Alva was born on January 17th, 1853 as Alva Ertskin Smith, in Mobile, Alabama. She was the daughter of a cotton broker. After the Civil War, her family moved to France, where she was educated. Alva returned to the States in the 1870’s with her mother and sisters and settled in New York City. She met William K. Vanderbilt at the White Sulphur Springs and agreed to marry him. Alva played a major role in raising the Vanderbilts status in the New York elite, starting with commissioning Richard Morris Hunt to design their Fifth Avenue Mansion.
In 1888, Alva and William decided to join the Newport summer colony. Alva again went to Richard Morris Hunt to help create Marble House, which was inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. It took 4 years and $11 million dollars to complete and on August 19th, 1892, they opened Marble House to their first guests. Unfortunately, Alva was not happy in her marriage and her and William divorced in 1895. She was given ownership of Marble House. After Alva remarried to Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, Marble House was closed and she moved down the street to Belcourt Castle.
After Belmont’s death in 1908, Alva became a dedicated suffragist. She put herself and her fortune towards the woman’s rights movement. She founded the Political Equality Association in New York City, reopened Marble House in 1909 to raise money for the women’s suffrage movement, and traveled to England to attend rallies. She focused on the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, later the National Woman’s Party, in 1914 and served on the board, using Marble House for events and headquarters for a while. After woman won the right to vote she took over the leadership of the National Woman’s Party, helping to establish a new headquarters in Washington, D.C. with her wealth.
Alva sold Marble House to Frederick H. Prince of Boston shortly before her death in 1933.
I decided to write a piece on the top ten historical attractions in Newport RI to assist our guests if time is short. Most if not all of these landmarks are within walking distance of the Marshall Slocum Inn and/or have free ample parking. Although there are significantly more than 10 historical landmarks we decided to offer a top ten list to guide our guests when visiting Newport. For those guests who are staying longer at the bed and breakfast there are many more places and sites to see than these ten.
- The Breakers – The Breakers is undoubtably the most famous tourist attraction in Newport RI for domestic and international visitors. Completed in 1895, The Breakers is a concrete example of the Vanderbilt families exorbant wealth derived from, amongst other things, the New York Central Railroad. This National Historic Landmark consists of 70 rooms adorned with rare marble, alabaster, and gilded woods. Perhaps the most enjoyable feature of the Breakers are the spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and the historic Cliff Walk.
- Touro Synagogue – The Touro Synagogue is the quintessential example of Roger Williams’s promotion of religious tolerance and could be a main topic of why Rhode Island is it’s own state. Completed in 1763, the Synagogue became the first accepted active place of worship in the United States for Jewish persons. During the British occupation of Newport RI the synagogue survived burning due to it’s usefulness to the British troops as a hospital and meeting place. Recently, a beautiful new visitors center was completed giving tourists a great resource to learn about Judah Touro and his followers.
- The Marble House – Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, the Marble House is the other grand property of the Vanderbilt family. The house is ordained with gold and marble throughout which architect, Richard Morris Hunt, intended to be a statement of wealth during the infamous Gilded Age. Alva Vanderbilt, the properties owner, held her “Votes for Women” rallies at the mansion as part of her lifelong commitment to women’s rights.
- Rough Point – Rough Point is the home of Doris Duke, heiress and art collector who turned her good fortune into a life’s work in philanthropy. Most of Duke’s fortune came from the tobacco plantations owned by her family and she is said to have donated up to $400 million throughout her lifetime. Her philanthropic legacy continues today throughout the City of Newport by means of the Newport Restoration Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation.
- National Museum of American Illustration – The National Museum of American Illustration is perhaps the most under visited and cautiously marketed attraction in Newport. Located at Vernon Court, a Gilded Age mansion on Bellevue Avenue, the building hosts the first national museum devoted exclusively to American illustration art, featuring Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parish, JC Leyendecker, NC Wyeth, Jessie Willcox Smith, and 150 other artists.
- The Elms – A personal favorite of the staff at the Inn, The Elms was completed in 1901 as a summer retreat for coal magnate Edward Berwin and his wife Herminie. Features of the house include modern amenities that were unheard of at the time as well as floor to ceiling artwork and tapestries. Perhaps the best part of the Elms preservation is the behind the scenes tour where visitors can see the staff living quarters, boiler room, laundry room, kitchen, and the secret roof deck with expansive views of Newport and the Atlantic Ocean.
