At the coalface of opulence

Imposing: The Elms is one of many Newport mansions.
Imposing: The Elms is one of many Newport mansions. Photo: Rob McFarland

Life as the wife of a US coal baron in the early 1900s was a gruelling affair. Every year, Sarah Berwind would leave her New York home to spend the "season" (July and August) at their summer cottage in Newport, Rhode Island. She would partake in a punishing social schedule of tennis, golf and polo, not to mention host innumerable parties, concerts and dinners.

Of course, she had help. From 43 staff, to be precise. And the "summer cottage" was actually a 50-room mansion that took three years to build. Known as The Elms, it was modelled on an 18th-century French chateau.

It is one of dozens of extravagant homes built in Newport circa the late 1800s - the so-called Gilded Age - by some of the US's richest men. Many houses offer tours and the sheer lavishness on display is staggering. But, then, so was their owners' wealth. In 1900, Edward Berwind controlled two-thirds of the world's coal supply.

The Elms is unique in that it also has a Servant Life Tour, a behind-the-scenes glimpse into where the staff lived and worked.

After passing through the deliberately concealed staff entrance, we ascend the back staircase to the staff quarters on the third floor. Accommodation is sparse, with bars at the windows to prevent theft and discourage any shenanigans between co-workers.

We visit the room of maid Nellie Lynch Regoli and learn a little about her life.

After admiring the sweeping views of the grounds and Newport Harbour from the roof, we descend into the basement to inspect the coal cellar, laundry rooms and kitchen. The cavernous copper pots hint at the industrial scale on which food was often prepared.

It's an interesting insight, only soured by one thing: our guide. From her disinterested demeanour, I can only assume she's a descendent of one of the house's disgruntled scullery maids.

Dreary guide aside, I'd still recommend the tour - before you look around the main house. The outrageous opulence seems even more excessive once you've seen how the other half lived.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE Qantas flies to Boston via Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth, with return economy airfares from $2495. Newport is a 90-minute drive south. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au.

STAYING THERE The Mill Street Inn is a restored 19th-century mill in Newport's historic district. millstreetinn.com.

TOURING THERE Tours run every day on the hour. newportmansions.org.

MORE INFORMATION gonewport.com

The writer was a guest of Qantas and Discover Newport.

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