Thursday, May 22, 2014

Where The Rooms Have Angels

Today we visited our fourth Newport mansion, The Elms, owned by the Berwind family, who made their fortune in coal.  We've been here for four days and have seen three other mansions so far - The Breakers, Rosecliff, and Marble House - and hope to add two more before we leave.  We bought a membership to The Preservation Society of Newport County, which allows us unlimited access to all of the mansion for one year, plus a few other perks.  I definitely see us coming back to tour more of the area and I'd love to see the houses during the Christmas season.

As with the other homes, interior photos are not allowed.  I took the one above, of the exterior - kinda dreary because it was threatening rain, that we later got caught in - but the ones below are from online searches.

First, the Grand Staircase.  I love this entry hall.  This the main floor, with the front door being just a few steps down to the left, in the center of the Italian breccia marble ionic columns.  This is where we saw old fashioned light buttons, which when we asked the guide about them, said they didn't work.  That wasn't the case as we found out, when at the end of the hallway Ed decided to try them and clicked the overhead lights on and off.  Twice.

The Elms was the first of the Newport Mansions to have complete electricity throughout.  And like the other residents of the mansions, they were only in Newport for eight to twelve weeks each year.  At The Elms, a staff of more than 40 was needed around the clock to keep the home running smoothly.

The Dining Room, where dinner was served promptly at eight o'clock each evening, easily sat up to 26 people.  It was decorated in Venetian style and flanked by two large paintings.  These were glued to the walls, which seemed to be a common practice in these homes.

The Breakfast Room is decorated in eighteenth-century chinoiserie style, with three of the black and gold lacquer panels made in China during the K'ang Hsi Period (1662-1722).  
The Ballroom is gorgeous.  Here, it's decorated for Christmas.  It's located in the center of the main floor, with floor to ceiling windows that actually open to the back garden patio.  As in other locations of the house, the ballroom contained false doors which served to give the room symmetry - four doors on each side of the ballroom, but only two that actually opened.  As many as 400 guests have been entertained here, with the Berwind's famous Naval Ball being the height of the summer events.  
The ballroom also contains the Giovanni Boldini Portrait of Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, who lived across the street from The Elms, was a personal friend of the Berwinds.  This is my absolute favorite portrait of all the ones we viewed, in all of the houses.  The artist was known as the "Master of Swish" because of his painting style.  You can see the swishy brush strokes more clearly here.

The woman is memorable, her dress is stunning, the colors popping in the most elegant way.  I'd love to own a portrait like this.  She's just beautiful.  Her husband, Henry Lehr, apparently disagreed.  

Face pale, laughter gone from his eyes, he sat down, facing his wife, "There are some things I must say to you and it is better that I should say them now at the very beginning so that there an be no misunderstandings between us. You have heard my orders to the servants, I presume? Well I intend that they shall be carried out for the rest of our life together. In public, I will be to you everything that a most devoted husband should be to his wife. You shall never complain of my conduct in this respect. I will give you courtesy, respect and apparently devotion. But you must expect nothing more from me. When we are alone I do not intend to keep up the miserable pretense, the farce of love and sentiment. Our marriage will never be a marriage in anything but in name. I do not love you. I can never love you. I can school myself to be polite to you but that is all. The less we see of one another except in the presence of others, the better."

"But why did you marry me?" the bride asked.

The groomed laughed. "Dear lady, do you really know so little of the world that you have never heard of people being married for their money, or did you imagine that your charms placed you above such a fate? I must tell you the unflattering truth that your money is your only asset in my eyes. I married you because the only person on earth I love is my mother. I want above everything to keep her in comfort. Your father's fortune will enable me to do so. But there is a limit to sacrifice. I cannot condemn myself to the misery of playing the role of adoring lover for the rest of my life."

After all, at least I am being honest with you. How many men in New York, how many among our own friends have entered their wives rooms on their wedding night with exactly my state of mind but they prefer hypocrisy to the truth. If I am never your lover when we are alone, at least I will not neglect and humiliate you in public. What is more, you will actually gain by marrying me. You will have a wonderful position in society. As my wife, all doors will be open to you.

If you will try to accustom yourself to the position, and realize from the start that there is no romance and never can be any between us, I believe that we shall get along quite well together. But for God's sake leave me alone. Do not come near me except when we are in public, or you will force me to repeat to you the brutal truth that you are actually repulsive to me."
And so began the life of Elizabeth Drexel and Harry Lehr. The bride was crushed by the humiliation her husband passed on to her on her bridal night. She suddenly felt trapped because her mother, to whom she was devoted, so highly disapproved of divorce that anyone who did divorce in her circle was then eternally banned from her company. Furthermore Elizabeth had no outlet, nothing, no one to confide in. His secret was now her secret, although she still had no idea what his secret was except that women were "repulsive" to him."

Because of that, she stayed in a loveless, unconsummated marriage for 28 years.  But hey, she was rich, right?

And apparently, 
even a Victoria's Secret Angel wouldn't be able to turn his head.  You can see the 2012 Victoria's Secret "Tell Me You Love Me" commercial, filmed at The Elms, here.  
My favorite room in the entire house was the Conservatory.  It was light and bright and airy and cool.  It was located between the library and the drawing room, at the back corner of the house with its fourteen-foot windows facing the gardens.  See the floor plan of the house here.

Upstairs, there were seven bedrooms, six bathrooms, a large sitting room, a small sewing room, and a linen closet.  Although ornate by today's standards of normal living, the house was very comfortable and more livable than some of the other mansions.

What was shocking to learn was that in 1962, The Elms was sold and slated for demolition to make room for a shopping center.  Luckily, the Preservation Society purchased the home at auction and saved it so people like me could walk and gawk.  It's hard to believe anyone could think another strip mall would be more important than saving this spectacular house.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
2013:  Under All Is The Land

2012: Squinty Eyes? Check. Big Smile? Check. Ed, Happy? Check.
2011: The Last Great Italian
2010: That’s So Cherry
2009: Crouching Eddie Hidden Lamb Friday
2008: Help Me Understand
2007: Take Two Lattes And Call Me In The Morning
2006: It’s Never Too Late For A Good Sale
2005: The Original Goldfish

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