Newport's Gilded Age

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Tucker Associated Press

NEWPORT, R.I. -- Bellevue Avenue, home to a series of eye-catching mansions that famously embody America's Gilded Age, crams enough history in a two-mile strip of Newport to be a mini-city unto itself.

Now, to accommodate both history buffs and casual passers-by, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates this city's historic mansions has created a self-guided walking trail linking 11 historic clusters of properties along the avenue.

Markers outside the properties help identify the trail while also detailing the buildings' history, architectural style and cultural commentary. They even include descriptions of neighboring buildings that have been demolished or are simply less well known.

"We tell the stories of each individual house, and yes, you can reference one house with another, but we felt we didn't have an effective medium for linking the whole neighborhood together and telling the whole story," said John Tschirch, an architectural historian and director of museum affairs for the Preservation Society of Newport County, which owns most of the city's famous mansions and opens them to the public as tourist destinations.

"You get a rich experience in each house, but we wanted to give the experience of the whole streetscape and the urban plan," he added.

There are about six homes in each of the clusters. Among the best-known homes are the Elms, Chateau-sur-Mer and Rough Point, the one-time home of tobacco heiress Doris Duke.

Some of the homes are private; many of those that are not private are open to visitors during certain hours.

The four-year trail project was completed in November and cost roughly $35,000, most of which was given by a private donor. It is similar in intent to the redbrick Freedom Trail in Boston, though the pale-green markers in Newport are designed to blend into the neighborhood.

The markers read like a list of who's who of wealthy dignitaries and socialites from the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The sign outside the Preservation Society's headquarters, for instance, reveals that it once was the home of Herbert Pell, a congressman from New York and the father of Claiborne Pell, who represented Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate for 36 years and died in January 2009. …