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Lauri Pitkus '82 - Location Supervisor - The Gilded Age HBO

The Real-Life Newport Mansions That Inspired The Gilded Age


March 15, 2022

“Why does everyone need to go to Newport now?” grumbles Christine Baranski’s grand dame character, Agnes Van Rhijn, in episode eight of The Gilded Age. While “everyone” is an overstatement (New York’s population at that point was around two million), in Rhijn’s elite circle, it very much felt that way: the 1880s were the decade when the Rhode Island hamlet became the summer spot for the era’s tycoons. Indeed, the HBO show spends the next 40-or-so minutes laying the groundwork for its inevitable rise—and while, yes, the show is very much a piece of historical fiction, much of showrunner Julian Fellowes’s plot actually does borrow from real-life events.

Ward McAllister (portrayed by Nathan Lane) was, indeed, the man who made Newport the hotspot of the Gilded Age. In the 1850s, the well-to-do lawyer bought Bayside Farm. During the warmer months, he’d frequently entertain his high-profile guests by the sea. According to the New England Historical Society, “McAllister then made the place famous for his ‘picnics.’ Soon enough, many were convinced to join him. In 1879, famed architectural firm McKim, Mead & White built the Newport Casino, a sporting club with lawn tennis, squash, and lawn bowling, and club rooms for card-playing and billiards. It became the center of the social life, and soon, the place to see-and-be-seen in the summer.”

In 1881, William Backhouse and Caroline Schermerhorn Astor completed Beachwood Cottage on Bellevue Avenue. (The name is a modern-day misnomer—far from a quaint structure, Beachwood had 39 rooms and a ballroom that could fit 400 people. Today, it is owned by Larry Ellison.) Not to be outdone, William K. and Alva Vanderbilt built Marble House between 1888 and 1892 on the same street. Made—as the name suggests—with 500,000 cubic feet of marble, it cost 11 million dollars to build at the time, a staggering amount. Yet, it was William K.’s brother, Cornelius, that built the most lavish abode: The Breakers, a 70-room Italian neo-Renaissance palazzo finished in 1895.

Thanks to meticulous historical preservation, many of the Gilded Age mansions in Newport remain standing—and even served as filming locations for the HBO show. “Interestingly Newport plays, in some cases, for Newport; but in many cases, the rooms are stand-ins for locations that were meant to be, or are scripted as New York City locations,” Lauri Pitkus, The Gilded Age's location supervisor, explains to Vogue, since many of that era's buildings in Manhattan were demolished. The Breakers’ Music Room, for example, doubles as Mrs. Russell’s New York City ballroom. Meanwhile, the exterior of Chateau-su-Mare, once the home of the Wetmore family, was the stand in for the Rhode Island home of the fictional Mrs. Astor. Meanwhile, Newport's Rosecliff acts as the grand New York home of the socially-shunned Mrs. Chamberlain.

And, if you’re so inclined, many of these mansions are open to the public for ticketed tours. Maybe a Gilded Age-inspired trip to Newport is in order.

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