- style palazzo inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin. Allard and Sons of Paris assisted Hunt with furnishings and fixtures, Austro-American sculptor Karl Bitter designed relief sculpture, and Boston architect Ogden Codman decorated the family quarters. "

It did not disappoint. We then proceeded to Marble House, another one of the remarkable summer mansions. Again, in the words of the Preservation Society, "Alva Vanderbilt was a leading hostess in Newport society, and envisioned Marble House as her "temple to the arts" in America. It was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt, inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. The cost of the house was reported in contemporary press accounts to be $11 million, of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Upon its completion, Mr. Vanderbilt gave the house to his wife as a 39th birthday present. "

After these two tours, we enjoyed lunch at the historic White Horse Tavern, housed in a building built in 1652! And the food was wonderful. The proprietor recommended a restaurant that we might enjoy for dinner. After we had gotten checked into the hotel, Paul and I hiked a couple of miles along the Newport waterfront in search of the restaurant. We found it and made reservations for dinner.

Dinner was incredible! The restaurant is called "Restaurant Bouchard," an unassuming place that has won the the DiRona Award from the Distinguished Restaurants of North America from 1999 through 2007. Chef Albert Bouchard is a genius!

Sunday morning we took our time getting up and assembled for breakfast around 9:00 AM. We went to a place that Camille had wanted to go to on an earlier trip to no avail because of crowds. This time of year there are far fewer crowds and we were seated at the Corner Cafe immediately.

After a great breakfast in a room warmed by a cast iron stove, we headed for Rosecliff, the third on our tour of mansions. What a delight! This one is described as follows: "Commissioned by Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs in 1899, architect Stanford White modeled Rosecliff after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of French kings at Versailles. After the house was completed in 1902, at a reported cost of $2.5 million, Mrs. Oelrichs hosted fabulous entertainments here, including a fairy tale dinner and a party featuring famed magician Harry Houdini.

"Tessie", as she was known to her friends, was born in Virginia City, Nevada. Her father, James Graham Fair, was an Irish immigrant who made an enormous fortune from Nevada's Comstock silver lode, one of the richest silver finds in history. During a summer in Newport, Theresa met Hermann Oelrichs playing tennis at the Newport Casino. They were married in 1890. A year later, they purchased the property known as Rosecliff from the estate of historian and diplomat George Bancroft. An amateur horticulturist, it was Bancroft who developed the American Beauty Rose. The Oelrichs later bought additional property along Bellevue Avenue and commissioned Stanford White to replace the original house with the mansion that became the setting for many of Newport's most lavish parties."

This home was not as huge as the Breakers, but it was beautifully designed and the designers were clearly focused on entertaining when they laid it out. Our guide was superb, which added to our enjoyment of the tour.

As we headed back toward Stratford, Paul mentioned the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, often called the "Home of American Impressionism." We stopped there and enjoyed a beautifully presented collection.
We then dined at the Old Lyme Inn (I'm titling my new book Eating my Way Through New England) and then proceeded home.

I've added these places to my list of places that I've got to bring Mary Ann to (in better weather).

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