- Fort Adams – Situated in a strategic location overlooking Narragansett Bay, Fort Adams is a unique example of coastal defense systems utilized pre Revolutionary War up to World War II. Visitors can take a guided tour of the interior of the fort, the many underground tunnels, and the amazing overlook posts with 360 degree views of Aquidneck Island and Narragansett Bay. Fort Adams is also home to the Jazz and Folk Festivals which occur each summer in Newport.
- The Newport Mill – The Newport Mill is located in beautiful Touro Park and is thought to be the oldest remaining structure in Newport. There is no confusion about it’s usage from the 18th century onward but the debate rages on as to the buildings origin and purpose. Some theories point to an astronomical tool and others to an observatory for the Chinese. In a document of 1741 the tower is described as “the old stone mill” an d in 1760 the Tower was used as a haymow. During the American Revolution, the tower was used by the Americans as a lookout, and by the British to store ammo.
- The Cliff Walk – Other than the Breakers the Cliff Walk is perhaps the number one tourist attraction in Newport. Although there is not a lot of historical facts associated with the walk it offers too many beautiful scenic views and has been around since the Gilded Age to be left off this list. The 3.5 mile walk was used by the Vanderbilts and all their wealthy neighbors on walks to Easton’s Beach. In 1975 the walk was designated as a National Historic Trail, the first in New England.
- Washington Square – Two of Colonial America’s most significant structures are located at either end of Washington Square, the Colony House and the Brick Market. Built in 1741, the Colony House is one of the best maintained surviving Georgian buildings in the United States. The stately building was used for the colonial legislature during the fight for independence. Another example of classic Georgian architecture is the Brick Market built in 1762. The traditional open first level served as a marketplace for trading, much like Fanueil Hall in Boston.
Only in Newport can you walk through centuries of American life in an afternoon. Each house you visit is an authentic icon of one of the great eras of American history. Hunter House was here when the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought; Chateau-sur-Mer saw the age of global commerce by American clipper ships like Flying Cloud; and The Breakers opened as the Vanderbilt’s latest achievement in the era in which railroads revoultionized the nation much the way jetliners and the internet would do a century later.
Five remarkable audio tours bring you a new and unique perspective on the lives of the people who lived and worked in the grand mansions of Newport. Based on personal diaries, letters, records, and oral histories, these audio tours offer the personal stories of the men and women who lived in each house and the household staff who cared for them.
Explore the Breakers, Marble House, The Elms, and Rosecliff at your own pace with state of the aret digital audio players. At The Breakers, you can choose from the main audio tour or a Family tour, which piques the imagination of youngsters and their parents alike by brining the house, its furnishings, and even its sculpture to life as never before.
Hunter House – Pass through the front door of Hunter House and you step back inot Newport’s 18th century Golden Age, the era before the American Revolution. It was the home of a merchant, ship owner and colonial deputy, which later became the Revlutionary War headquarters of the French Navy. You’ll see up close a great collection of exquisite colonial furniture, created by legendary Newport craftsmen like the Townsends and Goddards.
Chateau-sur-Mer – A product of the American-China Trade and one fo America’s great Victorian houses, Chateau-sur-Mer was home to three generations of the Wetmore family. You’ll see hand carved Italian woodwork, Chinese porcelains, Egyptian and Japanese Revival stenciled wallpapers, and rare trees from as far away as Mongolia.
The Breakers – The Breakers is a surviving jewel of the New York Central Railroad fortune, making a statement about the global sensibilities of the Vanderbilt family. The 70-room summer estate of Cornelius Vanderbilt II includes a two and a half story high Great Hall and a Morning Room adorned with platinum leaf wall panels. Its interiors feature rare marble, alabaster, and gilded woods throughout.
The Elms – The summer retreat of coal magnate Edward Berwind and his wife Herminie, The Elms was a thoroughly modern house in 1901. So technologically advanced for its time it appeared to work as if by magic, it also house monumental art works, including wall sized Venetian paintings, Chinese lacquer panels and tapestries.
Rosecliff – The newest Newport Mansions audio tour brings Rosecliff’s history and romance to life with never before told stories and first person remembrances of its colorful families. From Tessie Oelrichs, who built this fantasy in terra cotta, to the Monroes of New Orelans, the last family to call Rosecliff home, you’ll discover the very human story of Newport’s great party house.
Marble House – Created by Alva Vanderbilt and Richard Morris Hunt and inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, Marble House contains 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Intended as an ultimate statement of Gilded Age privilege, only a few years later it hosted Alva’s “Votes for Women” rallies on the back lawn. Hear the words of Alva Vanderbilt, her daughter Consuelo and many more, brought to life in the award winning audio tour.
Notes: This text was taken from the Newport Mansions Explore the American Story Brochure