The Elms, Newport, Rhode Island: The outrageous lives and never-ending parties of the US' 'Gilded Age'

It's a part of the world that would put modern-day Hollywood to shame.

More at home alongside Versailles or Windsor Castle, the mansions of Newport tell a tale of obscene wealth during America's "Gilded Age" of the late 1800s.

Long before things such as income tax came into play, post civil-war Americans made money out of the newly burgeoning railway system, which meant the time taken to travel from San Francisco to New York was cut from six months to six days. Heavy industry exploded, propelling others such as coal.

The major industrialists of America got rich fast. These families lacked any noble pedigree but were determined to imitate the European aristocracy, building themselves a series of mansions along Newport's coast that  served as their "summer homes" where they would hold massive parties to show off their estates.

One such house, The Elms, was built in 1901 in French chateau style for the Berwind family, whose fortune came from coal mining. In fact, it was a direct copy of a French chateau – Chateau d'Asnieres in Asnieres-sur-Seine, France.

It was one of 11 mansions built along Bellevue Avenue, including The Breakers, built for the Vanderbilts and the most ostentatious of them all.

While most of the mansions are open to the public during summer, only "The Servants Life", run by the Preservation Society of Newport County, takes you on a behind-the-scenes tour of how the mansions were run in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The mansions were generally staffed by  British and Irish immigrants who found working and living conditions much better than what they had left behind. . In return, they were required to be invisible to the families and their guests, with their own hidden entrance and living quarters.

At The Elms, staff had their own social area on rooftop, the edges of which was built high enough so they were not visible to guests. They had pretty good perks too, with all clothing, meals, transport and healthcare provided.


Some staff stayed with a family for years and their loyalty was sometimes rewarded. Ernest Birch, the original head butler at The Elms, was left $5000 by the patriarch Edward Berwind when he died – the equivalent of $US80,000 today.

As the summer house of coal barons, the house had no ordinary cellar. It was filled with 40 tonnes of coal and had to be manned every hour of every day. It even had its own small rail line. The coal furnaces would ensure the house was kept warm and light, even if the family had popped back to New York for opera season.

The Elm's extensive lower floors included a pastry room, with pastry chef, which made fresh pastries every day. A storage room was filled with Louis Vuitton trunks, worth half a million dollars today. A room was dedicated to ice storage, which at the time was a luxury and display of wealth.

As the houses were built to showcase their owners' great wealth, the parties were legendary. Hosted under huge, illuminated silk tents, champagne and food would be provided all night.

Of course this came at a cost. The Berwinds' entertainment budget  was between $300,000-$500,000 –   in today's terms  $8 million to $10 million – which would all be spent during the short summer season from July to mid-September.

Edward Berwind died in 1936 and was survived by his sister, who continued to lead a lavish and sheltered lifestyle. While other members of this "high society" had to tighten the leash during the Depression and World War II, Julia kept 40 servants until her death in 1961, aged 95.

 The house is now owned by Newport's Preservation Society, who open it for tours.